These are my impressions of two museums designed by the Renzo Piano Building Workshop, each with distinct approaches to the lighting of artworks.
Fondation Beyeler, 1997
Arriving by tram at the Beyeler Museum just outside Basel – there’s actually no parking lot! – I got exactly what I expected, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. The building’s iconic translucent glass roof seemingly floats above walls of rust-colored porphyry stone from Patagonia. Daylight filters first through tilted panes of frosted glass, then through the nearly clear glass of the flat roof proper, and finally through a metal mesh ceiling. It is at once breathtaking and calming. It simply feels so right for the wide range of art that comprises the Beyeler collection and travelling exhibits, from a 30-foot-long Monet “Water Lilies,” to colossal Matisse bronze figures, to deceptively simple, richly-hued Rothko’s, my favorites. One can’t help but think that this is the way these pieces were meant to be viewed, in lighting conditions very much like the studios in which they were created.
Owing to the displacement HVAC system below the oak floorboards, the ceiling plenum is blessedly free of ductwork and other mechanical detritus, and is occupied only by a gossamer-thin structure and some discretely positioned supplemental lighting that only needs to be used after dusk – and perhaps when there’s a foot of snow on the roof.
I did, however, encounter a couple of unexpected things:
First, while there is a tiny gift shop and a modest event room, the museum’s space is otherwise dedicated to the display of art. The obligatory restaurant and administrative offices are housed a stone’s throw away in a small 19th century villa on the museum grounds, which are part formal English landscaped park, part informal farmer’s field.
Second, those aforementioned oak floorboards creaked and crackled insistently underfoot. And when you’ve got a few hundred visitors milling around, believe me, it was intrusive.
The Beyeler has been called “the most perfect small museum in the world”. Save for that pesky floor, I’m a believer. It’s worth a trip from anywhere: just don’t arrive by car.
Zentrum Paul Klee, 2005
Located on the outskirts of Bern, the Paul Klee Center fronts a high-speed Autobahn, yet recedes into a gently sloping field of wildflowers. And yes, here there IS an ample parking lot, but you’ll have to hoof it nearly a thousand feet to get to the museum’s front door. Its collection is dedicated to some 700 pieces by the Swiss artist (1879-1940); about 40 percent of his entire pictorial oeuvre. Many of these items are small scale works on paper.
Aside from being only generally familiar with its organic, three-humped building form, I hadn’t researched the building before my visit. Based on my earlier experience at Piano’s Beyeler Museum, and my knowledge of his other well-known museums and galleries (the DeMenil, the Nasher, and the Kimball’s new pavilion, all in Texas), I expected a similar gallery lighting experience: one bathed in natural light that has been methodically filtered and bounced off multiple surfaces before reaching its subject.
Traversing the airy, glass-walled entry spine and lobby spaces, I still had no clue that the hangar-like exhibit halls laying just beyond would be – get this – completely devoid of natural light! To say that this came as a complete surprise to me is an understatement. It was also a little embarrassing, given that I know the curatorial guidelines for works on paper generally call for minimal, highly controlled lighting.
But even after that realization dawned on me, I was still very surprised at the extremely low lighting levels in the galleries. Recognizing that the lighting solution was dictated by the collection, the overall ambiance in the galleries was nonetheless anything but uplifting.
One last thing: the floors were exactly the same displacement concept and wood species as I had seen (and heard) at the Beyeler Museum; but at the Klee Center, the design team had obviously made some detail adjustments to solve the creaky floorboard problem.