What does a museum's addition tell us about the museum and who they want as visitors?

January 9, 2013

Some Thoughts on Architectural Vocabulary and Institutional Vision

 

by Arch Horst

 

When the Saint Louis Art Museum decided to expand its late 19th Century, Cass Gilbert designed, Beaux Arts building it chose British architect, David Chipperfield for the project.   

 

The resulting addition has the hallmarks of a Chipperfield design – a limited palette of materials, spare detailing and simplified surfaces – and defers to the classical entrance of the original by being set back from the original façade.

                                                                

The addition, in its forms and materials, is making a clear statement:  “The modern and contemporary art inside these concrete walls is separate, and different, from what is hung in that old building, it has a separate entrance, and it is for a different audience.” 

It is important to consider the extent to which this message diverges from the original message expressed by the Cass Gilbert classical façade. Its forms, massing and materials were understood by the population of St. Louis in the late 1800’s to refer to an ideal state exemplified by ancient Greek democracy. The building was for all classes and the art it presented had the power to elevate and educate everyone who entered.

 

Could an addition of a similar size to the one designed by Chipperfield express democratic ideals, re-assert the importance of the classical entrance, better entice all citizens of St. Louis to visit their museum and embody the equalitarian traditions of the founders?  How would one approach the problem with these goals in mind? 

 

If one were designing an addition that gave priority to these goals, one would begin by reinforcing the importance of the main classical entrance and not creating a second, prominent entrance in the new wing. 

 

All visitors – donors and the simply curious – would enter together through the classical portico and into the grand Sculpture Hall.

If the intent were to respect the strong axial arrangement of the original Cass Gilbert design, then the addition would have been located either on the south, or it would have been located to the north, overlooking the park and on axis with the main classical entrance.

 

If the desire were to encourage a wider public to experience all of the art in the original museum and the addition, and not just the donors who gave so generously, then the addition would have been linked more directly to the well-used classical entrance.

 

If the goal were to attract visitors of all backgrounds and make them comfortable in the museum then the addition would have used a wider range of materials and combined them in a freer, more exuberant manner.  To this end, the building would not be fortress-like but offer enticing views of the art on display from outside the addition.

 

Finally, if the goal were to give expression to the exploratory and anti-institutional nature of the Modern and contemporary art shown in the addition then the architectural forms, materials and spaces of the addition would stand in clear contrast to the classical Cass Gilbert building.  

 

Could these goals have actually been accomplished?  And what might such an addition look like? The alternative design developed by Black River Architects, illustrated in the plans and renderings that follow answer both questions in the affirmative.

In this design the addition is aligned with, and sits slightly lower than, the original main entrance. The tall, classical colonnaded entrance retains its visual dominance and the open plaza of the addition, which is the width of the colonnade, frames and emphasizes the classical entrance. 

 

Currently the arriving visitor is presented with a large building mass on one side and an unimpeded view of the seemingly endless horizon on the other (see the photograph at the beginning of this article). There is no arrival space or courtyard easing the transition from the vast Midwest landscape into the museum. By placing the addition opposite the existing building, the resulting building complex now has a humanely-scaled space that will embrace the arriving visitor.

 

All visitors will enter through the existing main entrance, reinforcing the founders’ democratic intent. The Sculpture Hall retains its original function as the most important space in the museum to which all galleries relate. A grand stair to the lower level connects to the addition via a tunnel under the entrance drive. A similar strategy was employed to connect the East Wing of the National Gallery in Washington to the original classical main building.          

 

The addition intentionally uses materials and structural elements that are less monumental and “august” than the existing building as a deferential gesture to the Cass Gilbert design and as a “welcome” to visitors of all backgrounds. Too many urban citizens view art museums as not “their type of place” and the addition’s appearance strives to reduce the perceived gulf between the institution and the population.

 

The proposed addition is decidedly not a fortress for art. Art can be viewed from windows on the plaza which look down on the galleries below and directly into the north facing sculpture gallery from the top of the sledding hill. The greater permeability of the building is intended to make art, particularly Modern and contemporary art, less mysterious and more accessible.

Finally, the proposed addition does not create contemporary equivalents of the original building’s formal galleries, but loft-like spaces that can be easily rearranged as the art and exhibitions change. The spaces will be as grand in scale as those in the main building but more industrial and animated by light (properly UV controlled, of course). 

   

This design could be easily constructed and for less than the actual addition. This design would have its drawbacks. In its current configuration it would not have provided more parking, some of the donors might not have been compelled by its more egalitarian intent, and it would have likely incited opposition from some citizens who would not want their park intruded upon. 

 

But these would not have to be deal breakers. As Christo has demonstrated with his large scale public projects, engaging in a public dialogue ultimately wins approval, converts and enthusiastic supporters. If the museum had adopted a design requiring civic approval then it could have reconnected with its mission as an institution for all of St. Louis and could have employed its civic traditions to build donor support and attract visitors.

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