The New Yorker's Paul Goldberger on the Bowdoin College Museum of Art

Story posted October 16, 2007

Paul Goldberger, architecture critic for The New Yorker, lectures widely on the subject of architecture, design, historic preservation and cities. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his architecture criticism, he has written the celebrated "Sky Line" column for The New Yorker since 1997. He holds the Joseph Urban Chair in Design and Architecture at The New School in New York City.

Goldbderger delivered the following remarks on October 12, 2007, during a reopening celebration for the newly renovated Bowdoin College Museum of Art.

© 2007 by Paul Goldberger. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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Paul Goldberger

Good evening. It is a great pleasure to be here and to join in the celebration of this remarkable addition to a remarkable building. The Walker Art Building is one of the great small art museums in the United States, and it is an astonishing thing to have on a college campus. Maybe we should expect no less of a college whose president could write, as William DeWitt Hyde did in his Offer of the College, that one of the essential pledges that the college would make to its students would be that by the time they left, they would count "art as an intimate friend."

Every small liberal arts college claims to value art, but few have done it with the commitment of Bowdoin — a commitment that is shown not only in President DeWitt's graceful turn of phrase, art as an intimate friend, but several years before he wrote those words, when two art-collecting sisters, Harriet and Sophia Walker, commissioned the Walker Art Building in honor of their uncle Theophilus Walker. The sisters aimed high: They wanted no less than Charles McKim of McKim, Mead and White — at that point probably the most eminent architectural firm in the United States - to design this small building at Bowdoin. And thus McKim, who a few years later would design Pennsylvania Station in New York, among other buildings, came to Brunswick, Maine, to design a building that remains, in my view, if not one of his largest, surely one of his finest. Indeed, there are things about the Walker Art Building that make it much more appealing than some of McKim's more famous work, including the building that the Walker is often compared to, the Morgan Library in New York, which is so similar that you might say this building was McKim's practice run for the Morgan Library. In many ways I prefer this one — the Morgan is bigger and grander and while you are not supposed to say this, I have to admit that it is actually rather pompous, whereas the Walker is intimate and inviting. No one ever felt cozy in the Morgan Library — awe was more what you were expected to feel, and you do — but you can feel genuinely comfortable in the Walker Art Building.

In any case, whether he was building in the small or the giant size, McKim was quite sure of what constituted good art, and I suspect the Walker sisters were as well. He believed that classicism and the Renaissance were the highest achievements in Western culture, and that to model our own works of art and architecture after the creations of these periods was the right — in fact, the only — thing to do. Like many people of his time, he did not think there was much culture other than Western European culture. And so the Walker Art Building became a Renaissance palazzo, elegant and perfectly proportioned, its tripartite entrance loggia a magnificent homage to Brunelleschi's Pazzi Chapel in Florence. The entire building, and not just the art displayed within it, was intended as a source of inspiration for the students. Here, McKim and the Walkers believed, students could view the great art of the past in an environment shaped by the great architecture of the past, learning to respect them both.

And so it was, for a very long time: a jewel box of a building, understandably something for Bowdoin to take pride in, and as McKim himself became nearly as venerated a part of cultural history as the architects of the past who inspired him, the Walker became all the more Bowdoin's most precious architectural possession. It still is, needless to say. But I think we all know that for a very long time now, the conviction behind this building's design — the belief of McKim and the Walker sisters that following classical models was the be-all and end-all of art education — has no longer held sway. And while that made the Walker no less glorious visually, it was also true that its appealing size had been coming to feel more like an oppressive smallness, its intimacy was looking more and more like a high price to pay for inadequacy, and its indifference to the contemporary needs for climate control and security and access for the disabled — among many functional things that were never considered in McKim's time — was getting harder and harder to justify. It was becoming clear several years ago that the college would have to do something — either build an entirely new museum and keep this as a kind of monumental pavilion, or perhaps make it into a President's residence. Or Bowdoin could try to find a way to make it work for the needs of a museum in the twenty-first century.

Let me digress for moment to say something about the museum right now, to put these needs into some kind of context. We live in an age of museums, and an age of increasing public interest in the visual arts — there is no news to that, but a lot to say about it, because museums right now are perhaps the most intensely sought of all architectural commissions, and the arena in which architecture's relationship to the public seems to play out most directly and most energetically. We have more museums than ever before; they are bigger and more spectacular works of architecture, and they are coming to depend, more and more, on architecture as a means of attracting the audiences that they appear, more and more, to require so as to survive. It is a kind of box office cycle in which architecture plays a leading role. You at Bowdoin, like many art museums that are on college campuses, are exempt from the worst pressures of this cycle — your teaching and scholarly roles save you from the worst of it — but I know you are not entirely free of it, either.

