Museums are often seen as the pinnacle expression of the urban experience, making them a fundamental element of our cities. Given this role as community anchor, it is vital that our museums serve as an armature that supports the activities and aspirations of urban life.
If we view the museum as an essential component of a city rather than a temple on a hill or an ivory tower that sits apart, we can see it as supporting the growth and advancement of society from within. Contextualized in this way, the museum reflects the people who make up the DNA of a city and can serve as a model for the future of urban life. We can help shape a vibrant future for our cities by thinking of museums as prototypes for the types of cities we want to live in and create.
Framing museums as infrastructure rather than elite and idiosyncratic expressions does not necessarily imply their inclusiveness or accessibility but rather begs the question: If we think of museums as an integral and dynamic part of a functioning city instead of as an exclusive institution that looks down upon it, then what form should they take?
In Episode 8, Season 2 of The Three Bells, podcast host Adrian Ellis poses important questions about the role of infrastructure in fostering culture and creativity:
“What is the core of the core? Culture binds... And creativity solves... Think about the infrastructure we have created to nurture them. Are they really fit for purpose? How well do they function in this new and evolving environment that requires agility and pragmatism? Can they be refined and adapted? So we have an exceptional opportunity and a profound responsibility. Can we help steer the future onto a better trajectory? Not just for our generation or even our children's generation, but for all the generations to come…”
In Grimshaw’s recent collaborations on the creation and reinvention of series of significant museums, we have worked to design cultural infrastructure that benefit communities in a multitude of ways. With the following three projects, we explore the concept of the museum as physical, social, and ultimately sustainable urban infrastructure.
Designed as a synthesis of human gathering, the Terra Sustainability Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai demonstrates a new way of sustainable living within a challenging desert environment. The physical infrastructure draws inspiration from complex natural processes, like photosynthesis, with the dynamic form of the Pavilion capturing energy from sunlight and fresh water from humid air. A sheltered, oasis-like courtyard at the center acts as a collector of people, physically tying the community to the thermal and solar design approach of the Pavilion. Situated in a prominent location, the structure works in tandem with the landscape of demonstration gardens to provide both an educational and experiential environment for the community. With over 64,000 SF of exhibition space, the Pavilion continues to serve as an urban gathering space and community anchor as the site around it fundamentally transforms from a fair ground to the center of new district in a growing city.
The renovation and extension of the Queens Museum adaptively reused the only remaining structure from the 1939 New York City World’s Fair to create social infrastructure that is now integral to the Queens community. This revitalized physical infrastructure gives the institution a sense of openness and supports strong community engagement while also doubling the size of the museum. The central gallery is marked by a light-diffusing lantern beneath a large skylight that invites visitors into the sunken living room and offers a glimpse of the sky above, creating a reinvigorated place for the local community. Queens Museum is well known for community engagement and hosting significant cultural events, like Lunar New Year celebrations. The expansion provides several new classrooms, as well as a new branch of the Queens Public Library, allowing the museum to enhance its outreach to schools and community organizations. With a vivid west façade that is backlit with LEDs, the Museum acts as an urban beacon inviting the public to come in.
The Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science is a celebration of Florida’s ecosystems and is the embodiment of a vision of a symbiotic relationship of natural systems and the built environment. The physical shape of each building is dynamic and varied, sculpted to take advantage of ocean breezes and plentiful sun. The “living core” – a combination of aquarium and wildlife center containing a microcosm of South Florida’s animal, fish, and plant species – frames the starting point of each visit, providing an environmental context for studies of the social, technological, physical, and natural world. The form of the living exhibits literally and figuratively uplifts and celebrates the vital services that these ecosystems provide. The largest permanent gallery space is nestled underneath the main aquarium vessel and can be reconfigured into an event space offering visitors a one-of-a-kind experience. An open-air courtyard area connects the world-at-large to the science exhibits within and reinforces the museum’s ties to both the city skyline and nearby marine habitats in Biscayne Bay.