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What You Need to Tell Your Architect

Giving Expression to Your Institution's Mission


Generally speaking, all architects begin the process of creating a building by reviewing the material presented to them by the owner. They carefully break down the programmatic requirements, study existing conditions drawings, meet with the client and visit the site.

Exactly how they “design” – that is develop a plan and create a physical object that has

visual coherence and impact – can take one of two paths. They can “interpret” the mission of the institution in their own vocabulary. The results can be brilliant or disappointing, depending on how much in sync the architect’s personal vision is with the institutional mission, programs, visitors and collections. We have all seen examples of both outcomes.


The Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, by Frank Gehry is an exiting example of a convergence of architect’s style and institutional mission.

The Experience Music Project in Seattle, also by Frank Gehry, is an example of an unfortunate miss-match of architectural style and institutional mission and image.

The alternative approach is for the architect to give “expression” to the institution’s mission.

Cathedral of Light

This is very different from “interpreting” the mission as it requires a less dogmatic notion about developing a personal style or vision and a facility for choosing the right architectural idiom (vocabulary of forms and materials) for the particular project and client. A successful “expression” of an organization can be just as dramatic and evocative as an “interpretation,” without the tension that often exists between an “architect-interpreter” and a museum during the design process as the architect defends his vision and the institution fights for theirs. The Cathedral of Light in Oakland California by SOM (Skidmore Owens and Merrill), is a very successful expression of a site-specific, sacred mission and program.

What Information Does the Architect Need to Successfully Employ the Expressive Approach? And how Is That Information Used?

The architect should carefully read the museum’s documents and also strive to understand the museum’s essential qualities by committing them to writing. Essential qualities are those intangibles that cannot be summed up by a list of spaces, mechanical requirements and adjacencies.

As part of this process of total immersion, the architect should also write planning and design principles intended to preserve and extend the qualities that make the institution special. The goal is for the architect to fully embrace the ethos of the museum and to understand how that ethos might be projected into the future.


What information do I find most useful when developing the list of essential qualities and the design principles, in addition to the material normally provided? In the case of a museum, I believe that understanding the visitors is critical to designing a successful project. I want to understand the visitor demographics (income, residency, education level, family size). What motivates the visitors to come to the museum. How they use the facility. How long they stay. And what activities attract their attention.

I also explore the institution’s history and traditions to gain critical insights into what makes a particular institution special. I also want to understand the business model and/or funding plan for a new building or renovation. Often, how a building is being paid for will, or should, influence the design and therefore how quickly funding can be secured.

Lastly, I want to understand how the museum envisions the project being designed will strengthen the institution so we can design a building that facilitates success.

The project team – museum staff and architect – should review and modify the statement of essentials and the planning and design principles in a face to face meeting, agreeing on a final version. These documents then become the standards with which the project team can evaluate the appropriateness of future design options and decisions. They keep the architect and the client honest, and on point.

The design process is complicated; and there often is a variety of conflicting requirements to be accommodated. As a result, it is rarely the case that there is only one reasonable solution. Options reflect different readings of the data, as it were, and they facilitate a constructive dialogue between client and architect. Options highlight the fact that the design process is one of trade-offs and by exploring the trade-offs inherent in each option the architect and client can better understand which strategy is the best expression of institutional mission, accommodates the program and effectively controls the cost. During the options phase, the Statement of Essentials and the Design Principles agreed upon previously provide important criteria to guide the client and architect to the best solution.

Can an “Expressive” Design Strategy Actually Work?

That’s a very short description of how an architect should work with an institution if his or her goal is to create a building that is expressive of institutional mission, vision, and programs. Is the theory a sound one? Does it work in practice? Are options truly helpful? Do buildings really communicate mission? Can deeply understanding an institution really produce a better building?

The Value of Options

Russell Field

The Field House for the City of Cambridge includes locker rooms, a fitness room, public restrooms, a concession stand, and storage for various City athletic programs. It also acts as the public entrance to the football field on game days. We prepared two options for the City to consider, each containing the same number of square feet and amenities. In the interests of testing what type of image the City wanted the building to project, we proposed two options that expressed different values.

One option emphasized the gateway aspect of the program. It was broken into two masses to reduce the building’s apparent size and used the connecting bridge as a ceremonial entrance to the field. The building projected a playful, informal image. The second option was a single building which appeared to be more massive and provided access to the field through a central lobby inside the building.

The fact that the City chose the second option told us a great deal about what they wanted this project to say about the City and about its aspirations for the football team. These insights guided us in subsequent design decisions.