Before I say too much about the architecture of art museums specifically, let me say just another word about this vast expansion of the art museum audience that we have been experiencing. It's easy to reject it as a dumbing down, as many critics have done, and as I might have implied by what I have just said. The reality is much more complex. It's both good and bad. Today, we have a lot more reasonably well-educated, reasonably sophisticated people around, which certainly accounts for part of the increased interest in museums and the visual arts; we are a more visually sophisticated culture than we once were, and many pursuits that were once the province only of the elite are now generally accessible across society. I think it would be the height of hypocrisy for someone like me, who is involved both in education and in cultural journalism, to say what a bad idea it is to have culture for the masses. Let's keep it for the elite. Let's make sure no one gets into the museum who hasn't already proven he knows what is going on inside. Culture, like higher education itself, has been democratized, and while there are certain very real compromises, even losses, in this process, I think we have to believe that it is a net gain for society — if we did not, I suspect I should find another line of work.

But I have another theory as to what has been fueling the growth of the art museum, and it is this: Not only are there a great many more relatively sophisticated people around, it is also the case that now we live in an age in which so many people spend most of their days behind computer screens, dealing with virtual this and cyber-that, and when you do that, and even get much of your entertainment and communication from computers and televisions and so forth, you begin to cry out for the experience of authenticity. I believe that one reason there is so much interest in museums today comes down to that very fact — the power of authenticity. It is the fact that what you come to the art museum to see, be it an illuminated manuscript or a Rembrandt or a Jasper Johns drawing, is real.

When the current wave of technology made its way into our lives there was a lot of fear that it would have the opposite effect, that it would destroy the power of the real, or at the very least blur the distinction between the virtual and the real. If you could see it all on a computer, and experience art that way, the reasoning went, then who needed to go to a museum? That was part of the reason that a very ambitious plan, to have been underwritten by the late Walter Annenberg, to create an educational center that would have been a kind of virtual museum, based on relatively early computer technologies, never got going at the Metropolitan Museum in the 1970s — because critics felt that it would destroy the appreciation of the real if you could see computerized images of works of art. The idea was denounced as anti-art, as something that would diminish respect for real works of art.

But what I am saying, of course, is that the opposite thing happened — that the real, by being more rare, became all the more precious. In the same way that seeing a Matisse in a book doesn't make you feel less eager to see the real thing but more eager, our experiences with computers and technology in the last generation have made us crave authenticity more. We know that authenticity, in our age, is not any longer something we can take for granted — we know that most of the visual images we see as we go about our lives today are not "real," in the sense that a Breugel drawing at the Morgan Library is real, and we value the authentic because we know it is rare. The power of the real has grown, it has not diminished, in our new technological environment, by the very fact of its being scarce. It takes on an almost holy aura — we are in the presence of the real thing, not the virtual image of it, and that aura, when everything is working as it should, extends to the very core of the museum's being.

Another thing that has grown and not diminished — and this is also contrary to many predictions — is the value we place on good public space. Most of us spend a great deal of our time alone today, either in office cubicles or in our cars or connected to computers at home, where we function as if we were alone even if there are plenty of other people in the house, and of course everyone has heard of the predictions of the demise of public space, of the end of town squares and stores and streets and malls and, indeed, of the obsolescence of the city itself. Who needs to be in a public place when you can do everything at home — work, shop, communicate, be entertained? Telecommuting would replace offices, online e-commerce would replace stores, and so forth.

Well, now we know that this prediction, too, was wildly exaggerated — not because the technology is not a very real and potent force for change in the way we live, but because the prediction ignored a fundamental aspect of human character, which is that we do not want to be alone. We need a kind of stimulation that only true public places can give us. That is one reason that so-called "distance learning" has barely taken off and the demand to be at great colleges and universities is higher than ever — because these are real places, not virtual ones, and things happen that technology could never make possible. Sure, you can shop online, and all of us do, but real retail seems to have more potency than ever, so long as it is done right, and by right I mean done in a manner that gives people something they cannot get online. Similarly, New York City, which was supposed to be put out of business by the new technologies, is more prosperous than ever. It has prospered recently in large part because new technology entrepreneurs themselves want to be in the city, rubbing shoulders as well as communicating in cyberspace. People want to walk on streets as well as talk online. They want to be in real places. But they demand that the real places be special, and offer them something beyond what they can get through their computers.

To return to the question of the art museum, if you put these two phenomena together — the increased power of authenticity, and the desire to be in truly special public places — and add to this the fact of more educated people running around, suddenly the explosion in museums isn't so much of a mystery. In truth, museums have become the most important public buildings of our time. They seem to embody our culture's ideals, in much the same way that cathedrals once did — indeed, we might go so far as to say that museums, now, are the secular cathedrals of our time. They are repositories of the past, as cathedrals are; they represent a set of shared values, as the cathedrals did when they were new; they function as community centers as well as places of enlightenment; they are places in which the wealthy often find it useful to memorialize themselves, and they are places in which the very idea of immortality seems always to hover above us, as we hopefully experience some degree of transcendence from daily life.

