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In March last year I blogged about my thoughts on architecture and interpretation.  When I visited the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose, California last week, I was reminded of that post –as an example of where it works brilliantly.

Now, I’m sure an Egyptologist would find plenty of faults with the pseudo-Egyptian museum buildings, or the various structures in the garden.  But for me and my friend (and probably many other visitors just like us), the pillars and low profile of the architecture got us excited before we even set one foot in the door. In fact, we were so enticed by the architectural presentation, that we immediately followed the little paths away from the sidewalk and into the green spaces between the museum buildings.  Exploring the gardens became a delight in its own right, and we spent quite some time there, taking pictures by the fountain, or sitting in the shade and looking out onto the temple-like Rosicrucian meditation space.

The atmosphere outside created anticipation and an eagerness to explore the inside of the museum. We obviously were always going to go inside – that’s why we went there – but having the Egyptian feel of the buildings, and the opportunity to engage with this by exploring the spaces they created, added something more.  It got me thinking about the place from where the objects we were about to see had come.  Just like the physical landscape of the country itself (Egypt), which was naturally out of reach, the architecture and garden gave us a framework to image the life to which the objects had once belonged.

In some ways, this also addressed an issue with museums that visitors at the study sites for my doctorate research have raised.  Visitors emphasise the importance of being in the place where the event happened, or where the objects were found.  Some visitors have gone as far as saying that museums away from the place itself are ‘boring’, even ‘pointless’, because they are too far removed from the (historical) context.  Nothing can replace that authentic context, and yet, at the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum I felt that the architecture and landscaping went a long way to approximate a ‘sense of place’.

It really worked for me.  In this case of course the architects had it easy: a museum dedicated to one culture with easily identifiable symbols.  It’s more challenging in other places.  What do you do at a battlefield, for example?  Do you build something that imitates the building style of the period? Should the building interact with the site so that visitors can understand it better? Or should it be practically invisible so that it won’t disturb the site at all?  It’s a tough decision.  But what the visit to the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum has reiterated for me is that where architecture and landscaping  are in tune with the heritage presented, it can be an active part of interpretation, and truly enhance the visitor experience.

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I spent last week in Germany on my first site visit for my PhD research [1].  Many interesting aspects emerged, but the one I’d like to focus on today is – architecture.

The architecture of the museum at Kalkriese is nothing short of imposing.  As the commercial director explained, the building was intended to be a landmark– and that it certainly is.  It is built with oxidising steel and in the shape of an L lying on its back.  In other words, it is a long, flat building with a tower rising to about 40m above the entrance.

The building itself was not intended to dictate interpretation.  And indeed, the main exhibition space is simply a large empty room with a window on one side – flexible enough to already accommodate a redeveloped exhibition.

But can architecture be divorced from interpretation at all? Can architecture’s duty to interpretation be fulfilled simply by providing large enough empty spaces?

Or should architecture itself be seen and used as interpretation?  That is what I think.  Architecture may not be interpretation in the purest sense of the word, but it most definitely guides our senses and creates an experience.  It may not ‘explain’, but it certainly ‘sets the tone’.

Take the Kalkriese building, for example.  The tower above the entrance thwarts visitors.  Then the building sucks visitors into a dark, relatively narrow staircase, which they have to climb before they reach the exhibition space – a sensory experience of having to exert oneself to gain access to the knowledge presented here [2].

The building also dominates the horizon in the adjoining park, which encloses part of the original battlefield.  The tower, quite smartly serving as an observation platform to obtain an overview of the site, can be seen from every vantage point on the battlefield.

My question as I explored the site was: since this building is so omnipresent, what does it actually add to my understanding of and engagement with the site?  Personally, I felt – nothing.  I’m sure the architecture is successful in terms of the brief, but is a statement all we should expect from architecture?  Wouldn’t visitors get a better experience of a site from architecture that either interprets (through shape, for example) or provides understated facilitation?

I’m thinking for example of the visitor centre at Brú na Bóinne in Ireland (Newgrange), which completely blends into the landscape and is designed in such a way that visitors are subtly made to look out for the monuments.  It is the ritual landscape and the monuments that sit centre stage, while the architecture provides facilitation of the experience of and engagement with the monuments.  The architecture is also reminiscent of the monuments themselves, which is something I’m really excited about.  It is a continuation of the sentiments represented in the monuments (or at least how we imagine those sentiments today), and thus creates that connection between past and present that encapsulates what heritage is all about.  I don’t think interpretation guided the architecture at Brú na Bóinne, but one can clearly see in the architecture the same approach to the landscape as a whole that was taken in the interpretation.  As such, the experience holds together quite nicely.

In my opinion, whenever possible, interpretation should guide architecture, especially at heritage sites.  Sustainability may require architecture that is subtle and therefore adaptable to future changes in (interpretive) direction.  But interpretation should always be the starting point.  At heritage sites, I really do not believe an architectural statement should ever be made.  Because the site is not about the architecture – it is about its own story, and our heritage.

 

 

Notes

[1] Just a few words about the site: Kalkriese was discovered about twenty years ago to have been the likely site where Roman general Varus was defeated by Germanic tribes under the leadership of Arminius in 9 AD.  While archaeological excavations have uncovered numerous coins and fragments of armoury etc., there is little else to be seen.

The landscape has changed considerably in 2000 years, so interpreting the battle is a real challenge.  My primary interest in the site, however, is for its possible impact on ‘identity-making’ – one of the core public benefits identified in legislation.  But more about that another time…

[2] Comments in the visitor book about the architecture of the museum building are split into roughly one third positive, and two thirds negative.  Quite ironically, a few visitors complain that the building appears to have been ‘neglected’ and ‘not maintained’ – a sentiment inspired, as it turns out, by the oxidising steel.

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