A paean to art, not the architect

Times Staff Writer

American museums, still flush with expansion fever, have become more convinced than ever that real estate is destiny. Every museum in the country seems to be opening a new wing or a satellite building or scouting locations for one. And the recent news that the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth has hired Renzo Piano brings the number of American museum jobs the Italian architect has won to 63. OK, to nine. But still.

Few museums, however, can hope to match the double expansion pulled off in just 3 1/2 months by the Seattle Art Museum. In late January, the museum -- known as SAM -- finished the waterfront Olympic Sculpture Park by the New York firm Weiss / Manfredi. And this weekend it will open a spacious, crisply proportioned new building downtown by Allied Works Architecture, a Portland, Ore., firm run by Brad Cloepfil.

Separated by about a dozen blocks, the two projects have little in common save their obvious ambition. The park, with zigzagging paths leading down to a small beach littered with driftwood, doesn’t try to smooth over its rough edges; the backdrop for its pieces by Alexander Calder, Roy McMakin and Richard Serra is formed not just by ferries churning across Puget Sound but also by train tracks, signage (“Bavarian Meats: Family Owned Since 1961”) and idling SUVs.


The $86-million downtown building, an extension to SAM’s 1991 home by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, is by contrast coolly restrained. It was planned as a refuge not just from the life of the city but also from the aggressive exuberance of some recent museum architecture.

Room to grow

Wrapped in glass and stainless-steel panels, Cloepfil’s wing is a vertical design -- 18 floors altogether -- that will allow the museum to expand in phases as it grows. It is part of a complex developed jointly with Washington Mutual, which is based in Seattle. For the opening, the museum has moved into the lower four floors of Cloepfil’s building, which is nestled into the side of Washington Mutual’s new world headquarters (a 42-story skyscraper by the Seattle firm NBBJ Architects). In future years, SAM can move up into the eight floors above, which are now being leased by the bank but were designed with the kind of mechanical systems required for showing art.

The symbolism of the arrangement is blatant enough to make even Andy Warhol a little uncomfortable. Not only does the Washington Mutual tower seem to be taking the museum under its wing, shielding it from the tinted-glass skyscrapers that surround it, but, at least from the outside, the Cloepfil design is also much more concerned with its relationship to the bank than to the Venturi building. The same is true of the NBBJ tower, which, along 2nd Avenue on the uphill side of the site, connects bluntly and awkwardly to the old museum.

Still, the deal SAM struck with Washington Mutual is a savvy one, allowing for phased expansion while also cushioning the museum’s bottom line. And with the sculpture park joining its original home in Volunteer Park -- a 1933 Art Deco building that now holds the SAM-run Seattle Asian Art Museum -- the museum now has a diverse roster of venues that its competitors across the country can only envy. It shows art in the middle of a park (the 19th century model), in a busy section of downtown (the 1990s model) and in a postindustrial waterfront setting (a model for this decade, where landscape design and architecture are merging in new and compelling ways).

Cloepfil’s building is in many respects a West Coast version of the recently expanded Museum of Modern Art in New York, where Yoshio Taniguchi also emphasized elegant precision over architectural fireworks. Inside, narrow escalators lead from a plain, double-height foyer to serene, handsome and roomy galleries. The palette of materials (terrazzo and light oak floors, frosted glass and dark metal panels) is seriously MoMAesque, as is the well-behaved geometry of the interior spaces. And the strategy of using an ambitious real-estate deal to finance a museum expansion has a precedent, of course, in MoMA’s 1984 Museum Tower, a high-end residential building by Cesar Pelli.

On top of that, it’s easy to read the facade, with its vertical signage and storefront-style openings to the street, at least partly as a homage to the 1939 MoMA exterior by Edward Durell Stone and Philip L. Goodwin. Though Cloepfil finds spots to vary the forms of the building -- particularly on the upper floors, the facade folds and bends in complicated ways -- he’s also saying quite clearly that the Modern is the basic template for contemporary museum architects on either coast.


Cloepfil runs an increasingly busy office whose projects include a new Disney animation studio in Glendale and museums in New York, Colorado and Michigan. His buildings, always lean and strong at the same time, easily mix references to Louis Kahn, Donald Judd and other postwar architects and artists.

That legacy is evident inside the building, particularly in the way that Cloepfil manipulates views of Elliott Bay and the Olympic Mountains beyond. The sections of the museum facing west are shaded by a stainless-steel brise-soleil system that can be manually shifted when curators want to change the lighting as they rearrange the exhibitions. But Cloepfil also uses the system to frame and restrict views and even to actively block them. It’s a game he’s played before, particularly in an impressive recent house in Sun Valley, Idaho. The result here is a museum whose views can’t begin to match those of Rem Koolhaas’ nearby public library, which opened three years ago.

No ‘look at me’ building

Last week, during the museum’s pre-opening celebrations, SAM director Mimi Gardner Gates -- stepmother to Bill -- was quick to praise Cloepfil for avoiding what she called “look at me” architecture. Former Getty director John Walsh, flown in by the museum to give an effortlessly smart lecture Friday morning, used the same phrase to describe everything the new design managed to reject. The message was clear: The museum wasn’t going to fall for the sort of bombastic, postcard-ready architecture that Daniel Libeskind gave Denver (where, ahem, staffers are now being laid off) and Santiago Calatrava unleashed on Milwaukee. It was putting the spotlight squarely on the art.

But that notion of museum design -- the idea that architects choose to serve either the paintings or their own egos -- is oversimplified, not to mention frayed from overuse. There is plenty of ego, after all, in Cloepfil’s design.

And, increasingly, the most satisfying new museums are the ones that manage to bypass that art-versus-architecture debate and give visitors a real variety of visual and spatial experience. The ones that do so most successfully -- Diller and Scofidio’s Institute for Contemporary Art in Boston and Herzog and De Meuron’s Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, to name two -- make clear that it’s possible to combine calm, well-proportioned galleries with moments of real architectural cleverness and daring.

Museum officials and Cloepfil himself were quick last week to criticize the Venturi design -- which has a limestone facade stamped with surface ornament -- as cramped, dark and fussy. That was no surprise; part of generating excitement for your new museum wing is making sure that people understand just how dated and undersized your old building was.


The truth, though, is that cycles of taste move much faster than construction in the architecture world. Planned at roughly the same time as Taniguchi’s museum and in something of the same spirit, the new SAM arrives just as many of us are feeling ready for at least a small corrective to MoMA’s upright and largely corporate approach -- for a bit of humor and maybe a splash of decoration as well.

That doesn’t mean going back to the stage-set Postmodernism that Venturi and Scott Brown were turning out in the 1980s and early 1990s, which was often tinny and overly mannered. It only means that every time Cloepfil or Gates or Walsh brought up the Venturi design just to knock it, it served mostly as a reminder of what the new wing is missing.