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MUSEUM PLAZA
Louisville, Kentucky

CLIENT Museum Plaza, LLC
PROGRAM 214-meter tall (703-foot tall), 62-story skyscraper on the banks of the Ohio River, containing a 3,700 m² (40,000 sf) contemporary art institute; the University of Louisville’s 2,300 m² (25,000 sf) Master of Fine Arts program; a 250-room Westin Hotel; 98 luxury condominiums; 117 lofts; 25,000 m² (269,000 sf) of office space on 13 floors; 1,900 m² (20,000 sf) of restaurants and shops; parking for 800 cars; and a public sculpture garden
AREA 141,800 m² (1,530,000 sf)
COST $490.0 million
STATUS Commenced 2005; construction commenced 2007; construction on hold 2008; cancelled 2011
DESIGN ARCHITECT REX
PERSONNEL Christopher Agosta, David Chacon, Stephane Derveaux, Erez Ella, Selva Gurdogan, Javier Haddad, Uenal Karamuk, Vanessa Kassabian, Joshua Ramus, Alejandro Schieda, Dong-Ping Wong
EXECUTIVE ARCHITECT Kendall Heaton Associates
CONSULTANTS Cermak Peterka Petersen, Chris Dercon, DHV, Front, LD&D, Lord, Magnusson Klemencic Associates, M. A. Mortenson, Newcomb & Boyd, Persohn Hahn, Tillotson Design Associates, Transsolar

Museum Plaza rethinks conventional attitudes towards property development. It begins with a vision to construct a contemporary art institute and concludes with a business pro forma that supports this commitment. Culture is placed physically and spiritually at the project’s center.

Museum Plaza rethinks conventional attitudes towards property development. It begins with a vision to construct a contemporary art institute and concludes with a business pro forma that supports this commitment. Culture is placed physically and spiritually at the project’s center.

To support the capital and operational costs of a 3,700 m² (40,000 sf) art institute, a development of over 141,800 m² (1,530,000 sf) is needed. To avoid over-saturating Louisville’s market with any single commercial program, its uses are necessarily mixed, including luxury condominiums, hotel, offices, loft apartments, and retail.

To support the capital and operational costs of a 3,700 m² (40,000 sf) art institute, a development of over 141,800 m² (1,530,000 sf) is needed. To avoid over-saturating Louisville’s market with any single commercial program, its uses are necessarily mixed, including luxury condominiums, hotel, offices, loft apartments, and retail.

The economic and dimensional imperatives of the project are resisted by the physical constraints of Museum Plaza’s site. Located within the Ohio River’s 100-year flood plain, between a levee wall and an interstate highway, the site is a disparate set of parcels with no immediate relationship to Louisville’s Central Business District. The site is further complicated by a subterranean electrical utility right-of-way and several arterial streets.

Convention would typically position the public program—both cultural and commercial—at street level and the profit-making towers above. This strategy is not possible at Museum Plaza, as the site would cut off any ground-level public program and position the towers implausibly close to each other.

To liberate these conditions, the plinth of public program (the “Island”) is elevated 24 stories aloft and the towers evenly distributed above and below.

The luxury condos and offices above and the hotel and loft apartments below are profit machines: their areas, plans, and views are dictated by the market, optimizing financing and maximizing rents and sale prices. The towers’ independence allows each to be designed and financed on its own terms, and renders the unusualness of the overall massing less consequential.

By keeping the towers discrete, their dimensions and the resulting pro forma remain adjustable—like a stereo equalizer—during the project’s design. Market exposure is thereby reduced to only three months—the time between submitting the exterior envelope for wind tunnel analysis and starting construction on the foundations based on the analysis’ results.

In contrast to the “dumb” towers, the Island houses all the unique and public elements of the development, both cultural and commercial. By isolating the project’s uniqueness within the Island, difficulties such as exiting, circulation, and security are also contained. Creation of construction documents for the rest of the building is thereby accelerated, and construction started over a year before the Island’s design is complete.

The collision of cultural and commercial uses within the Island (galleries, pool, auditorium, bar, education spaces, gym, restaurant, hot shop, ballroom…) provides fruitful opportunity to question the typology of a contemporary art institute. Museum Plaza advances several issues facing art institutions, including gallery flexibility, synergy between culture and commerce, and procession.

The collision of cultural and commercial uses within the Island (galleries, pool, auditorium, bar, education spaces, gym, restaurant, hot shop, ballroom…) provides fruitful opportunity to question the typology of a contemporary art institute. Museum Plaza advances several issues facing art institutions, including gallery flexibility, synergy between culture and commerce, and procession.

The two normative gallery typologies—the white box and (since Bilbao) the articulated box—challenge their institutions’ operational budgets. With the white box, institutions must spend copious funds to invent unique environments for each new show. With the articulated box, institutions must spend copious funds to quiet the architecture’s voice for each new show. 

Museum Plaza’s galleries combine the white box’s flexibility with the uniqueness of the articulated box. Two large, easily repartitioned galleries are stacked in the middle of the Island.

Seemingly banal, the galleries are rendered unique by several remarkable views—one up between the towers, one down 24 floors to the park beneath—and a revolutionary design for the galleries’ perimeter walls.

