A Stage Full of Starchitects Debates the State of the Industry

From left: Carl Swanson, with architects Daniel Libeskind, Robert A.M. Stern, Billie Tsien. Photo: Michael Priest

When the organizers of the 92nd Street Y’s City of Tomorrow summit asked me to moderate a conversation about designing cultural buildings among the architects Billie TsienRobert A.M. Stern, and Daniel Libeskind, my first thought was: How’d the organizers convince these three to agree to be onstage together? Each is widely respected and accomplished, but they have wildly divergent sensibilities. Which made it sound fun, too, assuming they weren’t too distinguished to argue with one another.

And while there were no chairs thrown or names called, I didn’t have to worry. They didn’t agree on almost anything.

In case you need a primer: Libeskind is the onetime radical who created the Jewish Museum in Berlin and became the master planner of Ground Zero. Although he didn’t himself build anything there in the end, he became famous in the process. Stern, who until last year was the dean of the Yale Architecture School in addition to having an influential practice, has become a kind of aesthetic Bourbonist, a master of the finely wrought sense of place, from 15 Central Park West to the new Yale residential colleges (as well as the George W. Bush presidential library). And Tsien, who shares a practice with her husband, Tod Williams, is a refined modernist who moved the Barnes Collection to downtown Philadelphia (the couple had their elegant, American Folk Art Museum eaten by the expansion of MoMA). They’re currently at work on the Obama Presidential Center, to be built in a park on the South Side of Chicago, by a president who admitted that he once considered being an architect himself. So you can imagine how that’s been going. Early on in the process he told them that they were being too “unflashy” with it: “He looked at what we did and he said, ‘I said you could be sort of quiet, but I think you’re a little too quiet.’” And in the conversation, she was the least flashy — the other two can be rambunctious intellectual showmen — but always slyly on-point, saying the least, and sometimes keeping the peace between the other two.

We spoke about museums as shopping malls, meddlesome curators, architecture as performance, and who will design the Donald Trump library. You can watch the entire thing here. Some highlights:

The role of museum institutions has sort of shifted in the last decade or so from something more academic-repository toward being more of a generator of cultural argument itself, and I was wondering, what forces do you see having worked together to cause a shift, and how has it changed the way you design buildings?
BT: I actually still think that museums are primarily containers for the things inside them, so I actually don’t see them as generators of culture, I see them as containers of culture.

DL: I would take an exception to that.

BT: I know.

DL: I think sure they contain, they have windows, they have doors, they’re shelters, they contain, but museums in my experience are not built to contain art but to attract audiences to experience art in different ways … I’ve never tried to make a building that is a container of art, but something that releases art. I think what has changed is the democratization of art, it’s no longer belonging to the elites, to the plutocrats, to the experts, it’s now really open to everyone and I think that has changed museums very fundamentally.

But can a museum change how you look at art?
DL: I don’t think a building is a neutral entity. I mean the most, supposedly the most neutralized building ever built as a museum is Mies van der Rohe’s building in Berlin, the national gallery, but there is nothing neutral about this building, it’s one of the most violent buildings in the world! First of all, the entire ground level is just glass, you cannot even show art, the art is in the underground, so I think modernism has already begun way before any one of us has built the building.

BT: Bob, you’re being the sage in the middle?

RS: I think naturally I don’t agree with Daniel, but I think there are many audiences for art and museum, there are many different kinds of museums … I’m a great admirer of what Billie and Tod have done in Philadelphia with the Barnes Collection … it’s all about the art. It’s not about entertaining people. I think other museums, which I shall not mention, in our city and so forth, think they’re in show business and the art becomes second class. I think the experience of being with a work of art is still very, very important and I think young people will grow into it and, if not, God help us if they don’t.

DL: Well that did sound very wise, Bob, but in fact if you take one of my favorite museums, which is the Guggenheim, really an amazing structure, amazing experience. And it does offer an encounter with a work of art but also an encounter with a work of art which is very particular. It’s not in a white box, or a black box, it’s Frank Lloyd Wright. It has a personality that is part of the sense of what is being shown there, the Kandinsky, the early collections, whatever exhibitions are made, so I think we cannot really separate the building from the art …

And they have to work economically, too. Which these days means attracting audiences and getting them to spend money while there, right?
DL: Well I think every museum wants to be successful. And that goes for everything. When I designed the Military History Museum of Germany in Dresden or the Imperial War Museum in Northern Manchester, they’re not art museums, they’re museums of wars, they’re museums of catastrophes, museums of conflict; the museum authorities, experts, want audiences to come and encounter those documents and those things, so I think every museum wants to have its audiences. No museum wants to be an empty museum. And therefore you develop the shop, which is an important thing for museums, books that are publications of museums that are sold in museums, the shop in the Metropolitan has expanded immensely — I remember when I was a student it was a tiny little store. With three books! That was not that long ago, and now it’s really a megastore with incredible sales and fantastic things.

