The Take

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Museum architecture usually tends to be as conventional as the boards behind then, but at their best they allow for a global presentation of new and important talent.

The astonishing MOCA Cleveland, designed by Farshid Moussavi. (Photograph by Dean Kaufman. Courtesy MOCA Cleveland)

The decision by the Harvard Art Museums to engage Renzo Piano, one of the greats of our time, for a big renovation and expansion, could not have been less interesting.

Piano is a genius with an unmatched ability to create highly tuned interior environments that showcase and conserve artworks. His success in the United States, where he loves to build, is impressive.

Yet one can almost visualize his solution at Harvard: It will project that certain low-key elegance we know so well. Its refined mix of high modern and historic milieu will recall several other museums we've visited lately. It will innovate in incremental ways, so we'll closely inspect the masterful skylights and handrails.

Should we be energized about this new Piano project for a power-elite patron? I don't know, The Take says wearily. Haven't we been there, done that?

Predictable pathways

Other recently announced commissions for major art venues follow similarly predictable paths. The big dogs pull for Piano or another verifiable maestro, like Chipperfield in St. Louis. Pretenders push for the next-gen establishment -- the choice of Snøhetta for a half-billion San Francisco MoMA extension, for example. And a few regional players tap local stars, if not local starchitects: Jim Olson for Washington State University's new museum of art, for example, as we learned last week.

The Kukje Gallery in Seoul, by New York's emerging firm SO-IL. It is wrapped in hand-wrought metal mesh. Courtesy Kukje Gallery

Museums usually turn out to be just as conventional as the corporations and socialites who run them. These one-percenters are also corporate directors, university trustees, hospital board members and generally busy-busy folk. Even when they name an “outside” search committee or run a well-organized competition, on the key scores of risk-taking and innovation these big museum groups tend to disappoint. They seek splashy news and imagery suitable for T-shirts.

Architects have a right to dismiss and distrust the processes that yield a chosen few.

Let’s see what happens when the unexpected happens. We get a few astonishing museums, and none of them by the usual crowd.

Cleveland and Seoul surprise

One of the breakout cultural buildings of the decade has to be Farshid Moussavi’s enigmatic black box in Ohio, the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland. The dark stainless-steel assembly is “sleek, elegant and mysterious ... voluptuous and highly tailored,” says Steven Litt, one of America’s venerable and truly insightful architecture critics. (The executive architect is Westlake Reed Leskosky, by the way.)

Detail of Kukje Gallery's metal wrap, courtesy SO-IL

It’s the first museum for Moussavi and her first U.S. commission. To our delight, it elevates a great woman architect.

And it is a truly progressive cultural achievement. The design was radical enough to scare the pants off the museum’s own leadership. We applaud the choices and challenges behind this new, magnetic public place.

Sculptural power

Globally, plenty of excellent museums have arisen in recent years. Few are even close to Moussavi’s in sculptural power, and fewer still approach the startling concept literally surrounding the Kukje Center in Seoul, designed by New York’s SO-IL, a fledgling studio. This art gallery is wrapped in a hand-welded metal mesh, which took the better part of a year to “knit.” That's the architectural equivalent of the slow food movement -- an idea about craft and quality that befits a discriminating arts client.

An early schematic view into MOCA Cleveland, courtesy Farshid Moussavi and executive architect, Westlake Reed Leskosky.

SO-IL takes the notion of craft and devises a method for creating a radically new form. The material combination is simple -- concrete and metal mesh -- and employed lately on parking garages and restaurants in several dozen cities. But the fabric on those commercial facades hangs rather than hugs. Kukje Center takes the next step.

Will this novel approach require some maintenance? Yes, and who cares. I just hope we see more from SO-IL and its partners, Florian Idenburg and Jing Liu.

Debuts for the arts world

Galleries are where unknown artists have their debut. And museums are opportunities for cultural institutions to allow for a global presentation of a new and important talent.

There are many other examples: Ron Arad's dynamic ribbons of rust-ruddy steel, for example, which define the 2003 Design Museum Holon in Israel. The iconic Soumaya Art Museum in Mexico City, by Fernando Romero. The armadillo-esque citadel of the Ordos Museum in Inner Mongolia, by MAD architects.

Museums are powerful groups. At their best, they help impel other powerful people, groups and governments to bring art into the everyday. It's clear that this is not an easy task, so when it happens, we sit up and notice. We also benefit from a magnetic locus of beauty and breakthrough.

C.C. Sullivan

Columnist (Architecture)

C.C. Sullivan is principal of a marketing and advertising agency by the same name focused on the shelter, construction and architectural markets. Formerly, he was chief editor of the magazines Architecture and Building Design & Construction, and launched the Home of the Year awards with Metropolitan Home. He holds a degree from Yale University and previously worked for the architects Tai Soo Kim, Emery Roth & Sons, and Angel Fernandez Alba (Madrid). Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure