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Plans Revealed for new Miami Art Museum prior to Art Basel opening

Timing is everything. Just three weeks ago, with the international art world about to descend on Miami for the annual Art Basel fair, Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron unveiled their long awaited plans for the new Miami Art Museum, which will move from its current landlocked plaza near the civic center off Flagler Street to a breathtaking bayfront cultural complex.

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Located in downtown Miami in a park overlooking Biscayne Bay, the new Miami Art Museum will have 120,000 sq feet of programmable indoor exhibition space, plus 80,000 sq feet of space outside for art exhibitions, educational activities, relaxation and dining. Also located in the Museum Park will be the Miami Science Museum, as well as a branch of the Historical Museum of Southern Florida, creating a tourist destination and cultural center in the heart of the city.

The museum is a three-story structure covered in a canopy that completely shades the building and creates a large veranda. Lush vegetation will be planted all along the ceiling of the canopy and on columns throughout the veranda space. This hanging garden will have a comfortable climate and serve as a buffer zone between the Museum Park and the Museum itself. Inside, the first floor will house the entry halls, auditorium, shop and café, while the third floor will contain offices. Part of the first floor and all of the second will contain the permanent collections and traveling exhibitions, illuminated by carefully placed windows that allow natural light to filter in.

Green strategies for the museum include geothermal cooling of the building and exterior surfaces as well as the use of vegetation surrounding the museum to provide a more comfortable climate for visitors... Ground breaking is expected to start in the Spring of 2010 with completion in 2013.

A review by NY Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff was just published this week, in which the struggle to "figure out the right balance between architectural expression and the need to showcase art" is discussed. It is excerpted below.

Some architects no doubt will snipe that it looks too safe, an insult in design circles, as if Mr. Herzog and Mr. de Meuron were inspired by a fear of inciting yet more art world ire. On a breathtaking site overlooking Biscayne Bay, its boxy exterior, surrounded by slim 50-foot columns and capped by a vast flat roof, it could even be momentarily confused with 1960s-era performing arts developments like the Kennedy Center.

But the design for the Miami Art Museum is not a regurgitation of outmoded historical forms. Instead it breaks those forms apart and then pieces them back together to create something wholly new. It’s as if the architects had stepped back to contemplate the long arc of museum designs — including their own — before moving forward again along the evolutionary chain.

The $130 million building project has been overseen by Terry Riley, a former head of the Museum of Modern Art’s department of architecture and design who helped plan that museum’s expansion, and who was the Miami museum’s director until his resignation last month. Mr. Riley is returning to his architectural practice, but he will continue to lead the Miami project as a consultant. Financing comes largely from a $100 million local bond issue. (The museum is still raising money for an endowment to help pay for operating expenses and acquisitions.)

The museum is to face Biscayne Bay to the east and a vast public park, scheduled to begin construction next year, to the south. It is intended to be part of a cultural development that also includes a planned Science Museum by Grimshaw Architects.

Mr. Herzog and Mr. de Meuron’s design has strong connections to Classical and modern precedents. It is part of a lineage that reaches back past postwar performing arts centers to Mies van der Rohe’s New National Gallery and Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s neo-Classical Altes Museum, all the way to the Parthenon.

The architects reinforce the sense of grandeur by placing their building up on a concrete platform, as if to stress art’s elevated status. A grand staircase — nearly the entire 180-foot width of the platform — connects it to the waterfront: something like the grand staircase in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but with a better view. A smaller stair connects to the park.

The first sign that something unexpected is going on here is a surprising feeling of weightlessness. The base, which would typically be a heavy solid platform, is conceived as a thin concrete slab that seems to hover several feet above the ground. Resting on top of it, the lobby, restaurant, auditorium and galleries are broken down into a cluster of boxlike forms, some of them weighing down the core of the composition; others cantilevering out over the deck.

Seen from a distance the museum will look like it is levitating, the various parts about to float off in different directions. Only the vast trellislike roof — and the columns that support it — seems to hold everything in place. Gardens and light wells are set into the platform deck. Hanging gardens, some as long as 40 feet, are suspended from the roof, giving the impression that the building is being swallowed up by its natural surroundings. (The scene might bring to mind a post-apocalyptic science fiction fantasy.)

The idea is to maintain art’s place on the pedestal of high culture while allowing for a more mixed experience. Yet the instability of some of the forms also suggests a more ambivalent view of art’s place in the world — one that acknowledges that for more than a century that pedestal has been increasingly wobbly as the boundaries between art, fashion and fame have blurred.

Another grand staircase leads up from near the center of the platform to the second-floor galleries. Most of these are organized in a relatively straightforward sequence. At various points visitors will be able to step off this main route into smaller “focus” galleries that are intended for specific artists.

Some of the galleries are punctuated with big floor-to-ceiling windows, which I have often found to be distracting in a museum. (One of the biggest clichés of architecture in the 1990s was that museum galleries had to be designed to prevent “museum fatigue” — the exhaustion some people feel as they walk from one gallery to the next — and the idea has not yet entirely died out.)

But the architects have also designed a system of movable partitions that can be used to block out windows as well as divide the galleries into smaller spaces. That flexibility will be particularly important, since the Miami museum — like many other museums that launched expansion plans during the past decade — has only a modest collection, which it hopes to build up over the years...

The Miami Art Museum building avoids the pitfalls of much recent museum design, which is no small feat. It has found an uneasy middle ground: mesmerizing architecture that nonetheless will put curators and their audiences at ease.