A simple beauty as clear as glass

Times Staff Writer

Is there any meaningful difference these days between the sparest of modern architecture and a minimalist approach to building, in the tradition of Donald Judd and other postwar artists? The Toledo Museum of Art's remarkable new Glass Pavilion, the first American project by architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa and their Tokyo firm, SANAA, suggests how useful the distinction can be, however slender or academic it might look on paper.

Most of the modern-revival buildings that have filled the design press in the last decade, after all, have been anything but rigorous conceptually. Marked by a sleek, airy, flat-roofed style, some are effective only as backdrops for expensive furniture -- stage sets, to put it another way, for a high-end and sometimes self-congratulatory lifestyle.

Though it looks superficially the same, Minimalist architecture deserving of the name pares itself down not in the pursuit of style points but in an effort to frame the relationship between solid and void, nature and culture, and color and its absence -- and to explore how the eye sees and the mind understands those differences.

SANAA's $30-million building in Toledo, which will open to the public on Sunday, qualifies on all those counts, and as such -- despite its modest size of 76,000 square feet, half of which is buried in a basement level -- it packs a significant architectural punch. Even more successfully than Yoshio Taniguchi's 2004 renovation of the Museum of Modern Art, which lacks its fluidity and economy, the Glass Pavilion offers a resounding response to the idea that museums, in an era of never-ending expansion, need to deploy formally aggressive, eye-catching architecture to stay competitive.

The free-standing pavilion stands across a four-lane road from the museum's 1912 Neoclassical main building, which holds a fine if not very deep collection of mostly Western art -- including "The Architect's Dream," Thomas Cole's famous 1840 panorama on the history of architectural styles -- and a 1992 classroom wing by Frank Gehry. Seen from the broad steps of the 1912 building, the Glass Pavilion threatens to disappear into the landscape of grass and trees surrounding it.

True, it's a rather obvious conceit to design a transparent building to hold transparent works of art -- in this case, a vast collection that includes Egyptian spice jars, Venetian goblets and a giant cut-glass punch bowl by Toledo's Libbey Glass Co., whose president, Edward Drummond Libbey, founded the museum in 1901. But there is strength in the pavilion's restraint and an undeniable perfectionism. Architecture like this is a high-wire act. A single misconceived design gesture or choice of material can throw the whole thing off balance.

Above ground, the building is a simple, low-slung box, just 15 feet high. It is wrapped entirely in glass: museum architecture's answer to Philip Johnson's 1949 Glass House in New Canaan, Conn. Inside, a handful of rooms hide behind plaster walls, which contain most of the steel that, together with a few thin white columns, holds up the roof. But for the most part the galleries and public rooms of the building are created by delicate, curving glass panels that seem capable of propping up little more than a paperback.

Made of low-iron glass -- clearer than traditional architectural glass, which can look faintly green -- the panels are slotted into serpentine tracks that run along the ceiling and the floor. Though fixed in place, they appear, in a stunning visual trick, to have been pulled through the building like curtains.

Like all of the most impressive work by SANAA, which has three Japanese museums to its credit, the pavilion is transparent, largely colorless and almost obsessively precise. Walking through it, you can easily understand its architectural plan, as if you were tracing a giant blueprint with your footsteps. A plain white ceiling with recessed lighting and ground-concrete floors further the sense of restraint. On the lower level, classroom and storage spaces are utilitarian.

Whenever the design veers in the direction of severity or humorlessness, it's saved by its interest in shifting, shimmering visual effects -- in exploring the full architectural spectrum from a transparent wall to one that's fully opaque. When you stand outside the pavilion and spot trees or people on the other side, you are looking through more than a dozen layers of glass, each of them reflecting the sunlight or the interior of the building or the trees in a different way.

The museum's programming also helps in this regard. The building devotes roughly a fifth of its above-ground space to glass-blowing hot shops, which during museum hours and at night will be used by local artists and for classes. These rooms, which include seating for museum visitors, introduce an element of performance and physical action that help balance the building's necessary emphasis on introspection. If you stand in the main hallway -- which itself bends like a piece of molten glass as it leads from one of the building's entrances to the other -- you can look one way and see pieces of art on simple gray pedestals and the other way to see artists blowing glass.

Even the smallest bit of color thrums in these surroundings. One day last week, the green gloves worn by museum staffers as they placed glass objects on glass shelves in the building's open storage room glowed like neon, and the small circular openings in the glass-blowing furnaces suggested the orange eyes of an animal.

By the standards of their profession, Sejima, 49, and Nishizawa, 40, are still quite young. Though they maintain individual practices -- and though Sejima is far better known than her partner, who is still establishing himself as a solo architect -- it is as SANAA, the firm they founded in 1995, that they have gained prominent international commissions, including a forthcoming branch of the Louvre in Lens, France.

Their design for the New Museum of Contemporary Art, under construction on the Bowery in Manhattan, will open at the end of next year. A mismatched stack of boxes, it represents a new tack for the pair: It is taller and more solid, willfully less elegant, than their previous work.

In that sense, the Toledo project opens this weekend as the culmination of a decade's worth of gracefully rigorous, Judd-like exploration. It suggests that architectural Minimalism, long associated with a small group of architects including John Pawson, hasn't reached the end of its relevance -- that buildings can say as much, in a culture that is increasingly overloaded with imagery of all kinds, with what they leave out as what they include.

The pavilion's design also stakes out one side of an increasingly animated debate in the art world about the kind of architecture that best serves museums as they expand, and whether buildings that make a priority of creating successful rooms for showing art can also create the buzz and increased attendance that museum directors crave.

The debate has yet to be fully resolved. (How could it when SANAA's Toledo project and Daniel Libeskind's new wing for the Denver Art Museum, with its jagged, exploding forms, are opening within six weeks of one another?) Still, the Glass Pavilion makes its case with unusual persuasiveness.

In response to a seemingly endless stream of queries from Toledo residents, the museum has prepared not one but two lists of questions and answers about the new building. They include entries about how often the exterior walls will have to be cleaned (twice a year), whether birds will fly into them (probably not, since the surrounding trees are so much taller) and whether all that glass will turn the building into a greenhouse in summer (the architects hope not, since they installed a sealed cavity between the outside and inside walls to moderate the inside temperatures and lined some of the rooms with light-reflecting curtains).

That level of curious interest from the public, even if it verges on the skeptical, offers further inoculation against the notion that the pavilion is somehow not quite daring enough to compete in the hyper-competitive world of contemporary museum architecture. Conservative buildings don't often arrive with FAQs in tow.

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