Olson Kundig’s Bob Dylan Center peers into the enigmatic life of a cultural icon

Situated in a former warehouse within the arts district of the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma, the newly-opened museum and archive offers an intimate look into Dylan’s artistic evolution.

by Jerry ElengicalPublished on : Jun 24, 2022

Does a simple display of words and images really suffice when paying tribute to a man whose own words have moved millions and heralded era-defining changes, all within his own lifetime? His almost endless body of work, an attestation to the ineffable impact, diversity, and sheer beauty that can be ingrained within the written and spoken word. From acting as a rambunctious instigator in politically charged protest anthems, to a woeful recounter of didactic and sentimental self-reflections, and even a poignantly observant narrator for surreal expositions of everyday life unfolding in seemingly mundane settings, Bob Dylan has donned a myriad personas since first bursting onto the scene in the 1960s. Now, nearly six decades on from when his esoteric yarns began to capture the imagination of generation after generation, the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma, has created a comprehensive space devoted to propagating and educating the public on his artistic legacy in the form of the newly-opened Bob Dylan Center, designed by Seattle-based practice Olson Kundig.

  • The museum and archive is located inside a former paper warehouse in Tula’s arts district, near the Woody Guthrie Center | The Bob Dylan Center | Olson Kundig | STIRworld
    The museum and archive is located inside a former paper warehouse in Tula’s arts district, near the Woody Guthrie Center Image: Getty Images, Courtesy of the Bob Dylan Center
  • The entryway makes a stark black impression against the red brick exterior of the building | The Bob Dylan Center | Olson Kundig | STIRworld
    The entryway makes a stark black impression against the red brick exterior of the building Image: Getty Images, Courtesy of the Bob Dylan Center

Echoing the grimy brick enclosures of the Greenwich Village coffee houses in New York, where Dylan first honed the gravelly, nasal-tinged vocal style with the distinctively snarky and confrontational delivery that he is now most-often associated with, Olson Kundig’s design statement takes form inside a former paper warehouse in Tulsa’s burgeoning arts district. With an exterior dressed in exposed brick, the structure is situated in close proximity to the Woody Guthrie Center - dedicated to one of Dylan’s idols during his formative years as a folk songwriter. On the building’s face, the adaptive reuse intervention makes its most impressionable mark in the form of a massive façade mural by artist Erin T. Burke that dresses the front edifice, featuring an image of Dylan captured in 1965, which was provided by photographer Jerry Schatzberg.

The museum contains a selection of material from the Bob Dylan Archive® | The Bob Dylan Center | Olson Kundig | STIRworld
The museum contains a selection of material from the Bob Dylan Archive® Image: Matthew Millman

The complex coexists with two related entities, namely: the Bob Dylan Archive® at the Helmerich Center for American Research in Tulsa, and The Institute for Bob Dylan Studies at the University of Tulsa. Having opened to the public on May 10 this year following its completion, the 29,500 sq ft extent of the Bob Dylan Center is the new public face of the Bob Dylan Archive® collection, which comprises over 100,000 items and artefacts chronicling the Nobel Prize-winning singer-songwriter’s lengthy career.

Wood-finished stairs lead toward the exhibition space, surrounded by archival images of Dylan | The Bob Dylan Center | Olson Kundig | STIRworld
Wood-finished stairs lead toward the exhibition space, surrounded by archival images of Dylan Image: Matthew Millman

Within this new space, materials from both the archive and the institute will now be accessible to the world at large, as only qualified researchers and scholars were permitted to view them previously. These include notebooks, manuscripts, poems, liner notes, essays, unreleased demos, photographs, visual art, and film excerpts that were acquired in 2016 by the George Kaiser Family Foundation - a Tulsa-based non profit dedicated to preserving the legacies of great American artists. The organisation also operates the nearby Woody Guthrie Center under their sub-company, the American Song Archives.