RS: Some of us think that’s not so good.

DL: Oh, I think it’s great! I think it’s great.

RS: You know, a museum doesn’t necessarily have to be an entertainment in that way, the shop in the Metropolitan, which is still my favorite, certainly, large museum; still you can hardly go anywhere without having food, the smell of food pervading the galleries.

DL: That’s bad … But the books don’t have a smell.

RS: Some do … I still love going to the Frick. The quietude of the Frick, and even though it will be expanded I think the quietness of it becomes more precious with the passing day, and I think that it’s hard to go to these museums and just be with the works of art or the story that they’re telling without having a clatter of coffee cups and the sandwiches and the cash registers and all that … maybe I’m an old-fashioned guy in that respect.

DL: I bet!

RS: I’m fighting for quietness … Go to the Museum of Modern Art, that bloody atrium is a nightmare.

DL: I agree.

RS: It’s a nightmare. It’s a 24/7 cocktail party and the escalators going back and forth; my God, Saks Fifth Avenue is calmer than that.

DL: I agree with you, but in that case, the MoMA really decided to transform the museum of art into a shopping center.

RS: I guess they did, but it’s not a good thing.

DL: Well, it’s good for a shopping center.

BT: That makes me very sad.

DL: Well, they have great treasures in the Museum of Modern Art and if you want to see them you have to pay the price of going to a very very busy marketplace that has all those things — but is it good. I wonder whether we’ve romanticized the art too much, you know, whether we think there were no coffee cups and no noises when Vermeer painted or whether there was no bustle of activities when Rubens was painting; by the way, when you read Rubens’s account, he says that he’s painting but there are 30 people in the room, he’s dictating a letter to his creditors, his wife is spanking the kids … Did Picasso paint for the white walls of the MoMA, or did he paint for pleasure and a great sense of kind of openness?

BT: But that is so … I mean, fun is very temporal. You can’t have fun all the time.

DL: *groans.*

BT: And I think, I believe that people are looking for something that feels authentic, and it’s not about your Instagram moment.

[The audience applauds.]

DL: Well, I think the audience must be much older than I think.

BT: That’s ageist.

RS: Teenagers grow up. You can’t be on Instagram your whole life. Nobody will be. You’ll go out of your mind. You go to the museum to see a work of art. To see other people’s [art], sharing the experience of art or the story. We did a Museum of American Revolution. It’s a place to interpret it. It’s a place to bring children and young adults and introduce them to a history that they’re regrettably not introduced to in their schools these days … I think turning these museums into fun palaces is really unfortunate. If you go to — in London you go to the Tate Britain in the great old classical building, it’s a wonderful experience. You go to the Tate Modern — it’s a horror! It’s really not a good place to look at art.

DL: Really not true. Really not true. The Tate Modern is a fantastic museum, with amazing collections, with incredible people. Really, I think it’s too general to say we want an eternal museum, with eternity in the air, quietness, silence. I think just that it’s certainly not a museum that belongs in our time.

RS: Your time.

Switching gears a little bit. Oftentimes the process of selection and iterations of design happen in public these days, and people increasingly feel like they have a stake in the design that they can tell you about on social media. Do you think the architectural practice has become more of a performance than it used to be?
RS: That the architectural practice has become more of a performance?

RS: I don’t think so. Architecture has always— certainly public architecture, civic architecture, has always been involved with clients of course. Museums, especially art museums, you have a small body of very rich people, typically, who are paying for these buildings, because they’re not usually paid for by the public realm. There are exceptions. In this country — it’s different in other countries. But say any time the Museum of Modern Art or the Metropolitan Museum, especially, has been in the public realm, ever since the 1960s when they tried to expand into the park, so it’s a public process. You can’t avoid it. You can’t build anything, really, without the public being involved in modern times. That’s one of the major dimensions of modern life, but we can’t have buildings designed by Instagram followers either. There’s an old saying in architecture, and I think everybody in this room has probably heard it before, that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. So, you have to be very careful.

