The Louisiana Experience
***The following article was published as a feature in Reimagine Magazine’s Winter 2016 issue. Read the full article here. ****
A 25-minute train ride north of Copenhagen, Denmark will take you to the quiet municipality of Humlebæk. Walk five minutes into town from the train station and you will come across a building almost entirely enveloped by its surrounding landscape, with an entrance overgrown with ivy that appears as though it might lead to some secret, hidden world. Pass through it, however, and you will find an impressive collection of international modern artwork which spans more than seven decades, housed within one of Denmark’s finest examples of modernist architecture.
Although not widely known in North America, the privately-owned, state-authorized Louisiana Museum of Modern Art is one of the most visited museums in the world. For those who have set foot within its walls, it is easy to understand why. Louisiana is an unparalleled specimen of user-centric architecture. It is a masterpiece in itself of fluidity, intuition, and thoughtfulness whose floor plan transforms the concept of a museum map into a mocked absurdity. Unlike most European museums, where visitors are generally expected to circle a room before being required to double-back in order to enter the next adjacent room, Louisiana guides its guests through a continuous, circular path which starts and ends within its gift shop. Its low profile snakes through the landscape, occasionally taking patrons underground and then above, while offering heart-stopping vistas of its striking surroundings.
The design of Louisiana is acutely sensitive to the fact that its patrons are real, living human beings, ones that have basic needs that are met thoughtfully during their visit through intelligent design. Instead of lumping user facilities at the museum’s entrance and forcing guests to temporarily exit the artistic sanctuary in order to access them, Louisiana has user amenities intuitively placed throughout it in anticipation of the guest’s needs. If a visitor arrives at the museum at the hour it opens and takes in the artwork at a comfortable pace, he or she will encounter the museum’s cafeteria approximately two hours later – just in time for lunch. An hour later, when patrons have had proper time for digestion, a restroom will reveal itself. Smartly angled roof overhangs ensure the artwork remains out of direct sunlight but that the visitor enjoys plenty for the duration of a visit. It’s almost as though Louisiana knows when she is tired of standing – and will provide a quiet, gently lit room with welcoming mid-century modern sofas and a panoramic view of the Øresund Sound.
Louisiana’s cohesive user experience does not end at the building’s design. The museum’s simplistic typographic branding tastefully graces even the napkins and water bottles of its cafeteria. Wayfinding and signage, where required, is minimalistic and delicately integrated into architectural elements in a complementary manner. The gift shop, rather than tacky knick-knacks, purveys only the finest examples of Danish graphic and industrial design, artfully displayed as though it were the museum’s final exhibit. Its selection of books alone would bring any architect or designer to her knees. Even the silence that envelops Humlebæk feels like it is part of the Louisiana experience, as though the visitor enters the museum as soon as she exits the train.
Of all places, it’s no surprise that such a museum would exist in Denmark. The Danes are unrivalled in that mastery of user-centric, functionalistic design. The culture breeds forethought and tackles problems at the initiation of the design process – nothing is left as an afterthought. The museum’s effective consideration for its users, too, has been done continually since its concept was initially conceived.
When the museum’s first owner, Knud W. Jensen, acquired the property in 1955, he selected architects Jørgen Bo (1919-1999) and Vilhelm Wohlert (1920-2007) to collaborate in bringing his vision for a museum harmoniously embedded within the breathtaking landscape to fruition. Together, they spent months touring the property, crafting a plan to connect the museum’s pavilions through a series of sun-soaked pedways with the intention that visitors would feel as though they were on a covered stroll through the park.
Louisiana’s construction began in mid-1956 and lasted until the museum’s opening in 1958. Bo and Wohlert’s original design concept featured long whitewashed walls, exposed structures, laminated wooden ceilings, carmine tiled floors, and expansive floor-to-ceiling windows that open into the surrounding landscape and sculpture gardens – elements which are still a part of the Louisiana experience today. Their inspiration was taken from both sides of the Pacific. Wohlert’s time studying at the University of California in Berkeley acquainted him with “Bay Area” architecture. Louisiana also evidently incorporates the traditional elegant simplicity of Japanese-style design, which has been married to its Californian-style with coherence and gentleness through its discrete pavilions, architectural lightness, and glass corridors.
Site sensitivity was also a primary objective throughout the planning process. “It was an ideal location for a museum,” Jensen wrote upon the museum’s 40th anniversary, “but the lot made its own demands and became, in a sense, our employer, making the final decisions about where the buildings should stand and where the sculptures should be placed.”
Successfully crafting a well-designed building for and of its time is one thing. Ensuring that the building successfully remains timeless and functional as it matures and new technological needs develop is something else entirely. Michael Sheridan, an American architect based in New York is one of the world’s leading authorities on modern Danish architecture and design. He is currently in Denmark completing his research on Louisiana for his upcoming book Louisiana Museum of Modern Art – Architecture and Landscape, which is to be published in October 2016. Sheridan recognizes that it was the founder’s ceaseless imagination that has victoriously maintained both Louisiana’s form and function over the decades. “Jensen was constantly imagining how Louisiana could be be improved and expanded, how the museum could be more than simply a repository of the artworks and serve as a cultural centre.” Sheridan said.
