Timely and Engaging Building

The university’s program called for the building to accommodate its Museum of Art & Archaeology, and offices and classrooms for the departments of Art History and Anthropology – a lot of program for 26,000 square feet. Graves responded by more or less bisecting the building to distinguish between the public museum and the more private offices and classrooms. This distinction is clearly stated in the building’s lobby, where Graves treats the opposed entrances to museum and department offices as two separate buildings, their facades facing each other across the “street” of the lobby. The museum entrance is a Classical rotunda, while the department entrance is a severe, Egyptian-looking arrangement of massive piers.

Just another view

The museum entrance leads directly into the largest of the exhibition spaces, or through a hexagonal “hinge” room to the main corridor, off which are located four smaller galleries. The large gallery’s front wall is bowed to make room for the stair, slipped between this wall and the front facade of the building, that leads to the second floor. Graves’ sympathy for traditional Beaux-Arts museum planning–hierarchically sized rooms arranged symmetrically about clear axes–creats a hospitable atomosphere for the ancient Egyptian, Near Eastern, Pre-Columbian, and Oriental Artifacts that are permanently displayed on this floor. Interior walls stop short of the 16-foot ceilings; topped by chunky little columns, they increase the amount of perceived space in what is really very little area. Poche, of course, figures prominently in this cause as well: jewellike, tiny rooms are carved out under the stair, in corners, and even out of the external fire-stair tower (one of two that Graves added to the building to gain more interior space). While some critics may see all this as nostalgia on Graves’ part, the net effect of this deliberately “old-fashioned” plan is that the viewer is provided with the intimately scaled space needed to study the objects on display.

The palette of colors used in the project is a sophisticated one, with deep tones of green, blue, and terra cotta, against a background of rich cream, indicating a shift away from Grave’s recent fondness for grayed pastels. Rose and green marble, and beautifully crafted bird’s-eye maple display cases demonstrate how effectively the architect uses luxury materials, but he seems at the same time to be more at ease than ever with frugal ones (http://www.vacanthree.com) , the better to allocate extravagance where it counts most; the “thick” interior walls are still gypboard, and the fat columns atop the walls are made of PVC.

On the second floor, the rotating exhibition galleries are, appropriately, much more contemporary and less “archaeological” in feeling, with large, open spaces painted cream and white, and higher levels of daylight from second-floor windows.

The other half of the building, the Art History and Anthropology departments, must have been a programmatic headache, and it shows. To gain the required square footage, Graves extended a 1950s mezzanine addition over the law library to make a full second floor. Even so, there seem to be too many rooms in too little space–with the notable exception of the elegant Art History slide library on the second floor.

Graves’s version of Beaux-Arts Classicism, personal and abstract as it is, still appears at times rather miniaturized and ambitious compared with the loose-limbed grace of Hornbostel’s building. But then this was not a test of mimetic skill; it was a happy coincidence of design sympathies. What Graves set out to do–design a small museum the old-fashioned way–he did, and with considerable elegance. How he will apply these principles to the larger scaled contemporary artworks that will be displayed in the Whitney Museum addition (and the temptation to speculate is irresistible) remains to be seen. But, in light of the current crises in museum design, Graves’s quest for an architecture that engages both the object on display and the viewer in a three-way conversation is as admirable as it is timely.