Stuck in neutral

There is a fundamental discrepancy between the art on show in Oslo’s Astrup Fearnley Museum and the building itself, the work of Renzo Piano. This is a privately owned museum founded in 1993, which displays the usual contemporary line-up of shock and schlock, the sensational, the provocative and the stupid along with a few pieces of real, probing intelligence. Its new building, opened last week, is however a sophisticated, elegant, not at all challenging work, a remix of familiar Pianesque elements – timber cladding to make it a little Nordic, water outside, a swooping glass roof and purposeful-looking but pointless high-tech engineering details.

Piano has created some of the most sublime gallery spaces of recent years. From the radical Centre Pompidou to the Fondation Beyeler, from the exquisite Menil Collection in Houston to the Morgan Library in New York, he has not become so phenomenally popular by accident. But he is also responsible for the clunky and far from entirely successful LACMA in Los Angeles as well as an extension to the eccentric Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston which is neat but which adds little memorable to the experience.

But if Piano is now a star name, the go-to guy of contemporary high-end taste, he has also succeeded in globalising gallery design: his practice has become so successful that his buildings are in danger of becoming over-familiar.

The Astrup Fearnley exemplifies the problem. It is easy to see what Piano was trying to do with this building, which is stunningly located at the edge of the Oslo Fjord. The museum is in the Tjuvholmen district, an entirely new quarter built over the city’s old docks. It is an area of real Nordic urbanism. Compact, dense, well-designed, pleasantly walkable and thoughtfully integrating the historic dockside architecture and views of the water, it is a fine piece of new city building and a surprisingly lively and active place. Piano’s museum sits on the corner of the site, an attempt to create a landmark to terminate the new city quarter in a single recognisable gesture. To do this Piano has designed a curving glass roof which embraces the whole structure and is drawn down to the waterside, almost seeming to touch it at its sharp, delicate point.

A view through the museum towards the fjord

The gently arcing roof both brings together the discrete architectural elements while creating a single trademark – it is very visible from out to sea as well as from the City Hall and the waterfront promenade. But the buildings beneath are less distinctive than the roof that covers them. The spaces between them are of the generic dockside variety to be found in every post-industrial waterfront development across the world – nautical-styled bridges, steel railing, boardwalks and so on. There is the de rigueur sculpture park, an expanse of grass and gravel, albeit dramatically situated beside the water with works by the late Franz West, Ugo Rondinone and the reliable Fischli and Weiss.

But the gallery spaces are predictable. Strangely, Piano himself said at the press conference: “A building for art cannot be neutral. A white box kills art.”

Yet what are these if not neutral spaces? It is true that they are not the blandest of white boxes: their walls are not always parallel, or perhaps there might be a roof descending at a dramatic pitch or a mezzanine. The ground floor gallery in the smaller building, which diminishes to a sharpish corner, is a fine space, introducing a slightly disorientating false perspective. The big Damien Hirst installations look good in this setting and for a moment the vitrines and formaldehyde tanks begin to gel into a coherent architectural conception. But, apart from these, there is no texture here, no crunch. Piano speaks of artists liking to have something to react to yet this assemblage of spaces is far too polite, far too respectful to give any real resistance.

Perhaps the new museum suffers in comparison with local architects Snøhetta’s subversive opera house in the next bay along the fjord. There the architects took on the ultimate art form of the urban elite – opera – yet made the building itself into a huge public space, its gently sloping roof being folded into an urban plaza that allows people to take control of the building through the occupation of its structure.

Both Piano’s swooping glass roof and Snøhetta’s opera house work hard to make themselves into icons and both, in a way, succeed but Piano’s museum does little more. Of course one could also argue that the Opera House’s $760m budget, compared with the Astrup Fearnley’s $100m contract value (and that includes lettable commercial office space), implies different and grander responsibilities. One is a municipal monument, the other is a private museum – which is still an unusual thing in Scandinavia.

Ultimately this is a good museum with a predictable collection in a beautiful setting. But some of the more subversive works inside, from Félix González-Torres’ to Tom Sachs’ consumerist critiques in materials from hard candies to bodged foamboard construction, make Piano’s globalised architectural language seem lacking. The museum’s entrance lobby, with its hideous sculpture by Takashi Murakami, a hybrid of porn-star tits, anime features and pink schoolgirl panties all against Piano’s polite steel, timber and glass is a potent reminder of architecture’s continuing willing subsumption into a global form of shopfitting for the display of fashionable, expensive and vacuous art.

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