Since its opening in 1958, Louisiana has undergone an astounding seven renovations, all of which were carried out by Bo and Wohlert’s firm. This has allowed the museum to stay true to its primary design intentions, remain integrated with the terrain, and respect the building’s individual style and personality throughout its evolution and expansion. “Even as Jensen’s vision for the museum expanded,” Sheridan said, “he continued to work with Jørgen Bo and Vilhelm Wohlert because Jensen wanted to ensure continuity and unity among the different buildings.” This enviable parental commitment and stewardship to the museum seems to be something valued culturally by the Danes, as it was only made possible by generous grants from the Danish Ministry of Culture and significant contributions from private donors.
“As Louisiana expanded, it evolved from a small, private collection of Danish art into a museum of international stature.” said Sheridan. Between 1966 and 1976, the original framework (now referred to as the north wing, which included three pavilions connected to the property’s original villa by glass corridors, the atrium cafeteria with a view of Sweden, as well as the Giacometti Gallery and Jorn Hall) was expanded to include the west wing and a concert hall for musical performances, public debates, lectures and other events –everything a small museum would need to evolve into a thriving cultural centre. In 1982, the addition of the south wing included an exhibition room with higher ceilings and more space than in the previously existing buildings. “At the same time,” Sheridan explained, “the character of the art on display and in the collection changed from relatively small easel paintings to large-scale canvases, installations and all the other forms of art that emerged during the 1960s and ’70s, [so] the character of the exhibition spaces also changed.” The heightening of the room now provides artwork with plenty of surrounding space and optimal daylight for improved viewing. And rather than expanding vertically and obstructing views of the Sound, the south wing was built into the terrain to help maintain Louisiana’s low profile.
The key re-imagining of Louisiana took place in 1991, with the construction of its east wing. This extension allowed the museum buildings to become connected in a roughly circular form, greatly improving the floor plan so that visitors could now traverse the entire museum in a continuous route with a shifting focus between views of the artwork, the outdoor sculpture gardens, and the Sound. The underground portion of the east wing is referred to as the Graphics Wing. Its design allows the opportunity for exhibitions of drawings and graphics that must not be exposed to daylight, such as photographic, video, and light artwork. The east wing also leads through the Great Hall, located beneath the sculpture-filled Calder Terrace outside the museum. Further extensions designed and constructed between 1994 and 1998 saw the addition of the Children’s Wing and improvements to the museum’s visitor facilities, including a more suitable space and location for the gift shop, which now serves as the entrance and exit point.
Now that Louisiana’s concept had come to complete realization during the 1990s, the new millennium demanded the introduction of several technological improvements to bring the museum into the 21st century. The long windowed corridors, which are hallmarks of the museum’s design, also put challenging demands on security and climate controls that did not exist when the museum was first constructed. A comprehensive modernization was carried out from 2003 to 2006 to address these requirements, guided by one simple principle: the modernized systems for heating, insulation, ventilation, and security should not be visible or disturb the buildings’ aesthetic integrity. This commitment to preserving the museum’s unique character and respect for Jensen, Bo, and Wohlert’s collective originating vision, even with the trio now deceased, is a true testament to how creativity and ingenuity can meet contemporary demands within the constraints of a classic modern structure.
In 2005, distinguished French architect Jean Nouvel – who has been responsible for producing some of Europe’s most notable cultural architectural masterpieces – collaborated with the museum to create an exhibition called Louisiana Manifesto, which passionately celebrated the property’s unexampled uniqueness. Nouvel returned to the museum this year to reflect on the exhibit, and he still gushes with the same adoration for Louisiana as he did ten years ago when he penned the manifesto. He repeatedly uses the term “belonging” when speaking of Louisiana. “When you walk around the museum, the landscape belongs to the museum. The museum belongs to the landscape. The buildings belong to this place … that’s what’s totally unique,” Nouvel says. “Everything belongs to everything. And this doesn’t exist anywhere else.”
Nouvel isn’t alone in his passion for this special place. The belonging that he speaks of is a mutual feeling shared by everyone who is lucky enough to experience Louisiana. Each “Louisianan,” as Nouvel calls them, knows that it is something extraordinary, a paragon for other buildings to aspire to, a prize to be cherished and preserved. “Each thing is directly felt and everything is at home. The flowers are at home, the sea is at home, the sky is at home…and visitors are at home,” Nouvel says.
This sense of home has not come about without pride of ownership. The Louisianans have protected and guarded this architectural treasure throughout its many transformations. Louisiana’s owners and architects have dutifully perpetuated its distinct style throughout its evolution. Louisiana’s patrons and the government have donated to contribute to its maintenance. The village even named its train station for Louisiana to ensure visitors can easily find their way. In North America, it is not only Louisiana’s timeless design and user-centric experience that we should aspire to, but also this respectful stewardship as our shared public spaces are re-imagined, to create our belonging to these places as much as they belong to us.