|The Hermitage: Masterplan 2014|
By OMA © All rights reserved
|Presentation on OMA*AMO's ongoing collaboration with the State Hermitage Museum: a modernization project based not on architectural addition or renovation, but on the elucidation of its existing contemporary potential.|
|State Hermitage Museum,|
I would like to start by presenting the context in which I see this project, and this most recent phase of it. I see every museum project that we have initiated – and this is one in a series – within the context of modernization.
Modernisation is a very dangerous word, and probably also an unpopular one in the museum world, as there are so many values it must guard and keep. But nevertheless, the museum world has been perhaps one of the most dynamic in terms of participating in the idea of modernization, typically in the form of enlargement.
In this image (1), the 'mountain' shows the behavior of Wall Street in the 90s, and in the foreground, the expansion trends of a number of international museums – the Louvre, LACMA, the Guggenheim, etc. What you see is that the museums all more or less follow the Wall Street lead of continuous expansion – all becoming larger and larger entities. The only museum that resisted this temptation to expand is the Hermitage, which already for a very long time has maintained an admirably horizontal line.
The enormous expansion of the museum audience has generated a number of logistical issues, and of course art historical issues, that museums, whether they wanted to or not, or were designed to or not, must now face.
I would say the effect of this escalation – and this is only a very brief version of a much larger argument – has become not only evident in the number of visitors, but also in the art itself, for example in Olafur Eliasson's project in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern (2). We could show increasing numbers of examples that demonstrate how art itself is expanding in terms of its scale and ambition, as part of the same expansionist syndrome.
So this was the context of our first involvement with the Hermitage. The first time I came to the Hermitage for professional reasons was on a visit directed by Thomas Krens of the Guggenheim. The trip included Frank Gehry, and the pretext was a future collaboration between the Hermitage and the Guggenheim (3). We were exploring (and the imperialistic connotation of this word is perhaps appropriate) what we could do with the Hermitage to consummate its relationship with the Guggenheim and incorporate it within Krens's scheme.
Here you see all the rooms of the Hermitage (4) – an endless series of rooms (and I will talk more about this later) that prompted Krens and Gehry to quickly come to the conclusion that what the Hermitage needed was space big enough to accommodate American art – a space of larger dimensions, in which the larger dimensions of this art could be shown to their advantage. This marked a point of bifurcation between me and my colleagues, as I was becoming increasingly fascinated, not by ideas of change, but by the existing condition of the Hermitage.
This image shows one of the General Staff Building courtyards at the time of the trip. I was particularly interested in the degrees of 'neglect' or 'purity of the ruin', now already partly undone, but so evident at that time (5). The abandonment of the General Staff Building by its previous occupants – bureaucrats and even the military – left a condition I found so interesting as a museum environment. For, one of the most unique aspects of the Hermitage is that it is not simply a repository of artifacts, but is itself a living artifact of Russian history.
I was also deeply interested in certain curatorial moments in relation to their context – historical spaces whose crucial role in the history of mankind are very well known. Though perhaps curatorially unorthodox – exposing objects in full daylight in then (ten years ago) relatively dilapidated apartments – the superimpositions of art and these incredibly potent historical spaces created a stronger impression than I felt was possible in more conventional museum spaces (6, 7).
Another point of fascination at the time was the sheer quantity of rooms in the Hermitage. It already had 1,200 rooms and with the addition of the General Staff Building, it would obtain 800 more. One of the challenges for the Hermitage was how to animate this vast number of rooms. One proposal we made at the time was to create a museum of the 21st century simply by annually giving eight artists or scientists – or architects even – one room of the General Staff Building each as their domain. After one century, by definition, and by the smartness of the selection of people, you would have one of the most significant accumulations and museums of 21st century thought. This is one of the many ways in which we imagined that this incredible luxury of quantity could be used.
