Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

Ara Pacis Museum in Rome

Friday, November 6th, 2009

As I settle back in from a fantastic trip to Italy in October, I’m preparing to share some pictures and stories from my visit.

Before that, I want to share this short video of Richard Meier’s design for the Ara Pacis Museum in Rome.

It’s a thoroughly modern space with classical hints that are appropriate to its subject matter.

An urban escape in Dallas

Thursday, September 24th, 2009


Sited on the edge of downtown Dallas, the Nasher Sculpture Center combines innovative architecture, open spaces, and sculpture in a single urban oasis.

The building is Renzo Piano’s experiment in lighting. It has a modular ceiling supported by rough marble pylons, which filter and direct sunlight. The ceiling appears to float magically, and reminds me of Piano’s lighting design for the new Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago. The wonderful light quality, and excellent spacing of pieces contribute to an excellent interior presentation.


But the garden is also amazing. The rigor of the building pylons compliment the rigor of the landscaping. There is a wonderful Wolfgang Puck café at the far end of the building with an outdoor terrace where you can eat lunch overlooking Perter Walker’s enclosed sculpture garden. I come here whenever I visit Dallas and sit, looking at a Picasso concrete sculpture I’ve long admired. I used to think it was huge, but now I see what a wonderful human scale piece it really is. The perfect setting has a lot to do with my reassessment.

In the distance are Magdalena Abakanowicz‘s headless figures standing at attention. The back of the garden contains one of my favorite figurative pieces by Rodin, like the one used by Mies in the Barcelona Pavilion. The Richard Serra wall is like a walk through a canyon.


The parade of trees on the lawn is wonderful. Hedges span the length of the wall, providing some limited transparency into the city between the gaps. Fountains produce white noise, camouflaging the traffic, and  shallow ponds with lily pads line the back wall.

This is a beautiful and precious human-scale garden in the middle of a major city.

Every city needs a beautiful escape like this. Minneapolis has one–albeit much larger–where pieces by Klaus Oldenberg are in a park next to the art museum. I will try to feature this one later. You can enjoy the Nasher Sculpture Center all year round, while the wintertime experience in Minneapolis is sprinkled with snow. The garden in Chicago’s Millennium Park is comparable in ways as it’s also in the middle of the city, but the experience isn’t as individualized as at Nasher.

Every detail is important at Nasher: the roof, the vertical walls, the horizontal enclosing walls, the landscaping. It’s a beautiful confluence of art, architecture, and landscaping.

Don’t miss the Nasher Sculpture Center on your next visit to Dallas.

Detroit’s surprising Art Deco and the Henry Ford Museum

Friday, September 4th, 2009

Yes, Virginia, there is Art Deco architecture in Detroit. And what an amazing building it is.


The Guardian Building is the home of the Smith Group Architects in downtown, near the lake and the Renaissance Center. This part of Detroit is the vintage downtown with an urban density not typical for the open spaces of most of the city.

The building–finished in 1929–is a cathedral to commercialism. Designed by Wirt C. Rowland, the detail, layering, and the translucency of the glass block all compose what is one of the best Art Deco highrise buildings I have ever seen. The banking hall has commercial components, and the entrance is sculpted with a cavernous layering effect.

DSC_0790Automobile pioneer Henry Ford collected all kinds of things, and one of them was buildings of relevance to the Midwest and general American history. Greenfield Village–an 80 acre historical theme park at The Henry Ford outside of Dearborn, Michigan–features Ford’s collection of 83 houses of the famous: the buildings of the Wright Brothers, Noah Webster’s home, the labs of Thomas Edison, and other buildings from the Midwest. Some of the originals have been moved, while others have been replicated.

As you’d expect, the architecture varies, from American colonial to farm house style. It’s all very well done and solidly constructed. In a trick borrowed from Disney’s theme parks, I noticed on one of the buildings that the upper floor had been reduced in height.

DSC_0865Getting around the place involves walking or getting a horse-pulled coach like the ones on Mackinac Island. The setting is realistic, and the landscape is open and fresh. It reminds me of skansens, the utdoor architectural museums in Sweden and my native Poland.

Greenfield Village has become a tourist attraction to allow people to see how people lived and worked in the not-too-distant past. It is especially beautiful at dusk on a clear day.

