Film Reviews: Wednesday, September 24, 2003
Concepts in Concrete

The story of Fort Worth’s newest museum building unfolds in Making the Modern.


Most of us have just never seen a concrete wall that looks and feels like silk,” says author and architect Steven Moore early in Making the Modern, describing how architect Tadao Ando uses the medium. “Even those who think they hate concrete are seduced and beguiled by this because it’s simply done so well.” By now, most of us have indeed seen the silky walls of the new Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. Harry Lynch’s one-hour documentary film, which screens at the Modern on Sundays through the end of the year, follows the process of erecting the building, from the choice of architect Tadao Ando’s plan until the edifice stands completed.

The film’s enlightening observations about the building (starting with the one that begins the above paragraph) will surprise those who think they know it very well. Ando elaborates on his use of concrete, saying that Japan has a wood-based culture, so Japanese architects tend to treat the material like wood. UT-Austin architecture professor Gerlinde Leiding demonstrates how Ando’s architectural vocabulary is derived from the elements in the traditional Japanese farmhouse. Painter Sean Scully (interviewed in the gallery of the Modern that’s filled with his paintings) chimes in with an appreciation of Ando’s Church of Light in Ibaraki, Japan, in which the crucifix is not a physical object but an opening in the wall through which light penetrates. The film complements its portrait of the Modern with some remarkable still photos of Ando’s other buildings, all located in Japan. Insights like these help prevent the movie from seeming like a starry-eyed celebration of the new museum.

Several people compare the Modern’s concrete design to that of the Kimbell Art Museum, or, as one Modern official jokingly calls it, “the ugly building across the street.” The funniest bit of trivia is that Ando has a dog named Le Corbusier. The funniest incident in the film is when chief curator Michael Auping oversees the assembly of Anselm Kiefer’s “Aschenblume” collage and says, “This is a real sunflower. If we break it, the press preview’s on Monday. It’s unlikely we can grow a sunflower this size between now and Monday.”

The movie talks about more than just the ideas behind the building. It goes into enough depth about the construction process to delight anyone with a background in architecture or engineering. We spend several minutes with the workers as they assemble one of the Y-shaped support beams. And concrete is poured for one of the walls at 2 a.m. so that the hot sun won’t heat up the formwork to the point at which it might mar the wall’s finish. There’s a whimsical shot of one of the forms spinning slowly in mid-air as it’s lifted into place by a crane. The lighting team provides some interesting moments, building small models of the Modern’s galleries with tiny photo reproductions of the artworks on the walls and holes cut in the floor of the models so a person can see interior views.

In the end, Making the Modern gives a keen awareness of the microscopic attention to detail that goes into the planning and construction of an art museum. The input of so many professionals, from Ando himself to the workman in charge of pouring the concrete, taking such pride in their labors, is gratifying to witness. Most of all, you’ll leave the auditorium seeing the Modern’s concrete walls in a new way and wanting to walk through the museum again to appreciate the craftsmanship.

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