A 16 foot metalwork sculpture by Dylan occupies the internal entrance, screening the reception and ticket counter | The Bob Dylan Center | Olson Kundig | STIRworld
A 16 foot metalwork sculpture by Dylan occupies the internal entrance, screening the reception and ticket counter Image: Courtesy of the Bob Dylan Center

Olson Kundig was initially selected as the architects in charge of this culturally significant commission after an international design competition, where their proposal focused on Dylan’s life as a study in the metamorphosis of an artist throughout the years, depicting him as a “Master of Change". An especially pertinent concept, since, from his folk roots, to his somewhat inflammatory decision to move to an electric blues-influenced sound with Bringing It All Back Home in 1965, as well as explorations into the gospel and country music spaces in later years, Dylan’s story has always been one of reinvention.

The design emphasises Dylan as a “Master of Change,” detailing the constant reinvention of his identity throughout the years | The Bob Dylan Center | Olson Kundig | STIRworld
The design emphasises Dylan as a “Master of Change,” detailing the constant reinvention of his identity throughout the years Image: Matthew Millman

Alan Maskin, Design Principal at Olson Kundig, states in a press release: "Since the 1960s, I have been inspired by the role that change and reinvention have played in the creative life of Bob Dylan. Rather than create a monument to Bob Dylan in the traditional music museum sense, we imagined a synoptic, continually changing, and highly programmed facility that will transform and grow along with the accompanying Bob Dylan Archive. The resulting design allows the Center to spill outside the building into the Tulsa Arts District community, and conversely, for the interior life and activity of the exhibits and programs to be visible long before visitors cross the entry threshold."

An immersive film experience developed by 59 Productions showcases archival music and film directed by Jennifer LeBeau | The Bob Dylan Center | Olson Kundig | STIRworld
An immersive film experience developed by 59 Productions showcases archival music and film directed by Jennifer LeBeau Image: Matthew Millman

Right from the stark black entryway to the wood-finished stairs with enclosing walls that are replete with archival images, visitors will be treated to a multimedia celebration of an American cultural icon. A 16 foot metalwork sculpture - that was designed and built by Dylan himself to bear references to American industry - decorates the internal entrance, screening the reception, ticketing area, and retail space. Beyond this are zones featuring notebooks with scrawled lyrical tidbits from some of Dylan’s most iconic albums, as well as memorabilia from his domestic and international tours, and an interactive digital jukebox with a playlist curated by English singer-songwriter Elvis Costello.

  • Users can hone in on various touchpoints throughout Dylan’s life and career with the aid of audio guide devices that will assist in curating unique experiences | The Bob Dylan Center | Olson Kundig | STIRworld
    Users can hone in on various touchpoints throughout Dylan’s life and career with the aid of audio guide devices that will assist in curating unique experiences Image: Matthew Millman
  • The design caters to visitors with three levels of interest in the singer-songwriter’s creative process | The Bob Dylan Center | Olson Kundig | STIRworld
    The design caters to visitors with three levels of interest in the singer-songwriter’s creative process Image: Matthew Millman
  • The exhibition encourages interpretation and interaction, echoing Dylan’s own reluctance to delve into the deeper meanings behind his music | The Bob Dylan Center | Olson Kundig | STIRworld
    The exhibition encourages interpretation and interaction, echoing Dylan’s own reluctance to delve into the deeper meanings behind his music Image: Courtesy of the Bob Dylan Center

With the aid of audio guide devices, patrons can essentially curate their own experience of the exhibition, moving between touchpoints centred on each period of his artistic development. Dylan himself notes in a statement, “I am glad that my archives, which have been collected over all these years, have finally found a home and are to be included with the works of Woody Guthrie, especially alongside all the valuable artefacts from the Native American Nations. To me, it makes a lot of sense and it’s a great honour."

Memorabilia from Dylan’s various domestic and international tours also constitute the items on display | The Bob Dylan Center | Olson Kundig | STIRworld
Memorabilia from Dylan’s various domestic and international tours also constitute the items on display Image: Getty Images, Courtesy of the Bob Dylan Center

While the building's relatively unassuming exterior - when compared to contemporary precedents in museum design - reflects Dylan’s famed reticence in the face of the spotlight, its dynamic interior design scheme could be associated with his refusal to delve into the deeper meanings of his work, permitting interpretations to change with time. These themes subtly extend into the spaces within the warehouse’s red-brick envelope, where Maskin’s arrangement of the exhibits cater to three different types of visitors termed: “skimmers, swimmers, and divers". While the ‘skimmers’ may only possess a surface-level understanding of Dylan’s work, the ‘swimmers’ will veer towards a few specific exhibits through their slightly more in-depth knowledge. However, the greatest challenge lay in catering to ‘divers’ - enthusiasts whose expertise in all things Dylan would demand more exclusive peeks into archived material. 

