We met with Alexander Brodsky, one of Russia’s best-known architects and sculptors, in his Moscow studio. Brodsky is the co-founder of the Paper architects movement. His exhibitions both group and solo have been very well received around the world and his works can be found in The Hirshhorn museum (Washington, DC), Institute of Contemporary Art (Boston), MoMA (New York), Museum of Contemporary Art (Milano), Pushkin State Museum (Moscow), State Russian Museum (St. Petersburg), Tate Modern (London), Victoria and Albert Museum (London), Whitney Museum (New York).
The one-storied studio, located in a densely populated city center, is situated a few steps away from the grandiose 1950's skyscrapers, but conceptually it is as far from the Babylonian Soviet architecture as possible. Cozy space with windows in the ceilings and uncut stones makes you feel like the building wasn’t reconstructed in a hundred years, but should you pay closer attention to the walls and floors, you realize that it’s a masterful imitation. A very friendly dog and a cat that basically live in the studio welcome visitors. A few architects are sitting at their desks, someone is getting ready to go, someone is just coming in. Artistic and seemingly relaxed atmosphere actually stimulates, the studio seems to be open 24/7. Alexander offers a huge and tasty watermelon.
It might be hard to talk about museum architecture, while we eat, so maybe you can recall any particular food experience in an art space?
I rarely go to museum restaurants, but I remember very well one of the first museum cafes I visited abroad. It was Tate modern at the beginning of 1990’s, the borders have just been open, we were very excited, but didn’t have much money, so a museum café was the most expensive chic restaurant we could imagine. One of the first museum cafes in my life, a place I remember with love, is the Pushkin museum café in Moscow. Pushkin museum is the place where my parents used to take me often (Alexander Brodsky’s father Savva Brodsky was a well-known Russian artist, book illustrator, architect, sculptor and poet, member of the Real Academia de Bellas Artes, Madrid). The café was not at all architecturally special, but everything was so tasty! I haven’t been in that café in a while, so it’s mainly childhood memories… The memories that make any place so much more special.
Childhood memories do mean a lot! Do you have any recent special memories connected to museums?
There are quite a few museums I love, but I want to share one story. I saw pictures of Museo La Congiunta by Peter Markli in a book around 25 years ago and its humble beauty mesmerized me. The museum is situated in rural fields of a tiny Swiss village Giornico, so in order to get there you must plan well ahead. Swiss architect Peter Markli built the fantastic museum in 1992 to host Hans Josephsohn’s amazing sculptures. Josephsohn was Markli’s teacher and close friend; I guess they must’ve worked together on the museum. When you take a first look at La Congiunta in a book, it doesn’t strike you that much, some kind of a power plant, plain and unattractive, but then you realize: this architecturally wise, profound construction is a very, very beautiful structure. Light enters through the rooftop along the length of the building, creating a perfect atmosphere for Josephsohn’s sculptures. About 20 pieces are on display, not much, but they fit the concrete box just great. This museum is pure perfect; it is matching the landscape and measuring up to the objects presented. When my wife Masha and I decided to go there a few years back, we found out that in order to enter the museum we must get hold of the key. I am amazed by the fact that this museum is always closed and always open at the same time. If you want to get inside, you must find osteria bar in the village and ask the bartender for THE key. After you visit the museum you have to bring the key back. When Masha and I finally arrived in the Giornico bar, the bartender told us that we just missed a young couple that took the key. It was the first time two groups of people asked for the key at the same time. We rushed to La Congiunta, caught up with the other couple and had a wonderful time walking around the museum.
You said that La Congiunta is an ideal museum, perfectly matching the landscape. Can you name any not-so-perfect museums? The ones that do not measure up to the works presented?
I cannot recall any architecturally imperfect museums. But I think of one museum I loved exactly when it was imperfect. Now it’s an ultramodern space with an amazing collection. I’m talking about an old French Egyptian museum in Cairo. I call it “French” because a French architect Marcel Dourgnon built it in 1902. The design was wise and simple, reminiscent of the neo-classical style, combined with Greek and Roman decorative ornaments on the façade, but the architect did not take into account the enormous size of the collection. And that’s exactly what I loved the most – the imperfection of the grandiose building. Imagine a museum built against the rules. That’s what the old Egyptian Museum was like. Overloaded, packed with precious Pharaonic monuments, jewelry and papyrus, it didn’t have any storage at all. Fantastic, priceless pieces were kept in sight, jammed into small spaces with huge cupboards. You were basically walking through a warehouse. I loved this museum, it was evidence of the frailty of life: pure treasures were surrounded with boxes and closets, bursting with unknown, odd items.
