Cultural architecture is not a building

Lecture 1+2 for cuhk SoA elective 5731A – Architecture and Cultural Practice

This image reminds us of period drama set in 19th century Europe, where many scenes of courting and socialization were happening in the theatre while the performance was a mere backdrop. At that time cultural activities were the few public occasion for people to interact, and the theatre became the de facto public space [1]. Nowadays social interaction is no longer as formally confined, yet the public venue is still considered as a special type of public space, often as memorable as the iconic cultural building itself.

The theatre… as a meeting ground for the populace as a whole… The foyer became a place in which to meet between acts, rather than an entrance.

Richard Sennett (1992) The Fall of Public Man

Into the late 20th century, particularly as an effect of the social movements of the 1960s/70s, rising civil awareness marked a critical turning point as the cultural sector addressed the public realm and serve as a platform that reflects current affairs. While the artistic content is certainly central to social debates, the design of cultural architecture and its spatial practice is also in the spotlight, from how was the Centre Pompidou design concept directly influenced by the ’68 French student movement [2], to the recent controversy regarding the commission and design of the Palace Museum at WKCD. The current trend of cultural development is a lot more complex and usually not with a single objective, closely tied to urban development strategies as seen in the proliferation of cultural districts around the world.

Learning from the trajectory of Museums and Theatre development, they have now become an essential component ingredient of urban projects. Early examples such as the Barbican in London opened in 1982 is a public housing project conceived with the integration of cultural facilities, and now developed into one of the most important cultural institutions with a global reach. Other cases such as the (in)famous Guggenheim Bilbao in 1990 to the more recent Hamburg Philharmonic, these cultural icons designed by starchitects have almost single-handedly brought the declining post-industrial cities under international spotlight. While the price a city has to pay versus the benefit to its local community is debatable, it did not stop the escalating trend of “cultural-themed” urban development, with cases such as the Hudson Yard in New York City and our very of West Kowloon Cultural District, leaving the question of how culture is positioned as a byproduct of speculative real estate.

Cultural Architecture as Public Space

Since then, the boundary between cultural (as public non-profit) and commercial (as capital-driven) development is no longer so clear. The emergence of the Cultural Centre type during the post-war European welfare-state could provide a context to understand how cultural architecture plays a larger role as a single building but as a place that contributes to the building of civil society. The idea of cultural centers is conceived as a network of standard facilities with performance and exhibition venues that can accommodate touring shows to be brought to smaller municipalities. The forward-thinking vision of the making of the cultural center has provided an opportunity for architects to implement avant-garde ideals through architectural design, working with the objective of contemporary cultural institutions in public engagement and cultural participation [3]. This special positioning of cultural centers can be examined through the concept of publicness in architectural discourse, manifested through spatial qualities such as openness, transparency, and flexibility, and to discuss how spatial design and operation directly affect the inclusion or exclusion of cultural participation (by way of accessibility or other spatial qualities).

Maison du Peuple, Clichy

Built during the pre-war years of 1935-39, the Maison de Peuple in Clichy is an early precedent for Maison de la Culture proposed by the French Ministry of Culture. Located in the northwest suburb of Paris, the idea was to create a large-span structure over the market comprised of new functions as a festival hall for large-scale gatherings, as well as accommodation of social activities such as lectures or film screenings. Jean Prouve, who later became known for his furniture design, designed prefab components that celebrate industrialized building technology, including the large plate glass facade, as well as movable partitions and operable roof system that allows a variety of spatial configuration. The innovation in architecture responds to the then socialist municipality in the making of a place for the public (and community).

Maison de la Culture, Amiens

Led by the visionary writer Andre Maurlax, the French Ministry of Culture was established in 1959 and announced the decentralization framework to disseminate cultural resources from the concentration in the capital to provinces across the country. It was implemented through the dozen of Maison de la Culture building plans in the following decade, from the first projects housed in repurposed municipal buildings to the Maison de la Culture d’Amiens in 1966 as the first new-built architecture for culture. The spatial representation in a large bay window to reveal interior activity speaks for the ideal of “culture for the public”, which is welcoming and accessible for all, intended to be the center of local (cultural) life.Unlike the bourgeois theatres and operas of the 19th century, the Maison de la Culture is not an isolated monument, but “a popular, familiar place and a cultural shrine, a kind of ‘café du commerce’ and secular cathedral.” [4].