Notebooks from the Blood on the Tracks sessions | The Bob Dylan Center | Olson Kundig | STIRworld
Notebooks from the Blood on the Tracks sessions Image: Getty Images, Courtesy of the Bob Dylan Center

A particularly eye-catching feature of the exhibition design comes in the form of pages chronicling Dylan's writings that have been fixed to a fanning metal frame, in a manner that depicts them emanating from a typewriter at the installation's base. Aside from the materials on display from the archive, the Bob Dylan Center is also home to an immersive film experience developed by London-based practice 59 Productions, consisting of archival music and film directed by Jennifer LeBeau. In addition, the building’s layout also incorporates an authentic recreation of a recording studio environment, allowing visitors to experience what one of Dylan’s studio sessions would have felt like. Other specialised areas include a screening room with footage from films and concerts, a multimedia timeline journeying through Dylan’s early years written by historian Sean Wilentz, the Parker Brothers Gallery exploring his creative process through the works of other artists, and the Columbia Records Gallery which provides insights into the composition and performance of timeless classics from his back catalogue.

The space provides an intimate look into the life and creative process of a true cultural icons | The Bob Dylan Center | Olson Kundig | STIRworld
The space provides an intimate look into the life and creative process of a true cultural icon Image: Getty Images, Courtesy of the Bob Dylan Center

In this vein, the space is teeming with items that provide an intimate look into Dylan’s life and creative process, focusing on the minutiae of his growth as songwriter, artist, performer, and public figure, in order to cater to the desires of every patron seeking to gain insight into the mind of a figure whose relevance has endured for far longer than his peers. By virtue of his ability to create art that resonates with the zeitgeist of consecutive musical eras, Dylan is more than simply the 'voice of a generation' - a moniker that is thrown around far too often. In highlighting his cross-generational and cultural appeal through multiple reinventions of artistic identity, the Bob Dylan Center is not purely an ode to the achievements of a legendary songwriter and performer, but a valuable cultural resource ensuring that the modern-day bard’s own story will always be equitably open to interpretation by the masses he has captivated for so long.

The Bob Dylan Center is an important cultural resource to educate the public and propagate the ideas of one of the greatest songwriters of our time | The Bob Dylan Center | Olson Kundig | STIRworld
The Bob Dylan Center is an important cultural resource to educate the public and propagate the ideas of one of the greatest songwriters of our time Image: Getty Images, Courtesy of the Bob Dylan Center

Project Details

Name: Bob Dylan Center
Location: Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA
Year of Completion: 2022
Design Architect: Olson Kundig
Design Principal: Alan Maskin
Project Team: Stephen Yamada-Heidner, AIA, LEED® AP, Principal (Architecture); Marlene Chen, AIA, LEED® AP, Project Manager (Exhibits); Holly Simon, Project Architect (Architecture); Ryan Botts, Brian Havener, Karen Duan and Aiym Zhumasheva, Exhibit Design Staff
Exhibit Design Lead: Olson Kundig
Architect of Record: Lilly Architects
General Contractor: Crossland
Structural Engineer: Wallace Design Collective
MEP and Fire Protection Engineer: Phillips + Gomez,
Façade Mural Artist: Erik Burke
Installation, Interactive and AV Design: 59 Productions
Filmmaker:  Jennifer LeBeau
Historian & Author: Sean Wilentz
Author: Lewis Hyde
Content and Copywriting: Ellipse Studio
Lighting Design: Tillotson Design Associates
Exhibits Structural Engineer: Coffman Engineers
Audio Guide: Art Processors
Graphic Production: Brown Bag Creative
Exhibit Fabricator: CREO Exhibits
Audio/Visual Integration: BBI Engineers
Gate Fabricator: Black Buffalo Ironworks

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