DL: You’re right, but in truth when I think of the buildings that I was involved in, all of them were in open and transparent public process. The Denver Art Museum competition, which has fine architects, my colleagues and friends, was on television, on public television. Architects were asked to be on a stage to make models and express in what direction they would like to make the museum —

Sounds like a reality show.
DL: It was a bit like that. It was in a theater, with a lot of people in the theater.

Did people get voted off the island?
DL: No, no, there was no voting. But since the museum was partly financed by taxpayers’ money, it was natural … I think that’s healthy. I think if people are involved in a participatory way, it’s good for architecture. I think the architecture that’s produced in those elitist rooms upstairs, is not my favorite.

BT: Well, I think there’s participation, and I totally agree that public buildings, civic buildings — as architects we need to listen to the people who are the community who will be using it. But at the same time, I don’t think we need to look at what people are saying about it on Twitter. I mean, that’s not helpful. And it’s also primarily anonymous. And it’s also mostly uninformed.

You obviously have been going through some of that in Chicago, with the Obama library. Have you learned anything from that very public process?
BT: We’ve learned things from the community meetings. I also learned — I saw this at the World Trade Center site, with the Lower Manhattan committee, mostly the people who come to the meetings are people who have something negative to say. So, it’s important to listen, but it’s also important to kind of filter. But, at least those people are saying it to your face. And that, to me, is much more worthwhile than somebody who’s saying it and they’re not saying it to your face.

DL: I disagree with you about what you said about Ground Zero. I think as long as the public was involved in those community board meetings, and they weren’t small meetings, there were hundreds and hundreds of people …

Did they really shape the process in the end?
D: In many ways they did … There was a public momentum, and I think when the public momentum died, and the politicians took over, it was not good for the city or the site. So, I believe in public participation, absolutely. I’m not cynical about it, even if people say nasty things to me — which they do — I think it’s fine. It’s a democracy. We don’t live under a strong dictator.

Maybe not a strong one … What about the donors?
DL: You’re an architect, you have to sign the papers, but don’t be fooled, no one designs the building by themselves. If there is a rich person on the board, and I had this — [Fred] Hamilton [the major private donor to the Denver Art Museum] said to me, “Mr. Libeskind, I want a building with Corinthian columns and marble.” And I shuddered, because I don’t do Corinthian columns and marble buildings.

RS: I was available.

Is there some aspect of a building that each of you designed that one of the other of you admires?
BT: I feel like I can only talk about things that I’ve seen and been to, so although it’s an earlier work, [Libeskind’s Jewish Museum] in Berlin, the space that was very, very deep with the light at the top, was shattering. That was a shattering space. Incredibly powerful, I’ll never forget it. And I also wanted to talk about Bob’s recent work at Yale, where he designed two colleges. A book came out, you sent us the book, and you know, lots of times you sort of page through the book and go, “Errr” [mimes flipping through pages looking bored], but what I saw there was very, very deep investigation, and so each detail in the way the dormitories are made, it truly is an act of love. It’s very, very beautiful.

RS: Thank you … I had already said earlier that I had really admired what Billie did with the Barnes Collection … I think it’s a beautiful building that has a timeless quality because of the way it addresses the site. It doesn’t assault you. In fact, it’s almost recessive in some respects, and it unfolds in a quiet way as you are a visitor and move into it … What has happened in the last 40 or 50 years is that … Architecture’s too much in competition with what it’s showing inside and it’s losing its place as a maker of space and is becoming an object of contemplation itself. It’s a conservative point of view, I will plead guilty to that of course, but I think it’s one that is shared by not everybody — we have to have different points of view — but a lot of people do share that and they treasure these other kinds of approaches than just the self-referential buildings that we have many of.

DL: But that’s such a mockery, Bob. For an educator you should know better. Frank Gehry, one of the great architects, in Bilbao, created a sense that architecture is a dynamic art as it was in the past. He left the pediments, he left classical symmetries, he created a museum that works in our time with a spectacular transformation of all of the Basque region, not just of the city of Bilbao. So you can’t tell me that nice, quiet classical architecture is great for everybody.

RS: I didn’t say it was great for everybody … But if you go inside the Bilbao museum, and I’m sure you have, the galleries are very straightforward and they’re symmetrically organized.

DL: No, they’re not symmetrical.

RS: Yes, they are.

DL: No, they’re not. They’re not symmetrical. There’s no symmetry. I’m sorry.

RS: I forgot to bring my plan of the Bilbao … There’s very little of the beautiful sculptural shapes that he did inside the building.

