Museum architecture- A meaningful space within a meaningful space


As museums architectures became part of the urban life, how could we interpret it? What made the museum architectures a meaningful place and how the meaning of the museum architectures changes? This paper is intending to study the meaning of the museum architectures, and how the structures, the spaces, and the urban contexts set up a meaningful environment. By analyzing both the modern museum architectures and compare them with classical architectures, this paper finally concludes that the structures and the space of the museum architectures have meanings while the meaning is changing in modern museum architectures. As part of the urban artifacts, museum architectures’ meaning reside within the urban environments, the cultural and historical backgrounds and modern museums architectures begin to interact with urban life.


Museum architecture is a specific building type that exists for 200 years and became a special place in the history of architecture (Searing Helen, 1982, p.11). Museums are part of the urban life, they are the cultural centers of a city. Museums are places for thinking, education, preserving, and collecting, and their space, their symbolic structures differentiate the architectures from the other constructions. “We have now reach to a point where we see not the art but the space first” (Brian O’Doherty, 1986, p14).

Art museum architecture is often used for preserving, collecting and showing the artworks to the public, while the meaning of the museum gradually changing. Mass education, public interaction and the urban area took part in the museum meanings, while at the same time, a new genre of art appears and differentiate them with the traditional ones. Modern museum architectures, facing the various dimensions and changes, bring new innovations and serve as new spaces to the art world and to the society. And I have two questions to study in this paper: how the meaning of the modern art museum architecture is changing? How the modern art architectures form meanings and how they service for the narrative between the visitors and the artworks? This paper is to study the meaning of museums’ architecture and the meaning created by the space of the museums. The first part introduces how the museums, as architectures, become meaningful by their structures and symbols. The second part introduces the idea of urban artifacts and what role the museums play within the social, cultural, and historical context.

Museum architecture- a meaningful space

When talking about the museum’s architecture, the word “architecture” was taken for granted that almost all of the museum’s buildings can be viewed as architectures. Architecture is a general idea and the broadly used term connects with a museum and it is hard to separate the two things apart. However, “museum architecture” should be much precisely used, and this paper is built on the basis of how to understand the architecture within the context of principles and history. Therefore, the question comes first: what are the architectures? and what is the meaning of museums architectures? Not all of the buildings of museums could be called museum architectures. Architecture is much more than a building or a construction. “The object of architectural attention is precisely the configurational ideas to think with that in the vernacular govern configurational outcomes.” In the book Space Is the Machine (Bill Hillier, 2007), buildings and spaces are configurative, and therefore non-discursive, and they both express the social elements and set up the social ideas. While the process of configuration does not merely follow a single regulation. The process and the constructions of architecture are not only the copies of the same configuration but are more like the process of aspiration and creation, and the dimension of the building is naturally, which is the same as language, solved and handled by the human-beings unconsciously (p.65). Structures and spaces have human ideas inside, and they represent human perceptions and creativity.

Space and time

The arrangement of the objects and utilization of the space mirrored the principle of the human mind and recreated by the designers and curators with their understanding of human activities. Unlike traditional architectures, modern museum architectures, adopt the idea of humanity, mass education and to differentiate from the traditional constructions, representing the common feeling of human and human society, and the idea is especially shown in the shapes of modern art museum, which is: “not only of the differences but also of the universality of humans” (Liane Lefaivre& Alexander Tzonis, 2004, p28).

Geometric Shapes (n.d.). Credited to Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum is a representative of modern museum architectures with the popular spiral structure designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, becoming a symbol of modern art museums. Frank Lloyd Wright’ personal experience and perspective from his childhood gave him the inspiration of the designing and aesthetics (“Geometric Shapes”, n.d.). The meaning of this structure is not only personal but seek to catch the trace of time and space’s moving. Frank Lloyd Wright believed that the spiral space and geometry shape held the meaning of the connection between human and the cosmos. “Geometric forms also held symbolic significance. The circle, he (Frank Lloyd Wright) said, represented infinity” (“Geometric Shapes”, n.d.). “At the end of a particular exhibition, one can simultaneously see the beginning” (Rob Kostka& Helen Searing, 1984, p111). When people walk around the museum, they follow the around walls and see the artworks along the curved, white wall, just like walking along with the flow of time, and sequence of space, and the trace of the art.

Installation view of Mark Bradford: Pickett’s Charge at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. 2017. Photo: Cathy Carver

Another example would be no further than the Hirshhorn Museum, locating in Washington DC. The shape of the Hirshhorn Museum is quite similar to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Hirshhorn Museum abandoned the heavily decorated model and serious emotion injected to the constructions, trying to express the natural and common sense of human beings and create a special space that is differentiated with traditional museums. Trace back to 1966, the Hirshhorn Museum was designed by the Gordon Bunshaft and the construction was totally different from the traditional ones locating in the National Mall. The idea of Hirshhorn Museum resided within the structure and the exhibition. Mark Bradford, creating the narrative history of the American, created an infinite and circular space by eight installation arts. Mark Bradford combined his personal experience and understanding within the creation of the piled and “loosely ordered” history (Lyric Prince, 2017). The space of Hirshhorn Museum offers a space for the art to organize and construct the history. When the visitors walk around the space and view the artworks, the space with no light, forming a circular, let the visitors forget the time and appreciating the stories. The creation of time and space has the power for conceptual participation, which explained by the Stephen Alexander Wischer: “…the symbolic potential of architecture seems dependent upon its ability to persuade participation with perception, and with it, an essential act of translation.” (Jonathan, Suzanne& Laura, 2012, p136) The conceptual experience comes from the sensitivity to sense, the sense of the idea unhinged from the objectivity and rooted in human minds. The conceptual experience was provided from the shape of the modern art museum and it is hard to capture or measure, but it comes from the perception of human ideas and creativity and the inner sense of aesthetic and nature.

The skylights

Besides the shape of the museum architecture, the roof of the construction also indicates how the museum can form a special environment for the artworks and the visitors. The skylight of modern museums is changing, and the structure represents as different symbols and therefore transit various meanings. In modern art museums, the meaning of light is hard to unify, and the symbolic meaning tends to be blurry. First, eschewing from being injected by a specific meaning, skylights of modern architectures are more functional. Second, the diversity of public functional institutions makes modern museums preserve multiple genres, ideas, and voices. Third, the meaning of the roof or skylight did not hold specific meanings but take part in the artworks.

Interior of the dome, Cathedral, Florence. Wikimedia Commons. Photo: Peter K Burian

In classical constructions, light from the skylight can represent heaven, forming a connection between “a human connection to the location of spiritual, if not physical, permanence” (Lance La Vine, 2001). The light passes through the small circle on the dome of the construction and is regarded as the symbol of the center, the power, the connection with heaven, and the universe. Lots of museums architectures have domes. National Gallery of Art, for example, has a traditional classic style and the dome was designed as part of the neo-classical architecture. The dome of the west building of the National Gallery of Art services as the center of the gallery, as part of the symmetrical construction, connecting two curved skylights on both the east and west sides, letting natural light pour into the space of the architecture. The partition on the skylight transfer the nature sunshine into a soft and blurry light that saturates inside the whole space and the gallery follows the principle of creating a still, silence and regulated environment for the arts. The whole environment of the museum is unified and motionless. The west building with the classical interior garden, fountain, triangle square, demo, and the pillar, composing a traditional housing for the traditional artworks, creating a meaningful place which is sacred, serious, and unreachable.

Dome of West building. Wikimedia Commons. Photo: HillmanHan

National Gallery of Art DC. Wikimedia Commons. Photo: Gryffindor

In modern museums, the designing of the skylight makes differences in a way that light does not come from the center of the roof, but the skylight integrates with the whole construction. The east building of the National Gallery of Art is totally different in the designing of the skylight. Designed by the I. M. Pei, the building has a sharp and unsymmetrical shape, declaiming its personality and independence. The roof is specially designed for the large and open space for the modern artworks. The roof of the building was composed of two parts: the skylight and the scaled glasses structures. The skylight was opaque and does not shade the natural light, while at the same time, the structure let the light “slip around a smooth surface” (J. Carter Brown, 1991) and smoothly pour into the museum’s space, moving and flowing into the large interior of the building. Light is moving inside the east building, so how to capture the light’s moving? When I visited the museum, I took a picture under the skylight. When the visitors were walking across the bridge, their shadow is reflected on the wall and pass through the shadow of the trees, and the natural light becomes visible. There no central light seam pass through the top of the dome, the light comes everywhere, and the whole environment changed to be free, open, and bright. The light becomes interactive and moving, which gives space for self-consciousness and self-reflection.

