For Hollein’s more recent design of the Guggenheim Museum in Salzburg, as yet unbuilt, Hollein was a reverse Michelangelo, designing spaces to be carved out of the center of a rocky mountain. In Frankfurt the city block was his rock; his mission, to release the interior spaces captive within it. And at the creation of interiors, Hollein excels.
He began by scooping out a central hall, trapezoidal in plan. Next, he exploited – rather than avoided – the site’s acute corners to gain triangular and trapezoidal exhibition rooms of great drama. This scheme left most of the floor area divisible into rectangular galleries, neutral enough to please any curator. The scheme also rendered the floor plan almost perfectly symmetrical, and thus fairly predictable.
But then Hollein introduced a couple of twists, putting a spin on the experience of passing through the building. First, he set the entrance close to the historic and cultural city center, at a corner adjacent to the base (not the apex) of the triangle. This superimposed a diagonal path onto a symmetrical plan (as on the deck of an aircraft carrier, says Hollein). Second, he located the primary stairs towards the narrow end of the site, and packed them tightly around a small ovoid landing. These act like a corkscrew drawing the visitor up through the building. The stairwell provides Piranesian views diagonally into adjacent spaces, its intense verticality contrasting with the horizontality of the galleries.
One of the finest interior spaces is the central courtyard; most dramatic of the galleries is the triangular ground floor room in the apex; and most provocative is the two-story joseph Beuys room, in which no two surfaces seem parallel (though the floor and ceiling are, appearances notwithstanding).
With the layout and form of the museum spaces established, Hollein approached the lighting, working to further ideas developed for his design of the Abteiberg Museum in Monchengladbach in the early 1970s. The introduction of daylight, no longer uncommon in museums, is again used extensively at Frankfurt in a variety of ways. Some galleries have skylights (with fiberglass as a filter sandwiched between glass layers); some have natural light from the side as well as from above (the Siah Armajani room, for example, has north facing industrial shed roofs and a large window wall); and some are illuminated by artificial light only (notably the special environment spaces, designed by artists James Turrell, Nam June Paik, and others). As to artificial light, Hollein’s attitude differs from the American approach, which relies heavily on incandescent spots. To achieve his ideal – a cool light, close to the daylight spectrum, with even distribution over the entire wall and little distraction from the light source itself – Hollein developed for Frankfurt a fluorescent tube wall-washer recessed in the ceiling.
The building’s envelope was determined by zoning, but Hollein did, alas, determine physical form. While he explains that the schemes for both the interior and the exterior came quickly to him, the interior is brilliant and the exterior is not. For the latter, windows in a variety of shapes and sizes are located at various points on the walls, placed according to interior needs but with no unifying vision apparent on the exterior. Some elevations are fine – where large concave and convex windows contrast, for example – but all are dragged down by the inexpensive and unpleasant greenish gray plaster wall finish. Most lovingly designed is the building’s apex with sculptures adorning little terraces, and the roof, a landscape of skylights and mechanical equipment only partially visible from the street. Most unappealing is the sandstone entrance arcade, its non-traditional form resembling the flaccid, grinning lips of a crocodile, poised to engulf passersby. Overall, the museum’s appearance has earned it epithets such as “bunker” and “piece of cake”; but it may become the building that Frankfurters most love to hate, because of the excitement inside.
During construction, the present museum director, Jean-Christophe Ammann (who replaced the founding director, Peter Iden, a staunch Hollein supporter) reportedly feared that the architecture was too dominant, the galleries unsympathetic to the art. Today, Chief Curator Rolf Lauter still holds that a few rooms are problematic (a trapezoidal gallery puts the squeeze on works by Rauschenberg, Lichtenstein, and Rosenquist) but he feels that most are appropriately neutral and that others provide stimulating confrontation with cheap canvas art. Hollein points out that it is a matter of learning to use the instrument he has provided, suitable not only for the museum’s collection of Pop Art and more recent acquisitions, but “even for works by Velasquez or Titian.” Indeed, this museum – Hollein’s best work to date – reflects timeless lessons in the manipulation of light, movement, and space. If it is provocative, that, too, was part of its mission.