Though the entire story leading up to the current work is too long to tell in this brief introduction, what it led to was an understanding with Piotrovsky, the director of the Hermitage, that we would work together with Hermitage to think deeply about what it could achieve (9). This contemporary effort is, first of all, a collaboration with the Hermitage. It is not an architectural proposal, nor a curatorial proposal. Rather, it is a project at the intersection of these domains, which attempts to answer to the questions of 'what is the maximum potential the Hermitage can achieve with its physical composition?' and 'how can this composition be used?'
The Hermitage consists of five buildings on the Neva, to which the General Staff Building is now being added. This means that instead of a group or cluster of buildings acting as one, we are facing a new condition: almost an urban quarter of museums (10). The Hermitage in its urban context is not only a museum, but a significant urban texture in perhaps one of the most significant urban ensembles in the world. So consideration of its urban scale evolution has become a very crucial task.
Now, to understand how great the responsibility of the Hermitage is, this image is perhaps the most impressive representation. It shows the Hermitage and the Metropolitan Museum at the same scale, and you can see that the Hermitage is at least twice the size of the Metropolitan. Knowing the complexities of the Metropolitan – the incredible intricacies, the demands of history, the different regimes, and the diversity of efforts to make sense out of its single block – one can imagine the intricacies and complexities of running, and conceiving how to run, this huge urban complex that is the Hermitage.
Here we can see the individual public components of the Hermitage: the Winter Palace, the Small Hermitage, the New Hermitage, the Theater and the General Staff Building. When compared with other museums, in terms of scale, the Hermitage is equivalent in size to the Metropolitan Museum, the Centre Pompidou, the National Gallery, the Altes Museum, and the Victoria & Albert all added together. It is a truly humbling awareness, and to some extent one that we almost need to overlook in order to retain a certain innocence in the effort.
Here we introduce a very vulgar comparison, but it serves to illustrate what I consider one of the central issues the Hermitage now faces. It's an issue that many airports also face: should it stay a single entity or should it divide itself into different terminals? Can pretensions of entity and unity be abandoned in favor of each element's more autonomous and perhaps more authentic function?
Because there are now Hermitage entities on either side of the Palace Square, the Square itself also becomes a significant component of the museum – adding considerable exterior space to the territory of its curatorial management and ambitions. The Hermitage is comprised of a number of separate buildings, but it actually operates as a composite of buildings that have become increasingly interconnected over time (typically by bridges and other elements). The outdoor spaces between the buildings are not accessible to the public and are barely perceptible from within the museum. When one remembers the Hermitage, it is as a continuous interior only, without exterior spaces or internal divisions.
The Hermitage is symbolically and perceptually defined today as a huge single perimeter with a single primary entrance. I would argue that the introduction of the fifth element, the General Staff Building, makes this single perimeter concept unsustainable, and forces its reconception. I would also like to question – and this is part of what we are now working on – how this enormous complex, interpreted as a single complex, or a single building with marginal and in fact irrelevant separations, is used every day. Any complex of this magnitude has a number of things with which it wrestles, and circulation is certainly not the least of them. Large and constantly expanding museum universes have to introduce new circulation trajectories in order to give the public a fair chance to visit their terrain.
Each of these museums is not only defined by its circulation routes, but of course also by its collections. Here you see the departmental layouts of the Louvre and the Hermitage. What becomes very evident is that it is not just the scale that presents such complexity, nor its breakdown into different components, but also the richness and nuance within the collections.
The Centre Pompidou for example has only two divisions in its collections, the National Gallery maybe four, the Louvre seven, the Metropolitan enough to stop counting, and the Hermitage simply too many to begin. These layers of complexity create a very interesting dimension in our work of trying to compose clarity, in spite of knowing it is an impossible task.
Different kinds of groups – Russian groups, for example, and foreign tourists – need ways of moving through the Hermitage that do justice to the treasures, but at the same time do not interfere too radically with each other. The main narrative of the building has to be coincidental with these tours and trajectories, but as a result, this intriguing mixture of history and art history is experienced only as a continuous narrative without any possibility for pauses, interruptions or informed deviations.
