Question: How has design for museums and cultural centers evolved in the past five years, and where is it going next?
Stephen: The great wave of museum building in the west has just about played itself out; the general economic downturn is the proximate cause, but there has been a gradual recognition by museums that continued expansion and extravagant designs by celebrity architects are in many respects a dead end. The principal issue throughout the US and in much of Europe is to find ways of successfully exploiting the new spaces that were created in the last two decades and engaging the public with meaningful content. It's an enormously difficult challenge in the face of shrinking national support in Europe and greatly reduced philanthropic support here. The old economic models no longer seem sustainable.
At the same time, China, Korea and, to some extent, India are poised to explore the western model of museum-making in cultural contexts to which they are fundamentally new. In a very different way, a number of Arab countries are also using the western museum model as a significant urban planning device, even as a vehicle for a certain image of social reform. The various experiences throughout Asia seem by far the most interesting because they raise the issue of what the social role of art will be in cultures with long and rich indigenous artistic traditions but relatively little history with museums as institutions. It is here that the classic western model will be seriously challenged and, with luck, positively adapted and redefined.
Question: What is your take on how the architecture of cultural spaces competes with/compliments the art held within?
Stephen: There's an important distinction to be made between institutions that have permanent collections exhibited on an ongoing basis and those that essentially function as Kunsthalle, with a changing series of temporary exhibitions. The former require an architecture that reasons with the art shown. The latter, by definition, need spaces that can be adapted to many kinds of art and, arguably, spaces that challenge curators and artists to select and install works that engage their settings actively and critically.
The Louvre is an example of the former: one finds there a broad range of museographic solutions from over two centuries of constant change and revision, but each of them was specifically designed to present a particular collection of works. Bilbao is an obvious example of the latter where there is no real permanent collection and the space is intended rather as a provocation to the installation of a succession of unrelated works. There is a place for both models, but for architects, and for curators, it's essential not to confuse the two.
Question: How is the relationship between art and architecture changing, and where do you think it's headed?
Stephen: Curiously, one way it's being redefined is by new advances in information technology. The traditional tension in museum galleries was between spaces of connoisseurship and spaces of pedagogy—that is, a purely aesthetic confrontation with works of art, as opposed to presentations that sought to actively educate the public in the history of art. To a very great extent, the aesthetic and the pedagogical models can be reconciled with the use of hand-held, net-connected devices that allow each visitor a personalized exploration of context, provenance and history, while emptying the gallery space itself of any secondary content. The relationship between art and the architecture of its presentation can be reexamined with a directness and simplicity that were unimaginable just a decade ago, because the pedagogical program can be accomplished by other means. I think it may well bring museum presentations closer to a kind of connoisseurial ideal.
Question: As more city planners devote entire districts to arts and entertainment, creating dense pockets of cultural architecture, how will this affect your work?
Stephen: In fact this is a tradition that goes back to the Enlightenment origins of the western museum model—think of the Museum Insel in Berlin—and that characterized much American urban planning in the wake of the Columbian Exposition of 1893 and the City Beautiful movement it inspired. Indeed, the origins of our "arts districts" can be traced directly to the classical myth of Parnassus, a special home for the muses; in that sense Saddiyat Island in Abu Dhabi is just a contemporary version of the Mall in Washington, DC.
The much-vaunted "Bilbao effect" has also for the most part been discredited, and a much more nuanced and complicated understanding of the role that arts institutions play in urban growth is starting to emerge. To take an example from our own recent work, in Hangzhou, China, we are planning a new cultural district with museums of Architecture, Urbanism, Design and Fashion as a means for preserving and repurposing a complex of industrial buildings, which are understood as a critical part of the city's modern physical heritage; but the creation of these new institutions is also seen as part of a new model of urban living, a mechanism for rethinking the city itself.
Question: Tell us something interesting about yourself.
Stephen: I studied anthropology, painting and languages before doing graduate degrees in architecture and planning, and I was a stage actor throughout my college years. In hindsight it all seems like the perfect preparation for thinking about and working on museums.