Desai Tells Architects to “Go East” for Work

Event: 2009 Annual Arthur Rosenblatt, FAIA, Memorial Lecture with Vishakha Desai: “The Role of Museums in 21st-Century Asia”
Location: Center for Architecture, 10.15.09
Speaker: Vishakha Desai — President, Asia Society
Organizers: AIANY Cultural Facilities Committee
Sponsors: Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo & Associates Architects; Stone Source; Albieri Sebor Weber; Charles J. Rose; Devrouax & Pumell; Edison Price; Fisher Marantz Stone; Pilkington Glass; RKKG Architects; SPRINGBOARD Architecture Communication Design


Asia Society Hong Kong, by Tod Williams Billie Tsien & Associates.

Courtesy AIANY

It is often said that the 21st century will be known as the Asia Pacific Century, stated Vishakha Desai, president of the Asia Society. While 20th-century museum culture may have focused on cross-Atlantic relationships, the 21st century will center on cross-Pacific connections, she believes. The role of museums in Asia is drastically changing with the explosion of new cultural facilities in countries like China and India. The context of museums, how they function, and what is the meaning of this development are points of dramatic debate among curatorial circles.

Culture is always related to economics and politics, Desai contends. Counter to the economic situation in the U.S., China is experiencing 8.5% economic growth and India is close behind at 7%. In the next decade, China will build 1,000 new museums. It is the world’s fastest growing market for museums. But what effect will the new role of museums have in a market that is “leapfrogging,” as Desai put it, achieving a market growth in 10 years what the U.S. has done in 100?

In the 20th century, most of the museums in Asia were designed in a colonial style that represented empirical power to those who controlled the governments in the various countries. Similar to the Louvre, expressing the height of the French Empire, or NYC’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, symbolizing an aspiration of U.S. power, museums like the National Museum of Singapore expressed an interest in Western notions of power through its design. Chang Kai Shek was one of the first to counter the trend, establishing a museum of national pride in the National Palace Museum in Taipei. With its vernacular Chinese form, the museum preserved Chinese culture and national treasures that were being destroyed by the Communist Party.

Now, in the 21st century, countries like China and India are grappling with their pasts in a way that is bringing local traditions into contemporary architectural practices. The Crafts Museum in New Delhi, designed by Charles Correa, celebrates the crafts tradition of India. The museum is a village housing practicing artisans, and it is comprised of re-adapted buildings preserved both with traditional and contemporary technologies. The Asia Society Hong Kong, designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien & Associates, is located in a park in the center of Hong Kong in a building where the British once stored explosives. The goal of this museum is for Hong Kong to project an Asian connection beyond being a Chinese city, Desai stated. Hong Kong is “China’s gateway to Asia,” and the Asia Society hopes to help prove this.

While museums in Asia are beginning to express nationalistic pride in their designs, rather than western ideas of dominance and authority, Desai sees warning signs that point to a new source of empiricism — individual wealth. Since the 1980s, public/private ownership of museums has generally created a win-win situation: museums are privately funded for the benefit of the public. However, recently a handful of Asian tycoons, and wives of wealthy businessmen, have begun funding museums as public displays of their riches. Museums like the Devi Art Foundation in New Delhi or the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing are examples of museums being developed with little collaboration among the museum network throughout their respective countries. Part of the reason 1,000 museums are being built in China is that wealthy people want to create their own imprint on society, regardless of a need for space to display artwork, Desai argues. There may not be enough art to go around.

Ultimately, Desai is optimistic. She sees governments deciding that museums are crucial as centers of social interaction, not just repositories of objects. They have the potential to put countries on the international cultural map. She is seeing a monetary commitment to art and cultural facilities being integrated as part of urban development strategies that she has not witnessed before. Once these museums are completed over the next century, all they need is people and artwork to give them the weight they deserve.