Monday, September 17, 2012
Disrespecting Cass Gilbert
A few years ago I attended a talk by architect David Chipperfield in the auditorium of the St. Louis Art Museum. In discussing the design approach for the then proposed museum expansion, Chipperfield said that the design would respect the original Cass Gilbert museum building. Upon seeing the proposed design, and now having seen it constructed, I am not so sure that respect is the word I would use to describe how the addition treats the Palace of Fine Arts. Above is a last view of the east elevation of the museum in January 2010.
I am not so concerned with the design of the addition structure itself. It is certainly not a stunning design that you will see splashed across the pages of architectural periodicals, but it is not an awful design either. The renderings of the interior lead me to believe that once inside, the addition will be quite attractive.
I am thrilled that the museum will be gaining additional gallery space, which will theoretically allow for the un-crating of a percentage of the museums large collection of works that sit in storage due to lack of space. I am not so thrilled with how the new Chipperfield addition relates to the original museum. One problem is how the new building was attached to Cass Gilbert's masterpiece.
This was the east entrance of the St. Louis Art Museum just before construction of the addition started. The entrance had not been used as an entrance for many years (possibly decades), but the lack of functionality did not diminish its presence. Once construction commenced, I have been told by two different sources, that the beautiful stone engaged Ionic columns were unceremoniously chiseled off of the building! It remains to be seen what other other changes were perpetrated to Cass Gilbert's work, but my guess is that the stone doorway, pediment and arch met a similar demise.
The entablature of the east entrance survives but is nearly hidden behind the solid black box that has smashed squarely into the east face of the museum. Where the columns were removed, flat stone has been added to meet the new addition. This complete lack of sensitivity to the historic fabric of the original museum is unprecedented in even at the height of the modern era when so many classical buildings were defaced.
This is a 1959 model of a multi-phase museum expansion designed by the architectural firm of Murphy & Mackey (image from Missouri Digital Heritage). Notice how the planned east and west wings would have attached to Cass Gilbert's Palace of Fine Arts only at the flat portion of the stone facades, below the decorative frieze and leaving the east and west entrances fully intact and functional leading to secure outdoor sculpture courtyards. Only the south wing of this plan containing the auditorium and restaurant was executed, opening in 1960.
In 1978, alterations and an expansion of the south wing by Kivett and Meyers actually removed the two portions of the Murphy & Mackey addition that had attached to the original building at the main floor level, leaving only the lower level connection. While the Kevett and Meyers alterations wrapped Murphy & Mackey's auditorium with what looks more like a suburban office building, it paid the utmost respect to Cass Gilbert's original museum. Removing the mostly glass main level connection immediately adjacent to the south entrance though did make getting to the restaurant and auditorium somewhat awkward.
Beyond how and where the Chipperfield's addition attaches to the existing museum, there is the relationship between the new structure and the existing museum. Instead of configuring the addition so that there could be usable outdoor courtyards like in the Murphy & Mackey design, Chipperfield left only about a 20 foot gap. This is just enough to let light in windows, but too narrow to be a useful space. In placing the building so close to the existing museum, much of Cass Gilbert's south and east elevations are unintelligible.
This is a view out of one of the lower level windows in the original museum showing the close very proximity of the new addition.
In complete contrast to the addition to the St. Louis Art Museum, Steven Holl's solution to adding space to the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City provides 165,000 square feet of galleries, offices and other facilities without overwhelming the original 1933 Beaux Arts structure. The addition was completed in 2007.
The connection to the new addition occurs at the Beaux Arts building's lower level, so that all elevations of the original structure are completely unencumbered by the new building. Much of the addition was constructed below grade and has grass covered roofs punctuated by the glass "lanterns". The addition is quite spectacular at night and overall it is a much more dynamic building than Chipperfield's conservative solution. Steven Holl's website project page has several great photos.
For the addition to the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha completed in 1994, Sir Norman Foster restrained himself from his usual high-tech designs with a simple large box clad in the same Georgia pink marble as the original 1931 Moderne museum. The addition nicely compliments the museum and attaches to a large area of the side of the structure. But original facade is fully intact and becomes the interior wall of a large glass atrium that connects the buildings and functions as a lobby, sculpture space, cafe and event space.
Joslyn image sources: exterior, atrium
Between the drop-off drive in front of the new front entrance and the ramp to the new underground parking garage, which accounts for over 60% of the square footage of the addition, is a sea of sloped asphalt with groupings of round openings, which I would presume to be tree wells. This is not exactly the most attractive material choice compared to the materials of the building itself, and yes the sidewalks are asphalt as well!
The corners of the driveways for the entry drop off and garage ramp are square, which I'm sure looked good on a plan, but won't work so well in reality since cars don't turn at right angles. All of the driveways also lack accessible curb ramps at the sidewalks.