The Groninger Museum is a museum of modern and contemporary art in Groningen, Netherlands. The Museum was founded in 1894. The opening of its new building in 1994 caused a sensation and it has since established a reputation of being among the finest museums in the nation.
The radically modernist structures forming the Groninger Museum stand in a canal opposite a railway station consist of three main pavilions: a silver cylindrical building designed by Philippe Starck, a yellow tower by Alessandro Mendini, and a pale blue deconstructivist space by Coop Himmelb(l)au. A bridge that connects the museum to the train station is part of a cycling and walking path to the central city.
The architecture's futuristic and colourful style echos the Italian designs of the Memphis Group. Mendini, a former member of the firm who is noted for his furniture and industrial designs, was asked by museum director Frans Haks in 1990 to design the new museum. Haks wanted something extravagant and insisted on non-architects to create the conceptual studies. American artist Frank Stella was originally approached to design one of the pavilions, however, his plan turned-out to be too expensive because he wanted his structure completely built out of Teflon. The municipality then invited Coop Himmelb(l)au to replace him for the commission.
‘Classical’ museum architecture is also represented in the Museum, on the east side of the complex. The lower pavilion (Mendini 0), which is trapeziform, consists of two storeys and was designed entirely – both the interior and the exterior – by Mendini. The pointillist Signac motif on the exterior refers to the interior containing the visual arts. The seven consecutive halls on the ground floor are devoted to temporary exhibitions. Expositions of all kinds and composition are presented here, as long as they fit in with the policy and collection of the Groninger Museum.
The spaces on the first floor (Mendini 1) display ever-changing selections from the Museum’s own collection, including objects at the interface of art, architecture and design (Pattern and Decoration, Memphis, Mendini) and, since the end of the 1990s, a sizeable collection of fashion and of staged and documentary photographs. Art from the Museums abundant historical collection is also regularly shown.
East Pavilion by Coop Himmelb(l)au
The vide with the broad staircase connects the two floors of the Mendini pavilion. The staircase also takes the visitor to the top pavilion, the much-discussed section of the Museum. It was designed by the architects Wolfgang Prix (Vienna, 1942) and the Pole Helmut Swiczinsky (1944), jointly known as Coop Himmelb(l)au. ‘It was as if a bomb had exploded’, said one city resident when the design was published. The capricious pavilion contrasts markedly with the rest of the building, designed by Mendini, with its austere and simple forms.
The first impression of the Coop Himmelb(l)au pavilion is one of randomness and chaos. The structure is comprised of large, double-walled steel plates that alternate with hardened glass at the points where they do not quite meet. The plates, to which the first sketch and a photograph of the design have been applied using tar, are topsy-turvy and even hang over the pavilion underneath at some points.
The design is a typical example of the most recent architectural movement, Deconstructivism, in which all architectural traditions are thrown overboard. Traditional constructive elements, such as the wall, floor, window or ceiling, have been torn out of their normal coherence. Thus, a wall can also be a ceiling and a window a floor. According to Prix, the spaces that are created in this way are a result of force fields and movement. ‘Many of the techniques that we use originate from art, such as the adherence to the first sketch and automatic drawing,’ he says. ‘We wish to make use of the subconscious and develop new forms from there. We want to try to bring emotion back into architecture.’
They do not take established values and norms as their starting point but prefers to seize the spirit of the times: fragmentation, chaos, contrast, movement. Another example of deconstructivist architecture is the glass pavilion by Bernard Tschumi at the Hereplein, near the Museum, designed for the What a Wonderful World exhibition – music videos in architecture.
Three exhibition areas have been created within the pavilion, separated by indentations and recesses. The walls are made of steel and glass so that daylight can enter at unexpected places. This also contrasts with Mendini’s closed realm. Coop Himmelb(l)au aims to generate ’open architecture', an interaction between inside and out, so that the visitor is regularly surprised by sudden glimpses of the outside world. Paths at different levels ensure that the visitor can view the artworks from all sides: at ground level or from the gantry that cuts through the exhibition area a few metres above the floor.
The original idea was to display paintings from the 16th-19th centuries here, to emphasise the contrast. Later, the pavilion came to be used primarily for three-dimensional work, such as exhibitions of the work of the British artist Mark Grinnigen and the American Rona Pondick. The areas here are extremely suitable for large receptions. Even dance parties are held here occasionally at festive openings. The whole Coop Himmelb(l)au pavilion is a three-dimensional artwork, resting on the pedestal formed by the Mendini volume clad in colourful laminate.
Himmelb(l)au's designs are characterised by their experimental nature. This style typifies the present-day zap culture.
They do not take the established norms and values as their starting point, preferring the spirit of the present: fragmentation, chaos, contrast, and movement.
The design sketch for this part of the Groninger Museum is callesd "Liquid Architecture'. It represents a small particle that floats in space freely, constantly transforming itself.
As the building was to house the Museum Collection (paintings from the 16th century to contemporary art) the first studies dealt with the artificially and naturally lit spaces. Out of this grew various models. A model was chosen and superimposed with the design sketch. This model with all its mistakes and inexactitudes was transleted into scale 1:1. First it was digitized on computer, then the different parts were constructed in a shipyard.
Cylindrical building designed by Philippe Starck
On top of the brick section, there is a circular pavilion that contains objects in the domain of Applied Art. The exterior is covered with aluminium plate displaying vase shapes in relief. Again this is a reference to the interior.
The concept was created by the French designer Philippe Starck in close co-operation the designer Albert Geertjes. Starck designed an illuminated circular showcase for this area, covering the entire slanting inner wall.
The internationally renowned collection of Eastern Ceramics is the focal point here. The round hall is divided by meandering drapes. The drapes, the beautifully designed showcases, and the striking lighting effects generate elegant, attractive spaces that do full justice to the exquisite objects on display. Large artificial cracks have been applied to the concrete floor and walls, referring to the crackleware of porcelain. The lift is chalice-shaped, referring to Applied Art, and also to Starck's own designs.
The museum was mainly paid for by Gasunie, the Dutch national natural gas utility. The company was celebrating its 25th anniversary and wanted to give the city of Groningen a present. Haks, wanting to move out his of the old and insufficient exhibition space, suggested a new museum building. Gasunie agreed to Hak's proposal and granted 25 million guilders for the project.
Alderman Ypke Gietema, a strong proponent of the new museum, was responsible for siting the museum at its present location despite acrimonious objections. During site preparation, protesters managed to halt construction in high court for one year. Citizen's objections centered on the controversial design, fearing their homes would not sell with such a peculiar and eccentric structure nearby. Despite controversy, building resumed in 1992 and it was completed in 1994. Local residents had to get used to the shapes and colours of the building, but it soon became a popular success.
The Groninger Museum is the home to various expositions of local, national, and international works of art, most of them modern and abstract. Some have provoked controversy, like the photo exhibition of Andres Serrano, but others are more main stream, such as the exhibition of the works by Ilya Repin, the "Russian Rembrandt".