The contextualization of museum architecture resides in the identification of both the bond between the place (city, territory, culture history) and its contents. A link to the place does not just mean the recognition of the specific characteristics that distinguish it from others, but above all means integration with the town, continuity between the urban spaces and the museum, the museum and its territory being complementary to each other. According to Adalgisa Lugli, the museum is a space of diversity and for this reason the “threshold to be crossed” should be clear. She identified a “constant” of museum design in its separation from daily life, going from the personal galleries of the Renaissance aristocracy, to eighteenth century collectors, and on to the contemporary art museum: “the threshold that is crossed upon entering is a boundary. Past this boundary there is a sort of inverted world. This idea was, actually generated by the nineteenth century museum, a storage space and cemetery of masterpieces”.
On the other hand, why not read in the continuity between museum and its territory the meaning of the social and urban role of the museum? Starting with the writings of John Dewey, during the last fifty years this role has expanded and been consolidated in tandem with the phenomenon of mass culture and cultural tourism. The museum integrated with urban spaces has therefore become the theme common to many urban schemes. From the Whitney Museum, to the Staatsgalerie, from the Beaubourg to the Tate Modern, demonstrate that museum spaces no longer represent an interruption between art and everyday life and instead are a decompression chamber for the complexity of life itself: not a reduction of noise to silence, but of continuity through a critical stance rather than a phenomenological one.
If the ratio of correspondence to space or urban context is a key component of museum design, in a happy coincidence with the renewed social role of the museum, the link to content is, instead, something rooted in the very sense of the museum, and therefore unchanging.
In 1934, Luis Hautecoeur stated that the architecture of a museum must necessarily derive from a precise program of its contents: “The program determines the plan of the museum, that is, the shape of its rooms, and the distribution of its spaces and circulation”. With this hindsight it is clear that the search for undifferentiated flexibility or of the neutral container, which with some variations has driven legions of architects, is meaningless.
Flexibility is never indifferent to the contents (real or plausible) of the spaces, conversely, even when the museum must be neutral or impersonal, it still requires accurate choices and reading methods: an aseptic container is not a neutral object, but rather the result of a deliberate museographical choice which wishes to minimize as much as possible any interference from the surrounding environment and grant the maximum exhibition possibilities and mobility. A white box certainly allows great flexibility for shifting walls and transforming a series of traditional environments (rooms), but denies all other spatial possibilities, like views from above (or below), diagonally from the inside to outside, etc. Also overhead lighting, considered a must of the modern museum, reduces a lot of the multitude of shadow effects that define the volumes of three-dimensional works.
Chasing absolute neutrality is thus a dangerous illusion. This choice, in fact, while expanding the technical capabilities of the layout, may limit the participation and spatial exploration on the part of the visitors, thus reducing the openness of the museum. Architecture must not be indifferent to its content, but rather must interpret and liaise with it, thus providing visitors with the proper aids to understanding and lead them through the physical and intellectual experience of the visit.