I mean not to suggest that art is our religion now. Hardly. But we do seem to turn to the building of art museums now with a degree of passion that our society doesn't seem to have for too many other shared pursuits. We infuse our football stadiums and baseball parks with passion, and our art museums; that may be about it, so far as public architecture is concerned. Because a museum's program is at least somewhat flexible — you can certainly be more expressionist in a museum design than in an office building, say — and perhaps because of the comradeship between the creative act of making art and the creative act of architecture, we have given a kind of implicit permission to our museums to be vastly more expressive than any other kind of building, including, ironically, churches. I don't want to carry this analogy too far, but it is true that many communities, particularly small to medium-sized cities, now look to their art museums as their dominant architectural symbol, as their conveyer of identity on the skyline, much as a church might once have been. Whatever the motivation, we can certainly say that the art museum is the one sphere of building in which we seem most comfortable at the cutting edge of design.

It is no exaggeration to say that in the same way that the great cathedrals of the Middle Ages represented the most avant-garde architecture of their time — the brilliant synthesis of architecture and engineering that was the Gothic — so, too, do many of our art museums today represent the cutting edge of architectural thought. And thus it was no surprise that Bowdoin turned to Rodolfo Machado and Jorge Silvetti, the distinguished architects whose work has long been admired for its ability to integrate modernism with historical buildings without compromising either one — to try and figure out how to make the Walker Art Building work for a new century.

No one here needs to be told that it wasn't easy. I suspect that there were more than a few times when the trustees of Bowdoin regretted having such a great landmark that demanded such care. It would have been much easier to have a mediocre building so that you could do whatever you pleased to it, and no one would care. Making the Walker work in a way that fulfilled the complex demands of our time and did not compromise the integrity of McKim's original building is an agonizingly difficult architectural problem, and I'm sure that sometimes, it seemed nearly insolvable.

I should say that I am usually of the view that great older buildings can often benefit from dialogue with modernity, and that we in the United States tend to be a little too fearful of engaging with them in strong way. We treat our old buildings like hothouse orchids, like things so delicate that we can't touch them or they will fall apart. The reality is that good buildings can take a little energy applied to them; they can often enter into a real architectural conversation that enriches them and confers a whole new layer of meaning. The Italians, who certainly have no lack of respect for history, know this. They roughhouse a bit with their older buildings, knowing that there are lots of ways to show admiration and respect for an historic building beyond the American view of "don't touch."

But that said, there is touching and there is touching, and as some kinds of touching are affectionate and others are a violation, so too with architecture. This is all a roundabout way of saying that I am glad that the earlier scheme for this building was put aside; while it was full of good intentions, it overwhelmed the original building, and made it hard to appreciate McKim's building. It took center stage, and by getting in the way of the original entry sequence, which was one of the key things about the image of the old building, it compromised the Walker. Had it been built, you would no longer have experienced the building as McKim wanted you to.

Bowdoin, President Mills, and Machado and Silvetti, had the courage to be willing to start again — to recognize that the first attempt didn't work, and to try and figure out a way to get all of the modern elements that the college wanted and needed, and at the same time to retain more of the feeling that the building always had. It could not have been an easy decision, if only because time costs money, and by starting again, the project would inevitably become more expensive. But then again, the college recognized that it would do this only once. Do it right, and you have given the Walker Art Building a whole new life. Do it wrong, and you have pretty much compromised it forever.

They chose the first option, and tonight we are here to celebrate the success of that effort. To me, what is best about this design is how brilliantly it balances the assertive and the respectful — in fact, a better way to put this would be to say that it proves that assertiveness can be respectful. The goal was not to make the interventions and additions disappear. There is something right about acknowledging the passage of time, about letting the work of Machado and Silvetti be visible, and not pretending that this is 1894 all over again, just with air conditioning.

The goal here was more subtle, but ultimately more profound — to show the presence of history, and to let the old building reveal itself to its greatest potential, which is what the earlier scheme did not do, but at the same time you are letting the original building shine, to reveal the passage of time, to let the new architecture be present and enter into a dialogue with the old. McKim began the conversation, Machado and Silvetti continue it.

When the Walker Art Building was new, it was intended to teach students by example of the virtues of classical art and architecture. Now, the building still teaches that lesson, but it teaches another one, too, equally valid and more important for our time, which is the lesson of compatibility, the lesson of architectural respect, and how respect in architecture does not mean imitation, and it does not mean fading away into nothingness. There is a way to connect the present to the past that honors both, and this building shows it. The greatest acts of historic preservation in architecture are never ones that create the illusion of being in the past — that is tired, and trite. They are ways of using the past to create a greater and richer present, and that is exactly what Bowdoin has done.

May the Walker Art Building have as long and happy a history ahead of it as it has behind it.


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