De Meerpaal (Agora), Dronten, NL

As the Cultural Centre represents a forward-looking ideal of society, it also actively respond to the cultural trends in contemporary life. The Dutch case of De Meerpaal is a cultural center that accommodates not only the established cultural form but also popular culture, with programs such as the TV room and record library. The auditorium is a subtle enclosed circular core that sits within a vast hall, surrounded by the elevated platform that the full height space of the main hall, surrounded by a raised platform on two sides as the theatre foyer and cafe. The thoroughly open space is accessible without the purchase of a ticket, and the flexibility allows it to be adaptive to old and new programming, from that of a cinema to a volleyball court.

We can see the situation of cultural spaces within the spectrum of public space typology. It is mapped out in two criteria: (1) the “public-private” axis of its ownership from state-owned Public Space (such as streets or parks) to commercial operation of “privately-owned public space” (such as the hotel lobby or shopping mall atrium); and (2) the “exterior-interior” axis of its physical condition. The theatre foyer (or museum atrium) falls in the middle of this definition of public space – although it is mostly funded by public money, the operation is more akin to that of commercial establishment; and the space is less confined to the interior and in many cases cultural activities would extend to the surrounding open space.

This understanding helps to set the premise of our investigation on cultural architecture here — to progress from discussion on the exterior form to the actually-inhabited space, as we would point to those tiny dots seen in the grand image – to the people and activities, and the physical space where it happens. In this case of the Centre Pompidou, the exterior plaza is not only a passage but a well-defined zone that contains different activities. The iconic facade as a backdrop and the gently sloped plaza towards the entrance has attracted residents, visitors to linger, with peripheral cultural activities like street performance that are not necessarily program planned by the cultural institution.

By design, the interior of the Pompidou is freely accessible by the public, although due to security (and now pandemic) concerns that a new checkpoint was later installed at the building entrance. The lobby area before one enters the ticketed gallery has the function of the information desk, ticket office, as well as cafe and shop — just like the public interior we encounter every day (such as the shopping mall atrium), even more freely as visitors just sit on the ground as they would in the outdoor piazza. It is a much-celebrated piece of architecture, but we should remember that it takes the collaboration of different parties to make exception cultural public space: from the competition brief that highlights openness and flexibility, to the selection of winning design that responds to public needs, as well as early days management effort to enhance citizen engagement.

Through the cases of different cultural centers introduced above, the emphasis has been on the interior/exterior public space and its effect on functional activities. The key message here is to provide an alternative (and complimenting) way to the common reading of cultural architecture in their spectacular formal image and to highlight the space and activities that make a cultural institution a special place to be. Specifically the question on how the cultural institution contributes to the city, in a sense of social engagement, or physical contribution to local urban form.

Urban Form of Cultural Architecture

Through the reading of figure-ground and plan drawing, the contribution of cultural architecture as urban form can be read, in this case, the comparison/contrast of two famous cultural projects – the Centre Pompidou and the Guggenheim Bilbao. Both projects have an equally strong architectural image and play a crucial role in the city’s urban revitalization. The solid-void figure-ground diagram in comparison shows how the cultural building stands out from or blends in the surrounding urban context space, suggesting its role as space-occupier or space-definer [5].

Situated in the old district of Beaubourg in Paris, the building mass of the Centre Pompidou is rectangular in form along the width of the plot, with a public plaza framed by its façade and adjacent buildings. In contrast, Guggenheim Bilbao on a similar scale sits at the waterfront site where its signature architectural form dominates the surrounding area. These buildings represent two contrasting urban attitudes of cultural architecture, which in turn reflects their institutional and social background. If the Pompidou reflects civic awareness and the public role of cultural institutions in the 1970s, the case of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao could be a representation of how cultural institutions became a part of the neoliberal urban economy in the 1990s. Situated in the northern Spanish city of Bilbao, the transformation of its old port into a waterfront promenade is a much-celebrated case of postindustrial urban revitalization. The Guggenheim Bilbao is a spectacular landmark sitting in the new open space that surrendered as the background to the jewel-like building [6]. The artery road to the south marks the boundary between the old city and the waterfront park, where the Guggenheim museum is the only focal point surrounded by space too open to contain any activities or to provide way-finding clues.

