Rem Koolhaas, the Hermitage and the Design of Innovative Experiences
On the way to celebrating its 250th anniversary in 2014, the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg (formerly the Winter Palace of the Russian czars) hired legendary architect Rem Koolhaas to modernize the art museum experience for visitors in a way that both respects the storied history of the Hermitage and also positions the museum as a leader of 21st century innovation. As part of the reconsideration of the museum’s structure and function, Koolhaas is operating under a very rigid ground rule: no new structure will be put up, nor will any part of the existing architecture be modified.
In many ways, this task is no different than the one faced by managers and executives at businesses around the world as they attempt to innovate under rigid organizational guidelines. So what can we learn from Koolhaas and the Hermitage? In an interview with Tim Griffin of Artforum, Koolhaas outlines several rules to follow in the design of a truly innovative experience:
(1) Understand how customers really use your products – not how they “say” they use your products. Prior to recommending changes to the layout of the Hermitage, Koolhaas carefully mapped out the typical visitor experiences to the Hermitage. He followed the “Russian visitors tour,” the “Asian visitors tour,” and the “European visitors tour” through the museum, understanding how different groups of tourists wanted to see the Hermitage. In addition, he studied the film Russian Ark by legendary Russian director Aleksandr Sokurov – which was basically a 90-minute single tracking shot through 33 rooms of the museum – for insights about what artistic objects and rooms visitors would likely see and remember after visiting the Hermitage.
(2) Create as many opportunities as possible for interaction between the customer and your product. In the interview, Koolhaas actually responded emotionally when asked about the film Russian Ark — he told Art Forum that he would never want visitors to experience one of the world’s greatest artistic treasures in a 90-minute, never-ending blitz tour that failed to give some sort of quiet contemplative space to think about and interact with the art:
“Commentary on the film invariably said that it was this amazing confrontation with the richness of Russian culture, the nuances of historical events, and so on, and then acknowledged Sokurov’s claim to fame, which was that the film was shot in a single take. But analyzing these reviews carefully, you realize that everyone was describing a very generic impression—that is, a confrontation with Russian culture within which not a single detail stood out, only a blur of art and architecture and history. And the single take was not really an achievement. It was, to some extent, just a further erasure of difference and ultimately a simulation of the degraded experience of the visitor who keeps to the prescribed pathway. So it was in fact precisely the enthusiasm for the movie that enabled us to identify what was wrong within the Hermitage.”
Based on his experiences at museums in London and New York, Koolhaas is looking for ways to segment the Hermitage between “fast” spaces and “slow” spaces. The idea is to use the unique spatial arrangement of the Hermitage to its advantage; for example, using smaller, outlier buildings (the Small Hermitage built by Catherine the Great, the New Hermitage, the Hermitage Theatre, the General Staff Building) for “slow”, contemplative space and finding ways to control the experience as visitors approach especially challenging art works. “At some point,” remarks Koolhaas, “the visitor numbers begin to interfere with everything a museum is supposed to do.” In response, brand stewards (i.e. the museum curators) must do everything possible to “diminish the obligations of a directed path.”
(3) Implement best-in-class practices from around the world. What’s fascinating is that Koolhaas has taken on design commissions across the world – including the famous CCTV [China Central Television] Tower in Beijing — and is bringing to bear a deep knowledge of best-in-class practices from museums such as the Tate Modern in London and the Whitney and MoMA in New York. It’s at this point in the interview that Koolhaas makes a truly insightful remark — what’s considered “best-in-class” in America and Europe may not be the same as what’s considered “best-in-class” in China, Dubai or Abu Dhabi. While American curators think that “the museum is in crisis” as the result of globalization, there’s exactly the opposite feeling in China. As a result, there’s a dichotomy emerging: “Part of the world can be pessimistic and stuck, and another part can be optimistic, perhaps even silly at times, but still thrusting forward in an interesting way.”
The choices facing the Hermitage as it solidifies its position as one of the most innovative museums in the world are the same that face world-class organizations sounding the clarion call for innovation and change. With almost four years still to go, Koolhaas is studying the historical archives of the Hermitage, familiarizing himself with the artistic holdings of the museum, and re-conceptualizing how to create a greater awareness of the history of each of the museum’s 2,000 rooms.
So how will Rem Koolhaas conceptualize a truly innovative experience at the Hermitage? The Hermitage is not aiming for something radically new and foreign, but it does not want to be tethered to the past. It is looking for more than an incrementally improved experience — it is in search of a truly innovative experience that will be appreciated and cherished by anyone who loves art. One might even say that Koolhaas is looking to create a revolutionary type of experience for the former Winter Palace of the Russian czars.
Photo Credit: Wikipedia