I would like to compare this image of contemporary visitors with this image from Sokurov's film Russian Ark (11). The main claim and fame of the film, which portrays an imaginary visit to the Hermitage, traveling through all its spaces and its histories, was that it was shot in a single take. Like the tours, the film moves continuously and seamlessly through the entire museum (12).
I think this kind of single take or single tour mentality of the Hermitage is one of its current challenges. Although it's a sensational experience, it begs the question of whether the individual visitor is able to have the best and most profound relationship with the artifacts, and certainly whether the visitor is able to make sense of the historical sequence of buildings. In other words, although it is a historical sequence and a historical narrative, the continuity itself and the experience itself are profoundly ahistorical.
So one of the first, and perhaps most significant steps that we suggest for the Hermitage is its re-interpretation from a single continuous complex to one of individual entities that have individual histories and potentials. The underlying thesis is simply that the addition of the General Staff Building and the Square makes the whole system too large to manage according to a single regime. We propose creating a degree of autonomy for each of the parts, which could serve to clarify their roles and histories, and furthermore, define the different curatorial regimes they deserve and suggest. Each part could be dedicated to a complementary emphasis that could nuance the current indistinguishable blur of histories.
If one were to proceed according to this logic, the perimeter would be undone, the spaces between the buildings would become accessible and legible, and each building would have its own entrance. The current single flow of circulation through the spaces of the Hermitage, regardless of their dimensions or capacities, could thus also be nuanced and made more subtle, though I will return to this idea a little later on.
It would also mean that superb entrances, like the one to the New Hermitage, could emerge from their current latency and become reanimated. We could also then easily organize not only independent paths, but also continuous paths through the open spaces of the complex – the courtyards, the passages, the Square – where visitors could visit the entire domain of the Hermitage without actually entering it. And of course, the Hermitage as a contemporary urban quarter could use new technologies and ideas to mark its entrances, facilities and attractions. The Hermitage's emphasis, and its new identity for the 21st century, could thus become that of an urban quarter – semi-independent entities that work together to create a new, more urban, conception of the Museum.
So this was the first block of ideas, and the second is perhaps more complex. It is based on a way of looking at museums that developed through a series of museum projects we pursued – projects that often came quite close, but were never fully realized. I developed the thesis that in the 20th century, and particularly at its end, museums were no longer focusing, and could no longer focus – partly because of the extensions and partly because of the enlargement of the audience – on the pure experience of a visitor in front of a single artifact. Rather, they had to adjust to the changing conditions, primarily through extending their repertoire of facilities – initially comprised of a cafeteria, then of stores, info centers, more cafes, more stores, etc.
So whether desired or not, museums are these days a blur of their original ambition overlaid with a vast number of new experiences – new experiences that ostensibly serve to accommodate or enable the pure museum experience to exist. Rather than blurring these two types of experience, which I would argue is still the case in many contemporary museums, I am interested in proposing a degree of separation.
For our Whitney extension project in 2003, we considered the Whitney a very beautiful museum and felt that if much larger numbers were introduced into much larger spaces, it would make sense to create one circulation trajectory that could accommodate all the additional facilities so that the original experience wouldn't have to suffer from their introduction. Perhaps something similar could be introduced in the Hermitage – or maybe not introduced, but rather created by building upon certain existing conditions that already suggest its possibility. A number of spaces along the Neva are the most intensely trafficked in the museum; in part because it is there that the buildings are connected, and in part because of the location of some the museum's most visited works.
This sequence comprises a series of very diverse spaces: classical museum halls, bridges, a monumental staircase, historical living quarters, etc. that each represent important historical moments in the Hermitage. Identifying and declaring this sequence of spaces as the main connective route between the different buildings offers the potential to use the sequence itself as an informational tool about the buildings being traversed and entered.
For instance, many of the significant historical spaces along the Neva are typically used for temporary exhibitions, which frankly sometimes show little regard for the spaces themselves. This is another issue we are thinking about: is it possible to find ways of cohabiting with the historical dimension in a way that is not only more elegant, but also does justice to the demands of both history and display? In a way, I very much like this casualness – simply using the space in a very direct way for different exhibitions – but still, I think it could perhaps be done more subtly.