DL: Of course. I’m building a museum today in Lithuania, in Vilnius, the Museum of Contemporary Art. It has only right-angled walls. It’s a white box because it is responding to the program which is asked by the client, what kind of art. If you are building a museum which has to do with catastrophes, with wars, with other kinds of art, you know, when I came to Denver and to Toronto, they said, “Please, Mr. Libeskind, don’t give us another box. We don’t want it. The audiences don’t want it. Do not start with a cube.” That was the program of the museum, it was not a self-selected program that I chose, it was given to me. So let’s not be under any illusion that museum curators, museum authorities, and donors of buildings are interested only in what you’re saying — they’re not.

RS: I didn’t say they were only.

DL: Well, you made it sound. There was a term …

BT: Boys, boys.

Billie, returning to the Obama library, I saw a video where the president said, “I wanted to be an architect for a while,” so that seemed like a challenge in and of itself.
BT: He’s a very intelligent person, and she is too, so it’s been, what’s been surprising is their amount of involvement. I think what they see is that this is the next step of their lives’ work, and so that surprised me because I didn’t think that they would be that involved. What also surprises me, certainly, is in many ways we’ve been in somewhat contentious situations, I mean, with the Barnes. But it’s much smaller, so this is much more contentious, so that’s why I put my earmuffs on what people are saying on Twitter. Because one needs to listen, but one also needs to listen to oneself, and it surprised me how much of a struggle that is. I do think that the public process has been … we’ve learned a lot from it, but at the same time, I need to have some body armor too. A lot of issues are probably less to do with the architecture and more to do with politics.

RS: Yes, and that kind of commission, having done one for the previous president, you know, people don’t think of these libraries as just buildings or policy institutions. It’s a reflection of how they view the president who is being celebrated, it’s extremely controversial. I mean, when I agreed to design the Bush library, somebody sent me a letter — a good friend of mine — he said, ‘Don’t do it.’ [Audience laughs.] I mean, the man was the president of the United States. Somebody’s gonna do the Trump library.

BT: Nobody. [Audience laughs and cheers.]

RS: It’s a very … But these presidents, judging by President Bush, and judging what I know from what I read and what Billie said of President Obama, they are involved in these projects. They are — it’s one of the most personal kinds of commissions, interestingly enough. In the case of President Bush, he wasn’t so involved, but Mrs. Bush, with a wonderful, smart way, was totally involved. But President Bush and Mrs. Bush are also involved in these buildings as ongoing vehicles, vessels for policy. They have a policy institute and I know the Obamas as well and I think the Clintons have one as well, which will go forward and these buildings are the vehicles to draw physical attention, through a physical form to the policies of these institutes. So, that’s very, very important. So, they are very important cultural buildings. More important than art museums in many ways.

DL: I have to say that my favorite client — I built 10 museums, 12 museums, was definitely two military museums. The Imperial War Museum in the U.K. and the Dresden Military National —

Why was that?
DL: Because the juries and client is the military. The admirals, the generals. And once they make up their minds, they don’t care about controversy.

RS: That would be great for the Trump library. [Audience laughs and cheers.]

What commission would all three of you consider collaborating on?
RS: I can only think of flip answers like: hospital for the criminally insane. I’m afraid I’m, as much as I respect and love my colleagues onstage, I think we all dance, move to different drums, and that kind of collaboration would produce a camel.

Dan: Oh come on Bob, we could collaborate on something. Billie —

Billie: I only work with somebody I’m married to.

Does everybody want their own Bilbao Guggenheim?
BS: Other cities who have tried to do the same thing, the so-called “Bilbao effect,” have learned that it doesn’t work easily. No building in my view can save a city. It can contribute. A great city is the constellation of so many things, including cultural institutions. But in the Bilbao case there’s no question that it turned a city, a dreary industrial and abandoned industrial city, into a vibrant place.

Do you think architecture can itself help attract audience?DL: Yes.

BT: No.

RS: Maybe.

You know, I mean, I guess, Billie, you had to sort of go through that, specifically with the Folk Art Museum; was that a feeling that you could build a building but it didn’t still provide the sort of economic function — which is obviously beyond your purview? But it must have been awfully frustrating.
BT: Yes, I mean, it was very painful, but I think one of the things that we learned from that is that a building can’t save, necessarily, an institution, and it’s the programming of the institution that saves the institution. So we make a place for people to be, but the people inside have to drive the engine, and we’re the chassis, we’re not the motor.

A Stage Full of Starchitects Debates the Industry’s State