From Palace to Museum: an imagination of the ideal cultural space

From the Louvre to St. Petersburg’s Hermitage to the Forbidden City, some of the most significant museums in the world were palaces of a previous dynasty. For its representation of grandeur or its political or cultural significance, today we would still use the “palace” as an adjective to describe impressive cultural buildings. Through the evolution and contemporary implication, Mark Pimlott investigate the idea of the Palace (and other types) in his publication, Public Interior as Idea and Project (2016), and provided a fresh perspective to review the space of public/cultural architecture. Developed from a series of lectures given at TU Delft, the book draws on six theme — the Garden, the Palace, the Ruin, the Shed, the Machine, and the Network — to frame the discussion about public interior. It takes a broad definition of ‘interior’ across different scale, from a shelter to the space within a building to the hinterland, and of ‘public space’ that is not bounded by ownership but by perception of the public. With a more conceptual approach, it discusses public interiors that “have a great impact on the shaping of public life and the public’s sense of its capacities and liberties” (p10).

Among the six motifs introduced, the PALACE is particularly relevant to our exploration in the topic of cultural architecture and public space. Through “palace” projects of different time and interpretation, the chapter illustrates the evolution of palace as an idea, its relationship to the institution, and the spatial characters and value that it represents. Although Pimlott cited mostly western European projects, yet the relationship between spatial construct and the institution is still relevant as we reflect upon the local case of Hong Kong Cultural Center, especially as it was built under the British influence on the policy of then-colonial Hong Kong in the 1970s & 80s.

The evolution from Royal Palace to People’s Palace to Cultural Palaces

The chapter began by a narrative about the origin of the Palace as a spatial type with the purpose to express power. In the 18th century Europe, cultural activities such as balls, concerts or performances, were mostly held at the palaces hosted by aristocrats. The hosting of these events is a display of power, and spatial organisation of the palace express the power and hierarchy. As the 19th century progress from feudal to civil society, the master of the palace and the host of cultural events is changed from the royalties to the (public) institution. (Although the power relationship remains.) The metropolitan bourgeois adopted the palace as a theme in creation of public spaces, first the more exclusive salons and clubs (which was an early form of the public sphere), and later into the modern institution such as public museum or theaters. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam was conceived as a “public palace” for a broader class of bourgeois citizen. Built in 1885 as a national museum, with the great hall and sequence of rooms, its space alludes to the character of a palace even though it was never a royal residence.

The palace continues to be an inspiration for modern building types now serving capitalistic ideology. The notion of pleasure and space for accommodation evolved into the metropolis hotel type, while the capacity to display precious objects and spectacles grew into the department store and later the shopping mall types. The current discussion would focus on the cultural building types, however, it is recognized that parallel growth of commercial (yet public) spaces and the mutual influence of culture and commerce has been an important force of modernity.

Cultural institution has become an important instrument of public instruction in modern governance, which has brought about another version of the Palace that is intricately related to culture and public space. A number of “People’s House” (or People’s Palace) were built in the late 19th century, reconstructing the aura of a palace “for the people”. In contrast to the palace’s elitist origin, this socialistic application became popular in Europe at the turn of the century. The Maison du Peuple in Brussels built in 1899 by Victor Horta was conceived as a “public palace”, with a purpose to provide culture for the emancipated class. These cultural houses breaks away from traditional artistic disciplinary boundary and incorporating more social/community function, later evolved into the Cultural Center typology of the 20th century.

It is a building and institutional type that is popular with the post-war European welfare state, where cultural development is seen as basic social provision with the vision that culture can educate citizens and improve society. However, with this belief in the transformative power of culture, the establishment of state cultural institution is also welcomed by communist/authoritarian regime and adopted into “Palace” of a different sort. Culture is seen as an effective tool to control the population in both ideology and social interaction, and the idea of overturning the palace of the privilege class into the hand of “the People” fits the early Marxist narrative. “People’s Palace” is then becoming a popular building type in the communist Soviet and DDR.

the evolution of the Palace type into contemporary application

Spatial character and qualities of the ideal cultural types

In Pimlott’s narrative of the Palace motif, several characters such as transparency and indeterminacy are repeatedly used. Applied into contemporary cultural building types, these characters manifest the qualities of “public-ness”, which could be translated into the ideal for (public/democratic) cultural institutions and spaces.

