Natural stone and museums.
A timeless relationship.
Stones and museums are linked by an ancient history. The galleries of the Renaissance courts (in Florence, Mantua and Rome) held marbles found in excavations or preserved through the centuries. Museums pursued their beauty and were reflected in them. When artistic heritage became public, stone and marble celebrated the birth of new institutions: in London, Paris, Vienna and Berlin. Between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, monumental columns and gables, staircases and stone cladding helped to create the noblest image of national collections.
Today, the use of stone in museum architecture is constantly being experimented with. Sometimes as a structural element, more often as an exhibition element. It is mainly in the cladding – interior or exterior – that stone materials participate in the symbolic degree of contemporary museums. The dialogue with concrete, glass, metal and wood becomes a stylistic constant and almost a narrative parallel to that of the works in the museum. The result is an indissoluble interweaving, a panorama of continuous surprises.
There is perhaps no museum in the world that does not feature stone as a formal ingredient. Think of the warm hues of Renzo Piano’s Fondazione Beyeler in Basel, the icy rigour of David Chipperfield’s James Simon Galerie in Berlin, the modernism of Richard Meier’s Getty Center in Los Angeles, the sober elegance of Alvaro Siza’s Galician Centre for Contemporary Art in Santiago de Compostela. None of the most famous designers has shied away from this theme: Vittorio Gregotti in the Centro Cultural di Bèlem in Lisbon; Mario Botta in the Mart in Rovereto; Fumihiko Maki in the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto; Bernard Tschumi in the new Acropolis Museum in Athens; Rafael Viñoly in the Cleveland Museum of Art in Ohio. The list is very long and includes every part of the world.
We owe the renewed interest in museum architecture to the masters of the 20th century. For example, the sensitivity of Carlo Scarpa, who turned the walls into a sort of artisanal poem in all his museum displays. Or the lyrical harmony with Michelangelo’s Pietà by the B.B.P.R. in Milan’s Castello Sforzesco; the refined classicism of Louis Kahn in the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas; the geometric expressiveness of Marcel Breuer in the Whitney Museum in New York. Stone is always the protagonist, its tactile and chromatic values amplifying what the museum holds inside like a universal treasure.
Among New York’s cultural institutions, the American Museum of Natural History is particularly famous and visited by millions, to the point of being one of the icons of the metropolis and a set of successful films. If its location in the heart of Manhattan, on the west side of Central Park, contributes to this, the monumental image of the architecture is not secondary. The Beaux-Arts façade makes the museum’s symbolic vocation even more obvious. The imposing entrance takes the form of a triumphal arch, a kind of invitation to enter the world of knowledge.
The interior is organised according to individual exhibition zones, each dedicated to specific thematic sections. Already in the atrium it is clear that the educational purpose is associated with a strong scenic value. The vast room evokes the majesty of an ancient Roman basilica and houses the equally impressive skeletons of a barosaurus and an allosaurus. This spectacular imprint is common to all the rooms of the museum, with peaks of extreme fascination. A life-size model of a blue whale hangs from the ceiling in the Oceans room. Dioramas, environmental reconstructions, technological displays, showcases and avant-garde installations accompany the visitor along a labyrinthine path.
The objects and materials of the American Museum of Natural History seem to cover the whole range of human knowledge. Here, scientific rigour, astonishment and surprise mingle. The sense of wonder is combined with the approach of research and study. The world of natural phenomena is read both through collecting and experimental interpretation. Human history itself is seen from an anthropological perspective. Above all, an idea of habitat that encompasses the different geographical areas of the planet and reaches out to ever wider horizons.
From an architectural point of view, the museum shows itself as a building site in evolution. From the original Romanesque Revival layout to the 20th century additions, from the recent annexes of the planetarium to the current extensions. Even the exhibition criteria are constantly being updated: the rigid 19th century classifications have been transformed into thematic islands, real places of identification. This leads us to believe that the pulsating outdoor life of New York has penetrated into the museum.
Even stone can become a show: this is the case at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, which has made science a spectacular attraction for millions of visitors. Not only do the famous dinosaur skeletons or the blue whale that hangs from the ceiling, but also the infinite range of minerals and gems that tell the most secret stories of our planet. We are invited to observe the earth’s crust between depth and surface, between metamorphosis and transformations of inorganic matter.
With two special projects, Marmi Ghirardi is the interpreter of the rearrangement of the New Allison and Roberto Mignone Halls of Gems and Minerals in the American museum. The company from Carpenedolo worked a block of Labradorite from Madagascar according to the directions of the museum curator. After cutting a large block of the required dimensions, the faces were mechanically polished to a mirror finish, while the corners were treated with a chisel. The process brought out the natural cracks in the stone and above all the very large “acorn” grain. Illuminated by studied beams of light, the Labradorite offers the splendid play of colors of the crystalline composition. The blue and green stand out as pictorial compositions, involving the observer in a seductive sensory experience.
The second stone is even more fascinating. Marmi Ghirardi has specially quarried it from the Sterling Hill mining site in the village of Ogdensburg, New Jersey. The ancient zinc and iron mine was opened in the 17th century, so it is itself important in U.S. history. Closed in 1990, it is now a museum and its fame derives mainly from the many rare if not unique materials. These include franklinite, zincite and willemite, which are oxides of zinc and iron. The so-called Franklin Marble is of Precambrian age, that is dating back to over one billion and one hundred and fifty million years. The rock, when hit by UV rays, shows a very high fluorescence, the colors light up and the nature of mineralogical curiosity stands out.
On this occasion, with its consolidated experience, Marmi Ghirardi took care of the technical management and excavation of a block weighing several tons. Thanks to the Italian technical equipment and the wisdom of intervention and consultancy, the shapeless material became a real artifact. The vertigo that the incalculable dimension of geological eras causes us, today presents itself to our eyes in the form of a museum object. A jewel that enchants like a work of art.
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