In the Neva sequence we imagine that there could be a curatorial zone in each of the spaces where either artists could make installations, or curators could organize specific exhibitions in deliberate relation to the spaces, histories, buildings or sequence of movement. For instance, the Winter Palace history is now almost exclusively communicated orally, through guided tours. What you see here is an important moment in WWI, when the Palace was used as a hospital (13). Perhaps you could imagine that somebody with taste and artistry could refer to this moment to make it more explicit – perhaps not in a permanent way. You could imagine that every year, or every half-year, different episodes from the history of the building could be commemorated in such a deliberate way.
Another feature of this sequence of spaces are the consistent views to the Neva. In terms of circulation, this provides one of the strongest and most consistent means of orientation within the museum. Typically filtered by beautiful Russian curtains, this view to an always changing, always beautiful space that again is so dense with historical reference, is perhaps one of the most stunning features of the Hermitage. Almost through osmosis, it adds so much to the museum itself. So we are proposing to reinterpret this space with a new emphasis on the Neva as not just something you pass by but as something that you look at and use. So what we would also like to introduce along the Neva are spaces of rest, where the visitor can step out of the obligation to circulate and enjoy the views.
At other moments on the path, where the space is narrower, we see this contemporary museum syndrome in its pure form: too many people in front of artifacts that are too rare and too important (14). We imagine that this kind of congestion could be avoided simply by moving some of the most precious paintings out of this main circulation zone to just-off-circulation spaces in order to reintroduce the possibility for their more sober and sparse experience.
So by introducing this Neva spine (15), one could create a zone exclusively dedicated to focusing and liberating other entities of the museum by absorbing the functions that currently dilute the pure and deliberate experience of them. So this could be a diagram of the multiplicity, the crowds, the flow, and increasingly rarefied and isolated zones (16) in the rest of the museum, which would give a scaling and redemption that is perhaps missing now.
In terms of circulation, we must think not only about the existing complex but also its connection to the new General Staff Building, which presents what we think are some interesting possibilities. The General Staff Building, as you probably know, has a series of ensuite courtyards that create its internal continuity. We imagine that this central General Staff Building spine could connect to the Neva spine at two very interesting moments: one coinciding with the Winter Palace entrance and exit and aligned with the symmetry of the Square, and the other connecting with the future Military Museum of the Hermitage and directly to the Neva spine via the Small Hermitage, forming a continuous 'T'. This could produce a type of subway map, which could act as the driving image of the Hermitage's organization instead of an always too-complex, classical categorization of endless departments.
So that was the second part of the presentation. In the third part, we assume the complex as a new whole given the General Staff Building extension, and look at what we could do, and how we could operate within the individual buildings. So I would now like to return to this question of the coexistence between artifacts and history in a building like the Winter Palace.
A good example of the current status is in the permanent exhibition of Islamic art, in the northwest corner of the Palace, facing the Neva and the Admiralty. If you visit the Islamic exhibition, you see the architecture amidst the displays. If you take these away however, to strictly look at the space, it becomes clear that it is a space with certain historical allusions but no historical reality.
However, it was in fact once a completely over-saturated 19th-century environment when it belonged to the private quarters of Nicholas I. For me, the genuine conundrum of the Hermitage is how these two responsibilities – the responsibility to show art and the responsibility towards history – can in some way be resolved. If you become sensitive to this contrast – the display vs. the environment, or display vs. history to make it more complex – you see that it is not only in this exhibition but everywhere a question: do you focus on the vitrine or do you focus on the space? The obligation to choose is something one suffers from, as well as the conundrum of whether it would ever be possible to pursue the two simultaneously.
With this in mind, we have been working in collaboration with the Hermitage on the permanent exhibition of Islamic art as a prototype for how these issues could perhaps be resolved. We looked at several means by which the different displays could be arranged within these historical spaces. For instance, one could create an exhibition area in the center of each room so that the walls of the room could be left available for history. In other words, rather than claim the whole room, you could compress and segregate the exhibition area so as to maintain, or liberate, the historical environment.
