The new rose center for Earth & Space at New York's American Museum of Natural History represents the absolute triumph of design in public life. This is not a good thing.
The Rose Center, which succeeds and envelops the old Hayden Planetarium, has been the object of more Barnumesque hoopla since its opening than the three-ring circus itself. It's been the hottest ticket in a town that prides itself on inaccessibility. At its semiofficial inauguration on Millennium Eve, the planetarium was filled cheek-by-jowl with New York's richest glitterati, crowding into the elevators for a glimpse of a mere space show.
You couldn't blame them. From the outside, the building, designed by Polshek Partnership, is an architectural wonder. Abutting the majestic 19th century natural history museum, the new sphere-floating-within-a-cube should be jarring, yet it somehow merges effortlessly with its grand environment. More than one critic has remarked favorably on its architectural similarity to the glorious I.M. Pei pyramid that guides people into the Louvre in Paris; certainly, the Rose Center will rapidly become an equivalent jewel on this city's landscape.
Pei's pyramid was, of course, an object of furious controversy. That the Rose Center's exterior caused no such storm might have served as a tipoff to something seriously amiss in its innards. Indeed, the place is a circulatory mess, with no apparent rhyme or reason about how crowds move or narratives build.
The movement challenge is obvious from the start. It's almost inconceivable anyone would have built a museum that requires visitors to stand on a long, snaking line; then board elevators too few to carry the mass; only to wait in a growing horde in a shapeless anteroom; before entering the domed planetarium itself. It's madness -- with the vast number of employees engaged solely in crowd control as evidence thereof.
But the narrative collapse is the more significant and horrifying failure. What, after all, is a museum if not a narrative of discovery -- a series of chapters that tell a story about who and why and where we are in the universe? Yet inside the Rose Center, no one part seems to have any connection to the next. One exits the domed space show, finds oneself in a smaller enclosed (and indecipherably glib) version of the Big Bang and then spirals down a walkway lined with incomprehensible space photographs to a floor with randomly placed exhibits.
More than anything, those photographs represent the fiasco that is this new museum. They are supposed to chart astronomers' growing knowledge of the size and age of the universe. To the uninitiated, most appear to be nothing more than blobs of light, captioned with little more than scientific charting data. To the semi-initiated -- and here I confess to being a shuttle-launch-attending, Mars Pathfinder-watching, Celestron-telescope-borrowing space aficionado -- they are dull, intellectualized objets d'art. Indeed, the effect of wandering down the concrete walkway is not unlike that of spiralling down the ramp at the Guggenheim. This is science as contemporary art; feel free to interpret it any way you will -- for yourself and your puzzled 10-year-old kid.
The teaching mission of the planetarium has been all but abandoned. Now, those words have a dull and dutiful sound. But any who, as schoolchildren, had their curiosity inflamed by the old Hayden Planetarium and natural history museum know these institutions blended packaging with purpose. Other institutions have managed to modernize the former without compromising the latter; the glorious transformation of zoos from jails into ecological environments underscores that fact.
Sadly, the Rose Center favors the wrapping, not the gift. The space show, narrated by Tom Hanks, is spectacular but short and empty. Jodie Foster, who narrates the Big Bang bustup, is not the person I'd select to explain quantum theory to sixth graders. It doesn't take a genius to see that, in this once-wondrous place, Hollywood values have trumped all else.
The designers have a rationale for this Waterloo of a museum. So much of what we now know of the universe, they say, derives from new knowledge, learned in space, not from earth, and through physics not by observation. The geocentric construction of old planetariums does not do justice to our new understanding.
As accurate as that might be, the intellectuals and their designer henchmen have disenfranchised the children -- and the child in all of us -- who still look up at the night sky and wonder.
Copyright March 2000, Crain Communications Inc.