Seemingly banal, the galleries are rendered unique by several remarkable views—one up between the towers, one down 24 floors to the park beneath—and a revolutionary design for the galleries’ perimeter walls.

Many living artists do not want to operate within institutional walls. Preferring to operate on real life, on real community, on real activity, artists increasingly shun the very institutions that are trying to house them.

Museum Plaza overcomes this conundrum by bleeding culture and commerce together without compromising the galleries’ performance. A simple dot matrix, when rendered in color (including white), is perceived by the brain as opaque; when rendered in black, the brain perceives the matrix as transparent.

By applying this basic optical effect to the galleries’ perimeter walls, art permeates into the everyday activities of the restaurant, cocktail bar, spa, gym, and swimming pool. Yet, the galleries maintain the pristine quality of a white box for the art patron. 

The galleries’ translucency allows art to perform in a whole new way—to both “see” and be seen—generating a new kind of energy and interaction between the art and the viewer.

By applying this basic optical effect to the galleries’ perimeter walls, art permeates into the everyday activities of the restaurant, cocktail bar, spa, gym, and swimming pool. Yet, the galleries maintain the pristine quality of a white box for the art patron. 

The galleries’ translucency allows art to perform in a whole new way—to both “see” and be seen—generating a new kind of energy and interaction between the art and the viewer.

By applying this basic optical effect to the galleries’ perimeter walls, art permeates into the everyday activities of the restaurant, cocktail bar, spa, gym, and swimming pool. Yet, the galleries maintain the pristine quality of a white box for the art patron. 

The galleries’ translucency allows art to perform in a whole new way—to both “see” and be seen—generating a new kind of energy and interaction between the art and the viewer.

The conventional museum procession is a lobby that starts and concludes a linear loop of galleries. This compulsory circulation causes major curatorial and operational problems for its institutions: they must use all their galleries at once and cannot easily subdivide their space for simultaneous shows. Institutions with this sequence have to continuously “feed the beast,” exhibiting blockbuster after blockbuster after blockbuster, and must support staffs capable of managing shows this size.

Museum Plaza wraps the art institute’s un-ticketed spaces around its galleries, creating a shared “loop”—an inverted lobby—that unzips new, dynamic exchanges between art and the commercial amenities. Rather than imposing a fixed procession upon curators and patrons, the Loop provides access to each gallery, and any plausible combination or permutation of galleries. And the non-ticketed spaces, including shop, education, auditorium, and event space, serve as the main circulation for the entire Island, reinforcing the mix between culture and commerce.

The Loop’s ultimate architectural manifestation is a plate, bent to tie the cores together and to reach the cardinal points of the galleries and commercial areas.

The conventional museum procession is a lobby that starts and concludes a linear loop of galleries. This compulsory circulation causes major curatorial and operational problems for its institutions: they must use all their galleries at once and cannot easily subdivide their space for simultaneous shows. Institutions with this sequence have to continuously “feed the beast,” exhibiting blockbuster after blockbuster after blockbuster, and must support staffs capable of managing shows this size.

Museum Plaza wraps the art institute’s un-ticketed spaces around its galleries, creating a shared “loop”—an inverted lobby—that unzips new, dynamic exchanges between art and the commercial amenities. Rather than imposing a fixed procession upon curators and patrons, the Loop provides access to each gallery, and any plausible combination or permutation of galleries. And the non-ticketed spaces, including shop, education, auditorium, and event space, serve as the main circulation for the entire Island, reinforcing the mix between culture and commerce.

The Loop’s ultimate architectural manifestation is a plate, bent to tie the cores together and to reach the cardinal points of the galleries and commercial areas. 

The conventional museum procession is a lobby that starts and concludes a linear loop of galleries. This compulsory circulation causes major curatorial and operational problems for its institutions: they must use all their galleries at once and cannot easily subdivide their space for simultaneous shows. Institutions with this sequence have to continuously “feed the beast,” exhibiting blockbuster after blockbuster after blockbuster, and must support staffs capable of managing shows this size.

Museum Plaza wraps the art institute’s un-ticketed spaces around its galleries, creating a shared “loop”—an inverted lobby—that unzips new, dynamic exchanges between art and the commercial amenities. Rather than imposing a fixed procession upon curators and patrons, the Loop provides access to each gallery, and any plausible combination or permutation of galleries. And the non-ticketed spaces, including shop, education, auditorium, and event space, serve as the main circulation for the entire Island, reinforcing the mix between culture and commerce. 

The Loop’s ultimate architectural manifestation is a plate, bent to tie the cores together and to reach the cardinal points of the galleries and commercial areas. 

The central galleries and their glass walls create a space for art that is not an enclosed temple, separate from life and commerce, but one which allows a range of interactions with art, from the peripheral to the engaged.

In most large developments, culture is an afterthought, a bone thrown to mollify a municipality. Museum Plaza invents the program for, and then realizes, a vehicle that literally and metaphorically places art at its center, challenging the art institute’s typology in the process.

Image Credits: 1,9,16,17,19,20,21,26: Luxigon; 3: Iwan Baan / Luxigon

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