In the view of its major public space, we can read the differences more clearly of what did it mean by the two types of figure-ground drawing – one that has a clearly defined public plaza and it can CONTAIN activity, while the other (although it has the edge of waterfront) appears to be a residual space that is more like the foreground of that spectacular icon instead of spaces that people would like to use (or stay). The Pompidou acted as a space definer, while Bilbao was clearly a space occupier, illustrating what cultural architecture is capable of – creating meaningful public space and urban form or consuming its surroundings as the field with little interaction. If we look again at a Nolli-style figure-ground, the large accessible interior of the Pompidou is an extension of the outdoor piazza, while the compressed interior of the Bilbao is really somewhat the residual space squeezed between the non—the-less jewel-like components of the project.

Urban Role of Cultural Architecture

The urban form and situation are also a reflection of larger cultural policy intention. The original conception of the Centre Pompidou was to revitalize the slum district of Beaubourg the demolishing the old market hall and replacing it with a public library. With the support of the new President and Cultural Minister, it grow into an ambitious cultural project, with the National contemporary art museum and music school, and became one of the major cultural institutions not only in Paris but the world. Its position is rather embedded into the neighborhood, different than the iconic cultural landmark such as the Louvre and others along the Seine. This is a case of how cultural institutions can play a role to construct urban space (instead of consuming its surrounding like an object), and yet, can the building of cultural architecture be destructing urban space as well?

Situated in the upper west side of New York City, Lincoln Centre is the result of the slum clearance scheme advocated by the powerful public planner Robert Moses in the 1960s. The life-long rival of Jane Jacobs, the urban ideal represented by Lincoln Centre in its conception was the opposite in every aspect to Jacobs’ belief in a small neighborhood, street life, and diversity. The cultural architecture in this case became the glossy surface of the demolition of old tenement blocks and uprooted the local community. The grid-block structure of Manhattan has maintained the appearance of the continuous urban fabric, yet in essence, the scale is altered and enlarged to create larger “green” plots where the architectural monument sits on, and the peripheral (street) became inaccessible with a blank wall and raised platform.

While the Lincoln Centre is still a prestigious cultural landmark and institution, the negative effect and damage done to the urban environment are recognized around the new millennia, and the institution initiated a scheme in 2002 to revive its public space with an attempt to reconnect its engagement with the city and the community. The proposal started off as a modest renovation of a public plaza by architect Diller, Scofidio and Renefro, and over the next decade has completed a series of public realm projects that opens up the Lincoln Centre, in the architects’ description as to turn it “inside-out”. Compared to the enormous scale of the overall structure, the design applied surgical moves such as to suppress the vehicle drop-off below grade to create pedestrian steps towards the plaza and to reveal interior activities along the street front through physical and digital means to engage life on the sidewalk. While the core structure was set in stone and the original neighborhood (and livelihood) were gone, the different narrative of the public space at Lincoln Centre signifies a turn in how cultural architecture has now an ever more important social/urban role [7].

… it is no longer the classed individual that is target as the primary surface to which the actions of art and culture are to be applied. Rather, … that of community as it is increasing assigned with the task of empowering communities

Tony Bennett, Acting on the Social

This brief review of the Cultural Centre type demonstrates the power of cultural architecture, as it can contribute to the city’s urban form and civil society formation. In this sense, cultural architecture is not (and should not be) seen as simply a “landmark” but can carry the notion of “landscape” — as the place for activities it hosts. In later discussion we will cover the currently most important cultural project in Hong Kong, the West Kowloon Cultural District, but not as the image of that collection of precious objects. While the grand structure is something we “look” at, the spatial experience is what we will remember. Therefore, from the perspective of an architect/urban designer, the question for us is how do we deal with the dynamics between the built and experience space? Furthermore, how arts and cultural practice also contributes to the making of this “actually-experienced public space”, ever more so in spaces outside of the standard function program (i.e. the theatre and gallery).

Available also in Chinese


[1] Sennett, R. (1977). The fall of public man. New York: Knopf.

[2] Silver, N. (1994). The making of Beaubourg : A building biography of the centre pompidou, Paris. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

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

[4] Cupers, K. (2015). The Cultural Center. Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 74(4), 464-484.

[5] Rowe, C., & Koetter, F. (1978). Collage city. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

[6] Philippou, P. (2015) “Cultural buildings’ genealogy of originality: The individual, the unique and the singular”. Journal of Architecture, 20(6), 1032-1066.

[7] Bennett, T. (2000). “Acting on the Social”. The American Behavioral Scientist, 43(9), 1412-1428.

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