The oculus of the Guggenheim Museum in NYC. (n.d.). Credited to Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s skylight is more central and enclosed by a circle space. There may be some people criticize that natural light will influence the audience appreciating the artworks. However, the open light, at the same time, offers a different experience, it let the audience “confronted with a multitude of ways of viewing the art” (Searing Helen, 1982). The white cube has white walls as well as the still artworks, and even the visitors keep silent when they appreciate the arts, while the large opaque skylight of Guggenheim Museum allows the participation of natural light. It introduces the movement and interaction of natural light to the museum space. The natural light and skylight also participate artworks and they become part of the artworks. For example, Danh Vo’s exhibition in the Guggenheim Museum utilized the nature light and represented a totally different feeling. “…unites the experience of the exhibition with daily and seasonal cycles while underscoring the interdependence of the objects on display…” (Ashley Mendelsohn, 2018). The light became part of the exhibition, and the museum, not only provided a space for the artworks inside but took part in the artworks and became part of the artworks. Even though there is no physical center in the modern art museum, the center of the whole architecture resides in somewhere inner and invisible, environmental and conceptual.

Museum architecture- within a meaningful space

The meaning of architecture resides within the urban context. Go back to the symbolic meaning of the museum architecture, Michaela argues that the museum architecture resides in the urban context, and within the historical and cultural background (Michaela Giebelhausen, 2003). “The painting is not an isolated image or artefact but has been part of a century of dialogic interpretations over multiple contexts of reception” (Martin Irvine, 2018, p21). And architecture is the same as artworks, they are urban artifacts and urban artworks with historical and social context. More than that, the urban environment is fulfilled by the museums. the institutions not only become part of the city but represent the city. The museum architectures enrich the urban space structure with its aesthetic representation and functions for education and researching. Museum architectures have connections with the social community, representing the value of the world or the values of the respective communities (Jonathan, Suzanne& Laura, 2012, p120), serving as a place for the narrative of thinking and communicating.

Museum architectures hold meanings for and from history. How could people sometime recognize a museum architecture as a museum? As talked before, the special historical architecture can always stand out from the surrounding buildings by the special designed symbolic structures, such as domes, stone pillars, large skylights, and abstract structures. Sometimes, we can easily find out the building is belonging to which historical period. History is context and museums represent it. “The context is amazing. There’s no way you can be here and not think about governance, there’s no way you cannot think about the foundations of the United States of America. Sometimes the context is so great, the work comes naturally out of it” (Sadie Dingfelder, 2017). The history of the cities was kept and reflected by the museums. The east building of the National Gallery of Art represents the transformation of the capital’ architecture style. Before the building was designed, whether remaining in the “monumentality” or embrace the modernism became a challenge and I. M. Pei considered to combine the urban context into the designing process. Finally, the modern art museum combined modernism with the capital city’s structure. Not only the building fits the area, but also the city lives inside the building and is represented by this building (Anthony Alofsin& National Gallery of Art (U.S.), 2009).

The urban environment is enriched by the museums. Over 200 years, American museums have become a space for mass education, and the space of the museums, inside or outside the constructions, are opened to the public. During March 22ed to May 20th, 2012, Doug Aitken created a 360-degree screen cinema, which is named SONG 1, enveloping the Hirshhorn Museum. Covered by the images, the museum became an urban artifact and “disappears completely into the content of the artwork”, changing as a more interactive, more integrated, and less isolated public space. The museums are going outside and take part in urban life and took part in the process of changing city space.


“…the features of this new structure are seen coming inside as well as the inside features going outside. This integration yields a nobility of quality and the strength of simplicity…” (Frank Lloyd Wright, as cited in Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 1960).

The museum architectures have meanings and they also reside in a meaningful space. First, the meaning of the museum architectures forms when people create space, building structures and principles, and it resides within the regulation of designing and utilizing, and reside within the symbols representing the idea of people and society. Modern art architectures are more tolerant and inclusive. As new genres spur out and they require for a space in the art world, modern art architectures open the entry for the new genres. The style of modern art museums does not stick to the classical symbols by adopting structures, shapes, and materials that are different from the classical architectures.

Second, architecture has meanings when it was viewed under the context of historical, cultural and social background. The architecture itself is creativity and the process of designing architectures is a process following the human’s perception and regulation, and it reflects the idea and sense of human beings. Designers find the common part of the human and inject the ideas into architectures, and that is why architectures can reflect social elements and take part in the human society, became part of the urban area and part of people’s daily life. Modern architectures are urban artifacts and they begin to interact with people, artworks, and the cities. They are not only buildings for collecting and preserving artworks but serve as a space for human interaction, communication, and sharing ideas.


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