Do Buildings Truly Express Mission and Vision? Citi Field and Yankee Stadium

A comparison of the new Citi Field and Yankee Stadium convincingly demonstrates that buildings do reveal a great deal about an organization’s mission and values. Comparing Citi Field and Yankee Stadium is particularly illustrative as they were completed in the same year, in the same city, for the same purpose and they were designed by the same architectural firm. The differences between them can fairly be attributed the owners’ intent.

Citi Field

Citi Field is 20% smaller than Yankee Stadium and therefore provides all fans a more intimate experience. The layout of the seats is somewhat informal, the palette of materials and colors are varied and there are a number of non-conventional elements sprinkled throughout the ball park. While there are some traditional aspects as well, they are of lesser impact. Even the name, Citi Field, not Citi Stadium, is making a clear statement. The message the building expresses is “Come enjoy our ballpark.”

Yankee Stadium, by virtue of its larger capacity and its more regularized seating arrangement (it is much more bowl-like) places fans further from the field. A more limited number of materials and colors are in evidence; and a various motifs from the original Yankee Stadium were transferred to exterior and interior of the new stadium. The result is a self-consciously traditional and monumental ball park. The building almost shouts: ”You will be impressed.”

Yankee Stadium

The Power of Essentials

Barnes Exterior

How might a statement of essentials and planning and design principles be applied to an actual museum project? And if they were, would the outcome be different?

We are all familiar with the Barnes Foundation’s travails: Could it be moved? Could it survive if it were to stay in its current location? Who is the best caretaker of its collection? Is the Barnes experience inextricably tied to its location? Ultimately, the decision to move was irreversible.


For an architect seeking to create a true expression of the Barnes in its new location, the first question to ask is: What are the essential qualities of the Barnes that define it as an institution?

Had the architects asked themselves and the museum staff that question, had they interviewed visitors, and had they investigated the museum and the founders’ history, they would have come up with the following list of essentials qualities: Informal, non-institutional, Provocative and Immediate.


In October 2009 the New York Times’ architecture critic, Nicolai Ouroussoff reviewed the new, under-construction Barnes designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, which he described as “four times the size of the old Barnes.” He then went on to argue that visiting the new Barnes would never match up with the old Barnes experience and that by appealing to a larger audience (including tourists, for heaven’s sake) the Barnes is not being true to its nature, its essence.

Now that the Barnes has reopened on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in downtown Philadelphia we can determine for ourselves whether it has given expression to the original's essential qualities: informal, non-institutional, provocative, and immediate. Did the Architects and museum staff do their homework? Did they ask themselves, in sufficient detail, "what are the essential qualities of the Barnes?" and did they then set out to give full expression to those qualities in the new building? Is the new building a disappointment, as Ouroussoff suggested it would be?

New Barnes

The building, in short, is a qualified success. One third of the new Barnes is a faithful reconstruction of the old galleries, with each picture in exactly the same location as before, with all of the idiosyncratic juxtapositions of art and craft, the low level lighting and the wall colors. Whether such a literal recreating of the former galleries represents timidity or is a heartfelt expression of respect for the original is in question, but no one would deny that is captures the original's qualities of provocative and immediate.

The old Barnes was a residentially scaled building where one could have an informal and personal relationship with the art. The new Barnes, however, no longer expresses the qualities of informal and non-institutional. Instead of simply opening the front door of a substantial house and walking into the first gallery as one used to do, the visitor has to deduce that the void in the imposing marble wall is indeed the entrance, twist and turn through the entrance sequence and then traverse a vast "living room" larger than the entire original Barnes building before being admitted to the galleries. What had been an informal and non-institutional experience has become ponderous. An institutional persona that was not in evidence before has been inserted between the visitor and the art, diluting one's sense of total immersion in the art.

There are many elements of the building that are beautifully conceived and detailed; and it is an impressive addition to the urban setting. But it no longer embodies the qualities that made it the distinctive, intimate, and memorable experience it used to be.

A museum will live with its building decisions for a long, long time. The worst thing that an organization can do is to build the wrong building, a building that does not serve the actual needs of the museum and becomes a financial drain, sapping institutional spirit.

A building project that responds to the needs of the audience, embraces the museum’s mission and is expressive of the institution’s essence will strengthen and sustain the museum. These goals can be achieved if the museum’s essential qualities are fully understood and made paramount in the design process.

This post was originally presented as a seminar at the 2010 NEMA Conference

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