Terror House communicates time and situation

Monday, August 3rd, 2009

I wrote this article with my son Richard for segdDESIGN magazine earlier this year. I visited Budapest in the summer of 2007.

The slow, viscous drip-drop of oil fills the entrance lobby with an eerie, unsettling noise. A continuous flow obscures the faces of hundreds of victims of tyranny who were tortured and killed in the very building that now memorializes them, a wing of an infamous government complex that sits at 60 Andrássy Street in Budapest, Hungary.

Terror House exterior

The Terror Háza Museum—opened in 2002—is a reminder of the mass brutality of 20th century wars and revolutions, and a monument to the people who played roles both inside and outside the building’s cavernous underground prison cells. It documents the period beginning in 1944 when the Nazis gained power in Hungary, to the early 1990s, when the Iron Curtain fell and Hungarians fi nally gained freedom from Communism.

Hungarian architects János Sándor and Kámán Újszászy designed the museum as a monument to failed ideas and innocent victims. Working from a mindset beyond simple architecture, they recognized the need to create the right ambiance to guide visitors through recent history in a respectful and subtle way.

Thematically, the museum juxtaposes the dual hazards of the Nazi-supported Arrow Cross Party and the Soviet-backed secret police. This comparison is clear from the beginning. A large cross and a large star each cast shadows on the street below the building. These logos are flanked by the word “terror,” which casts its own shadow. The designers placed these features onto a large awning that hangs over the roofline of the building, which otherwise appears unchanged from its time as a prison.

DSC_5507Many of the rooms inside the museum have been preserved to appear as they did before Hungarian liberation. The director’s office is still luxurious, and his receiving area still resembles an Austro-Hungarian Imperial-era room that has been painted over so as to erase the memory of the past. There is even a limousine parked inside the museum, its lights slowly rising to reveal plush red seating areas and champagne glasses reserved for the perpetrators.

But just as the museum highlights the excess of criminals, it focuses on the deprivation and inhumane treatment of their victims. The architects preserved the expansive prison, which not only fills the basement of 60 Andrássy Street, but also had been expanded by the Communists into the basement areas of a number of other buildings on the block.

Visitors descend into the basement in a slow-moving freight elevator that is illuminated by harsh fluorescent lights. The prison is generally dark and dank, and the only real light comes from the desk lamps that sit inside interrogation rooms.

The gallows are preserved in their final resting spot, and artifacts from inmates line the claustrophobic corridors.


Beyond preservation, the museum presents a subtly modern flavor on the upper levels. A room resembling a church depicts the role the state-controlled media played in the terror. Its windows, floor, pews, and desks are plastered with pages from newspapers, and the front wall contains a television display that plays a video on the impact of misinformation and government propaganda.

Religion, too, suffered under Hungary’s dual tyrannies. Dramatic sculptures and blue lighting characterize an exhibit that literally depicts political icons presiding over symbols of religious rubble. A long corridor with a rounded ceiling houses confiscated religious items in small alcoves, and the floor contains a long, illuminated cross that looks as if it has been exposed from a brick grave underneath.

The room dedicated to the memory of the prison’s victims may be the most moving of all. Lit from behind, metal stencils with victims’ names line the walls, and low-level lights produce an ambiance reminiscent of a candlelight vigil. Brass plaques indicate the end of the road for the victims, and are capped with skulls and crossbones. There is also a room reserved for their aggressors, which depicts them in black and white photos on crimson walls.

DSC_5570Spaces can convey deep levels of meaning in ways unlike any other form of storytelling. The Terror Haus is a well considered museum that simultaneously informs, impresses, and cautions. Its story is made that much more accessible by its modern design and high level of craftsmanship. The designers’ use of color, light, material, media, and era-specific furniture contribute to an intimate understanding of the place whose mission is now to teach, and whose visitors will leave with a better picture of the atrocities committed in the name of politics not that long ago.

Jan Lorenc is the president and design director of Lorenc+Yoo Design, an Atlanta-based environmental design firm. Richard Lorenc is the director of outreach for the Illinois Policy Institute, the state’s free-market think tank, and he also serves as director of communications for Lorenc+Yoo.