You appreciated the imperfections of the Egyptian museum, maybe there is a museum that you didn’t like at first, but appreciated later?
When I just saw the photos of Guggenheim Bilbao, I was perplexed, to say the least. Actually I was biased and prejudice. But when I saw it with my own eyes I was amazed. I realized that I was wrong, it fit the city, it fit Bilbao tightly. The eccentric, high-flying architecture responds to industrial urban context. The museum creates a curved riverside promenade and forms a plaza on the south side, where the city grid ends. I’m not sure if the exhibition spaces correspond well to the extravagant exterior, but the configuration of the museum is outstanding.
You had exhibitions in various museums all around the world: London, New York, Amsterdam, Moscow... What space was the most comfortable to work in?
I had wonderful experiences with various museums, but for me personally, for my works, I prefer other kinds of spaces. My exhibitions that I enjoyed the most were in Winzavod’s building 6 basement (Night before the Offensive, 2009) and on the territory of the old meat factory (Cisterna, 2011) in Moscow. Winzavod’s building 6, where “Night before the Offensive” was installed, creates a lot of problems due to poor lighting, enormous dimensions and dampness, but that was even better. Only light sources were the shining objects placed inside various structures, reminding the fireplace, that people sit around. “Cisterna” was presented in the heart of Moscow’s industrial district. I think that unconventional environments fit my works.
Can you name a favorite museum that you try to visit every now and then?
First one that comes to mind is the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. Above all else it’s the first museum I visited in my life. But the longer I live, the more I realize, that it is the best museum. Just think about it: what a weird idea it is to make a museum of duplicates. Palatial, splendid architecture hosing the copies. But look at those copies! Highest quality duplicates allow those, who cannot travel, see the greatest pieces of art in magnificent interiors. Shrewd plan of the building with Italian and Greek courts is perfect for a medium-size museum. Another one I love is Sir John Soane’s museum in London. One-of-a-kind museum was build by a famous, very influential British architect of the XVIII - XIX century John Soane. This extravagant Royal Academy’s professor of architecture loved to travel. He travelled around the world and brought various artifacts from every place he visited: sculptures, paintings, books. Finally they couldn’t fit in his home, so he bought, demolished and rebuilt three small houses on the north side of Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Soane created a house for his family and for the collection. The fact that it is not a museum structure, but a family home with a museum inside makes it so special. At first, only Royal Academy students could visit, but in 1830-s the museum was open to everyone. The structure is just fantastic – planned as a labyrinth with many rooms, halls, different levels with a charming inner garden. Of course I must say that world famous museums – the National galley and Louvre, Prado and the Met – are also my favorites, it goes without saying! All classic, old museums are fantastic.
And what about modern, new grand museums? There are many architects, who specialize in museums, who do you like the most?
In 1997 Peter Zumthor created one of the best modern museums. Kunstahaus Bregenz made of glass, steel and a cast concrete stone filled the space by Lake Constance that had been empty for many years. The design is fantastic, but what adds zest to the building is the game of light. Kunstahaus Bregenz’s façade is made of glass shingles, which diffuse daylight, it passes through windows and then travels to the halls. The light is different depending on the season. But for darker days there are specially designed pendulum lamps, controlled by the exterior light sensor on the roof. From the outside the museum looks like a giant shining structure that doesn’t absorb the light, but illuminates the space around it. Kunstahaus Bregenz is a wise, technologically complex, expensive structure. A propos, it is important to mention, that the project was expensive not for the sake of being expensive, but due to extremely intricate lighting system and difficult architectural decisions. Peter Zumthor’s museum is one of the best art spaces built in years.
I hope we will have a chance to see the newest art museum right away. Garage Museum of Contemporary Art opening is about to begin.
We left the studio and plunged into the Moscow traffic. When we were getting closer to the Garage another question came to mind:
If you could choose any museum collection, any artist and create a space for the works what/who would you chose?
I’ve been thinking about it a lot and I know an artist I want to make a museum space for. It is Oleg Kurdyashov. His works can be found in V&A and Tate modern in London, in the Washington National Gallery and in many other museums. But I would like to create a space for him here in an industrial area of Moscow, by the Yauza River, close to the place where he was born. It’s a heavy responsibility to build a museum. I saw examples of great museum architecture that had nothing to do with the collection, the environment, the people. It happens when an architect looses sight of why did he take up the project, when an architect wants to express himself at the cost of the museum. And since we are already at the Garage, I must say that it’s not the case. Garage is a place, where we see that rare intricate balance. Rem Koolhaas expressed himself artistically, but delicately and we are not wondering why this kind of structure is here, and whom did he build it for. That is a pleasure to see such great examples.