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Moussavi: when the means are less, we need to be more creative

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Farshid Moussavi talks exclusively to the AJ about the newly-opened Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland, Ohio, the first of her buildings to be completed as Farshid Moussavi Architecture

How do you feel now MOCA is complete?
I’m proud of what we’ve achieved within a very tight budget [£11.7 million]. MOCA’s ambition was to create a flexible home for contemporary art, as well as a ‘living room’ for Cleveland. We’ve managed to produce a building that is flexible enough to cater for the diversity of contemporary art and unique to Cleveland, rather than just an outpost of MOMA.

How has MOCA been received?
Both the public and the art world seem to enjoy the building’s playfulness. I’m in regular dialogue with MOCA’s director on the ways the building will be curated over time.

What does the building mean for you and your practice? Is there anything here that breaks from the Foreign Office Architects mould?
At Foreign Office Architects we gained a lot of experience in turning given constraints into architectural opportunities. With MOCA, we did not have to deal with a ‘fixed brief’ or site constraints, so the architecture had to be active, rather than reactive. We had to define the goals as well as the responses.

How does working in the US differ to the UK?
MOCA is a cultural project in a post-industrial American city. Many similar projects are funded by donations from individuals or private foundations. This culture of patronage has resulted in major museums in small towns and cities, which have been a catalyst for social and cultural change.

Retail-led regeneration initiatives in cities north of London have more or less stopped

If the UK followed this model it would mean that cities besides large ones like London would benefit from cultural investment. The retail-led regeneration initiatives in cities north of London have more or less stopped. There is an opportunity to place culture and the arts at the heart of regeneration.

Does MOCA break any new ground architecturally?
Two elements that might be called ‘groundbreaking’ are the museum’s high flexibility and its use of colour. Typical contemporary art museums comprise a white cube gallery space surrounded by a commercial, public and education programme. But, since contemporary art ranges enormously in medium, scale and size, the sealed, air-conditioned and evenly lit white cube is often redundant.
MOCA is designed as a flexible configuration with ‘multiple’ spaces that can switch between gallery spaces and social spaces, like the receiving area which doubles as a performance space. This approach presents the museum with a range of volumes and light conditions in which to exhibit different disciplines of contemporary art simultaneously, like a 14th century cabinet of curiosities. It also allows MOCA to explore trans-disciplinary exhibitions, thereby being a place where further types of art could emerge.

With MOCA, did you consciously resist the white cube style?
We’ve introduced colour within the galleries. In a typical white cube, art floats in the space and has no weight. Historical museums’ red, green and blue walls also make paintings seem to float, because the intensity of the colour takes weight away from the art.

The dark blue ceiling also creates a sensation of boundlessness

The structure of MOCA’s external envelope is exposed on the interior and painted with a deep blue fire-resistant paint. The contrast between this blue surface, which forms the main gallery ceiling, and the light walls and floor creates a sense of orientation and adds weight to the lower end of the room, which hosts the artwork. The dark blue ceiling also creates a sensation of boundlessness.

MOCA - ground floor

Source: Dean Kaufman

What was the most challenging part of the project?
MOCA is small [3,159m2] and low-budget. We needed to cater for the social and commercial needs of the museum without the additional space or budget of larger museums. It was exciting to challenge the convention of a museum as an institution and look for ways that art and social and commercial spaces could cohabit.

Do you think the gallery will open doors for you in the UK?
I hope so. Good buildings are neither a matter of scale, nor budget. I’m sceptical of the suggestion that, due to the recession, we have to go back to basics. On the contrary, I think that when the means are less, we need to be more creative – which is not the same thing as basic.


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