In another iteration we looked at something close to compact shelving, where one could simply create a sequence of vitrines that in one direction always contains Islamic art, and in the other enables a procession of history – so on one axis you would see Islamic art, on the other axis, history. And finally, we are currently proposing a river, or band, of Islamic art, that would create a linear, continuous, and independent exhibition across this sequence of historical rooms.
This idea was inspired by one of those magnificent and heroic moments in the history of the Hermitage when all of the artifacts had to be evacuated because the museum was in danger of being seized during WWII. You can see in this quite amazing picture, that out of protection, without really any concern for display, the sheer beauty of density, continuity and juxtaposition was made evident.
Piranesi's Via Appia was another strong reference. We imagined a Via Appia of art running through the historical environments of the Hermitage, which could allow this dual quality of art and history to be accepted and embraced rather than relatively repressed or denied.
We've also had other ideas for how history and the collections can coincide and coexist in the Small Hermitage. We found on the ground floor a storage space in the former stables, which now holds a very diverse collection of carriages and other large items. We are proposing to create inside this space, a Kunsthalle for the Hermitage. It is a space relatively free of history that could accommodate internal exhibitions not necessarily connected to the larger mandates of the Hermitage, as well as external exhibitions. The Kunsthalle could thus create an independent address inside this huge complex, complementing the museum activities to create a more animated curatorial regime.
We are also proposing for this space, an exhibition – perhaps and hopefully the first one – that would exhibit the Hermitage display cases themselves. In our whole work and presence here we have became completely fascinated by what at first appears invisible. The vitrines are part of this collection: something that functions primarily to enable you to see artifacts and to which you most often grant little attention. But of course the vitrines themselves are incredible artifacts. And not only that, the Hermitage contains without any doubt, the largest collection of vitrines in the history of mankind, spanning from the imperial period to the Soviet era to the present (17). If you focus on the vitrines as a collection, you begin to understand their variation: chronological, typological, stylistic, etc. It is an incredibly interesting exhibition that emerged from our conception of the Kunsthalle, and our explorations of what the Hermitage is and could be.
I will move now to what is perhaps one of the more architectural interventions of the project, located within the Yawein brothers' project for the General Staff Building. Their scheme proposes a sequence of ensuite exhibition halls, which create a perfect path through the entire entity, organized systematically according to art historical categories. Inside this scheme, we would invade with a single experimental space where we could initiate a series of deliberate experiments with the Hermitage.
This space would allow such experiments to be tested, without having to experiment on the Hermitage itself. Experiments could be conducted in acquisition, curating, and other categories. So for this project, we have been creating a book of writings, thinkers, and intellectuals as a means by which to begin mapping the territory and investigate precedents of experimental museum practice as well as precedents of experiment and invention at the Hermitage, such as the Ballet Russes, Mayakovsky and his Free Exhibition, non-conformist artists from a radical exhibition in 1964, etc.
So in keeping with these traditions, we are proposing that new contemporary experimental efforts could be incubated in this particular space. For example, in the continued development of the Hermitage 20/21 contemporary art program or as a site for experiments related to this effort of rethinking the relationships of history and art, all of which could be made publicly accessible or inaccessible according to the contents.
The thesis behind its architectural treatment is similar to something we proposed in our earlier work: we do not add to the architecture but simply add to elimination to reveal other dimensions and possibilities. The experimental laboratory could also become part of a distributed presence throughout the Hermitage, where all the spaces that are not used for the Hermitage program could be claimed for sympathetic efforts – the Lab, the Kunsthalle, as well as the incredible attics that also represent phenomenal potential.
But these potentials and explorations are in a way the very scary thing that we face because by exploring, we constantly find and realize more and more possibilities for intervention, or for inclusion in this huge question: what to do with the Hermitage? It's not only two thousand rooms; two thousand rooms is a very conventional way of accounting. Rather if you look at the basements, the attics, the in-between spaces, the outdoor spaces, etc., it becomes evident that the Hermitage is in fact, a city that is asking for 'programmation.'