The Crystal Palace (1950) could be the first modern building that takes material transparency to its full capacity. While industrialization made possible the use of large-plate glass, when it is used extensively in public building it celebrates the quality of openness — where all the wonders are to be taken in at a glance. The visitor gains temporary ownership of the content at this public house, empowered by the visual quality to “possess” them. Besides the practical function to let in daylight for large interior space, modern cultural centers has the intention to disclose their interior through material transparency, which also represents the paradigm change in Culture for a closed circle to Culture for everyone.

The other “palace” character in application for contemporary Cultural Centers is indeterminacy, the space that is made with minimum prescribed functions. It can be translated into flexibility in space that allows multiple functions, or the “polyvalent” space advocated in the French “House of Culture” of 1950s (Cupers, 2015). The palace was a series of “free” space, as container for possessions and activities. Events at the palace, even performances, can be held in almost any room or location (Carlson, 1989). In the contemporary public cultural institution, the character of indeterminacy could be the strategic result to maximize utility, instead of building for one specific function. Yet it offers the optimistic notion of possibilities, which can also accommodate amateur and experimental arts group beyond the traditional high-art definition.

Visionary architects and politicians responded enthusiastically with strategies to make the cultural spaces transparent and flexible. These qualities manifest an ideal image of the contemporary democratic cultural institution, as the place that is open and full of possibilities. Building on the innovative precedents since the 1950s, the Centre l’Pompidou opened in 1977 takes the ideal public cultural institution to the full extend from its competition brief to the design and execution. Designed by then-unknown young architects Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano, the design re-organised the technicality, in order to liberate floor space and allow for maximum flexibility. It also opens up the architecture, through a transparent facade, connecting the sloped “piazza” to the broad entrance at the lower level. The Pompidou possess the “Palace” characters translated into contemporary public institution, manifesting the qualities of the ideal cultural space.

Application and implication to contemporary cultural institutions

Architecture is a reflection of ideology and imagination. The closed and elitist origin of the Palace has been overturned into openness and democracy in the application of contemporary institutions, although it was not a simple transformation and the evolution of cultural institutions has gone through a long trajectory of struggle and still in great debate today. The Royal Festival Hall at South Bank, London, built by the British welfare state Labor government in the 1960s was an exemplary project that attempts to implement democracy society through cultural policy and institution. While it has the “classless” vision to provide culture to all, the reality at the time was that the cultural space (and content) was largely catered to, and used by, the upper and middle class (Grafe, 2017). In the French context, while the government and its cultural minister Andre Malraux has strongly supported and funded the establishment of dozens of cultural centers across the country, it has faced criticism as a top-down policy to “provide” culture. A study of French public museums by Pierre Bourdieu in 1965 concluded that the new policy and institutions did not help, and on the contrary worsen class division as it implies unequal cultural capital distribution (Cupers, 2015). In this sense the architectural or design vision of “apparent democracy” might be an illusion that has yet to solve actual social problems.

The heated debates about the essence of culture and its social role in the 1960s, particularly during and after the social unrest of 1968, has led to a changing paradigm from “cultural provision” to “cultural participation”. Culture were “given” and used as public instruction “tool” by the state, the audience was passive and does not involve in the making of culture. This relationship is changed into emphasis of cultural participation as a true form of democracy. The programme of the cultural institution became more diverse and closer to daily life, incorporating also amateur and experimental art groups into the production of culture.

While the key players have changed, the similarity of the Palace and the museum or cultural center is that they are all highly institutionalized form of culture. The imagination of a palace is then expanded and elaborated into the ideal qualities of the cultural space. The reading of Pimlott’s book and other relevant literature reveals how different public interior is in fact the product of different institutions. This has constructed a framework as we go into the research on Hong Kong’s cultural space and institutions.

Reading Notes on:

Pimlott, M. (2016). The public interior as idea and project. Heijningen: Jap Sam Books.

Other Reference:

Carlson, M. (1989). Places of performance: The semiotics of theatre architecture. Ithaca, NY:Cornell University Press.

Cupers, K. (2015). “The Cultural Center: Architecture as Cultural Policy in Post-war Europe.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 74, no. 4

Grafe, C., & Specker, H. (2014). People’s palaces : Architecture, culture and democracy in post-war Western Europe. Amsterdam: Architectura & Natura.

Silver, N. (1994). The making of Beaubourg: A building biography of the Centre Pompidou, Paris. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

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