When the organizers of the 92nd Street Y’s City of Tomorrow summit asked me to moderate a conversation about designing cultural buildings among the architects Billie TsienRobert A.M. Stern, and Daniel Libeskind, my first thought was: How’d the organizers convince these three to agree to be onstage together? Each is widely respected and accomplished, but they have wildly divergent sensibilities. Which made it sound fun, too, assuming they weren’t too distinguished to argue with one another.

And while there were no chairs thrown or names called, I didn’t have to worry. They didn’t agree on almost anything.


We spoke about museums as shopping malls, meddlesome curators, architecture as performance, and who will design the Donald Trump library. You can watch the entire thing here. Some highlights:

 From left: Carl Swanson, with architects Daniel Libeskind, Robert A.M. Stern, Billie Tsien
From left: Carl Swanson, with architects Daniel Libeskind, Robert A.M. Stern, Billie Tsien © Michael Priest

The role of museum institutions has sort of shifted in the last decade or so from something more academic-repository toward being more of a generator of cultural argument itself, and I was wondering, what forces do you see having worked together to cause a shift, and how has it changed the way you design buildings? 
BT: I actually still think that museums are primarily containers for the things inside them, so I actually don’t see them as generators of culture, I see them as containers of culture.

DL: I would take an exception to that.

BT: I know.

DL: I think sure they contain, they have windows, they have doors, they’re shelters, they contain, but museums in my experience are not built to contain art but to attract audiences to experience art in different ways … I’ve never tried to make a building that is a container of art, but something that releases art. I think what has changed is the democratization of art, it’s no longer belonging to the elites, to the plutocrats, to the experts, it’s now really open to everyone and I think that has changed museums very fundamentally.

But can a museum change how you look at art?
DL: I don’t think a building is a neutral entity. I mean the most, supposedly the most neutralized building ever built as a museum is Mies van der Rohe’s building in Berlin, the national gallery, but there is nothing neutral about this building, it’s one of the most violent buildings in the world! First of all, the entire ground level is just glass, you cannot even show art, the art is in the underground, so I think modernism has already begun way before any one of us has built the building.

BT: Bob, you’re being the sage in the middle?

RS: I think naturally I don’t agree with Daniel, but I think there are many audiences for art and museum, there are many different kinds of museums … I’m a great admirer of what Billie and Tod have done in Philadelphia with the Barnes Collection … it’s all about the art. It’s not about entertaining people. I think other museums, which I shall not mention, in our city and so forth, think they’re in show business and the art becomes second class. I think the experience of being with a work of art is still very, very important and I think young people will grow into it and, if not, God help us if they don’t.

DL: Well that did sound very wise, Bob, but in fact if you take one of my favorite museums, which is the Guggenheim, really an amazing structure, amazing experience. And it does offer an encounter with a work of art but also an encounter with a work of art which is very particular. It’s not in a white box, or a black box, it’s Frank Lloyd Wright. It has a personality that is part of the sense of what is being shown there, the Kandinsky, the early collections, whatever exhibitions are made, so I think we cannot really separate the building from the art …

And they have to work economically, too. Which these days means attracting audiences and getting them to spend money while there, right?
DL: Well I think every museum wants to be successful. And that goes for everything. When I designed the Military History Museum of Germany in Dresden or the Imperial War Museum in Northern Manchester, they’re not art museums, they’re museums of wars, they’re museums of catastrophes, museums of conflict; the museum authorities, experts, want audiences to come and encounter those documents and those things, so I think every museum wants to have its audiences. No museum wants to be an empty museum. And therefore you develop the shop, which is an important thing for museums, books that are publications of museums that are sold in museums, the shop in the Metropolitan has expanded immensely — I remember when I was a student it was a tiny little store. With three books! That was not that long ago, and now it’s really a megastore with incredible sales and fantastic things.

RS: Some of us think that’s not so good.

DL: Oh, I think it’s great! I think it’s great.

RS: You know, a museum doesn’t necessarily have to be an entertainment in that way, the shop in the Metropolitan, which is still my favorite, certainly, large museum; still you can hardly go anywhere without having food, the smell of food pervading the galleries.

DL: That’s bad … But the books don’t have a smell.