Museum Has Transparent Intentions

By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer


Baden-Baden, the Black Forest spa with its baths, casino and air of faded aristocracy, is hardly the place to expect a masterpiece of modern architecture. Nonetheless, there it is: the Frieder Burda Museum, a pavilion designed by Richard Meier to house the contemporary art collection of the building's namesake.

Richard Meier's design for the Frieder Burda Museum in Germany succeeds modestly -- and mightily.
Richard Meier's design for the Frieder Burda Museum in Germany succeeds modestly -- and mightily. (Sammlung Frieder Burda)

Of course, when you go to see a Meier building, you do anticipate something that is, at the very least, quite good. But the Burda pavilion abundantly exceeds expectations. It is modest in size and presence, pairing politely with a sedate Jugendstil exhibition hall in a leafy, linear park in the middle of town. For a Meier building, it is rather simple in line and geometry. And it is beautiful.

It is as if, given the setting and the straightforward nature of the task -- to make rooms for the display of large works of art -- Meier was able to work at a relaxed, masterful level, trusting completely his instincts and experience. "Look, I've done this a hundred times before," he seems to be saying. Whatever the reason, this modest pavilion is one of the architect's most satisfying creations.

Exterior elevations are asymmetrical, attractive, thoroughly under control. Everything is right-angled. Transparent planes of glass alternate with those of white metal. The two very large galleries inside are subtly designed to gather natural light from the sides and from above. An intimate gallery doubles as a lobby overlook. You move pleasantly via ramps (but of course!) from level to level. Paintings look glorious. Whether standing still or moving about, a visitor never loses consciousness of the light and trees outside.

The effect is altogether enchanting. I long to go there when it snows.


Location, location, location.

The folks who built Gallery Place on Seventh and H streets between Chinatown and MCI Center certainly hit the old real estate axiom right on the head with a golden hammer. They put stores and restaurants on the street, placed people above the stores to work in offices or live in high-priced condominiums. They even mixed in plenty of entertainment -- a multi-theater movie house and a bowling alley.

Smart. But shouldn't the maxim apply to architecture, as well? Or, to rephrase the question: When you build in the heart of the nation's capital, shouldn't the architectural aim be rather high? I know, I know: We have a height limit so the Capitol dome can retain its rightful place at the center of things. But who could think the limit applies to architectural quality ? In beautiful Washington, ought we not demand, expect (or at least hope for) the very best?

Bah, humbug! That's the answer at schlocky Gallery Place, the worst disappointment of my critical year. What's so bad? Well, at the same banquet this place could win awards for Best Fakey Facades, Most Awful Eclecticism, Lousiest Architectural Craft and even the coveted Let-Them-Eat-Cake Prize for Blatant Cynicism.

Old-timey themed storefronts are tacked up like cheap billboards. Period styles are jammed together like spoiled sardines and catfish. Exposed structural steel trusses are treated like armatures for flimsy ornaments. Money pours in while one of the most beautiful cities in the world is treated like a tawdry carnival. Maybe, at some point, somebody involved with Gallery Place thought it would be fun, and funny. But, really, it's a disgrace.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company