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WILLIAMSTOWN --The Clark Art Institute is stepping into the future with light architectural footprints.
A $145 million renovation, opening to the public this weekend, challenges the museum world's infatuation with drop-dead buildings by celebrity architects in favor of one so low key it all but disappears.
The project gives The Clark space to exhibit art beyond the 19th-century niche for which it is known. It works to unify two earlier buildings of very different styles. And it entwines a contemplative setting for viewing paintings and sculpture with a sustainable approach to energy and land use.
All of this flows from a 2001 master plan that made preserving The Clark's scenic assets a priority. Longtime Clark visitors will find themselves in territory both familiar and new.
Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architect Tadao Ando, known in the United States primarily for his Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas, is credited with shaping the look of the new Clark, but the project was actually carried forward by a team of designers separately responsible for new buildings, interior renovations and the environment.
Ando designed the Stone Hill Center for art conservation, completed in 2008, and the new Visitor Center opening this weekend. Selldorf Architects in New York recrafted the interiors of the original white marble building designed in 1955 by Daniel Perry, and the 1973 granite addition by Pietro Belluschi and The Architects Collaborative. Reed Hilderbrand of Watertown had charge of landscape planning. The collaboration was orchestrated by Gensler architects of New York.
The result is a reconfigured Clark Art Institute that looks unchanged from the street, but that adds substantial new gallery space by sinking it underground, separates functions in more efficient ways and embraces its natural environment rather than turning away from it.
The original 1955 building, gutted and rebuilt, continues to house the permanent collection -- expanded with more American and decorative art -- although in subtly reconfigured spaces. The 1973 building, known as the Manton Research Center, with its multistory atrium, library and special-exhibition galleries will also look much as it did, but be focused more fully on academics. Its library will remain as is, the atrium will be a public reading room and the galleries will be given over to works on paper.
What is completely new is Ando's Visitor Center, two thirds underground, with its vast exhibition galleries, café, museum shop and special-activity areas. Situated behind the 1955 building, it entirely transforms the way visitors enter and experience the Clark campus.
On approach, the Visitor Center's low-slung, mid-20th century modernist profile of glass, granite and concrete, has the deceptively generic look of a medical clinic or corporate research center. A high granite wall channels visitors past an orientation kiosk, toward a barely discernable entrance, concealing views of what lies beyond. It is only after rounding a corner to face a bank of glass doors that hints emerge of the visual drama to come. Spaces shaped by stone and steel shift to ones defined by glass and light.
Passing through a glass-walled breezeway, visitors who knew the institute before the renovation, will find what used to be the main parking lot has been transformed into a triple-tiered reflecting pool with wide stone-paved terraces and views toward the surrounding woodlands, pastures and hills.
The back of the 1955 building is now its entrance, with a ceremonial staircase and new glass-walled lobby. The hulking, fortress-like Manton Research Center next to it is outwardly unchanged, but the rose granite of its exterior facing has been repeated as a building material throughout the new Visitor Center giving the array of discordant architectural styles a measure of visual unity.
Ando reinforced that unity by repeating the colonnade-style window treatment of the Visitor Center on the museum lobby pavilion. The reflecting pool, which serves as a water treatment system that reduces the Clark's water consumption by half, also acts as a visual magnet. Finally, his sensitive decision to avoid competing in scale or style with the two earlier buildings sidestepped what would surely have become architectural schizophrenia.
Inside the Visitor Center, a special-exhibition gallery to the right of the entrance and a ticket desk and glass-walled museum store to the left, share views of the reflecting pool. A hanging staircase descends to a two-story, below-grade lobby with a modernist-style café in muted grays and greens and hangar-size special-exhibition galleries that dwarf any the Clark has had to date. In these climate-controlled spaces, the Clark can exhibit giant works of art it has been unable to show until now.
It is here that an inaugural exhibition, "Make It New: Abstract Paintings from the National Gallery of Art, 1950-1975," will open on Aug. 2.
The ability to exhibit such large-scale art is essential to the Clark, says director Michael Conforti. As a research and academic center as well as an art museum, the institute has to respond, he says, to the widening breadth of curatorial studies it supports or risk becoming an historical "fossil."
The renovation not only adds 16,070 square feet of exhibition space for that purpose, but also configures the buildings and landscape to provide for the quiet contemplation of the art, a contrast, Conforti says, to the "shopping center" atmosphere cultivated by many museums elsewhere.
Ando's adeptness at creating such spaces by crafting a seamless relationship between buildings and environment, containing and then revealing views of the outdoors, and illuminating underground spaces with open air courtyards and light wells, made him the top choice for the project.
The architect said in an interview that obstructing and revealing views with walls of concrete and glass helps animate the landscape, so people become more aware of it. That awareness and the way the austere geometry of his buildings shapes a sense of rest and motion, of openness and shelter, of shadow and reflection are what make the new Clark an engaging platform for the contemplation of art and nature.
However, the pleasurable interplay between cool architectural stone, steel and glass and the soft, verdant landscape on a warm, bright summer day may read very differently during our interminable Berkshire winters, when skies are gray, the landscape cold and bleak and the reflecting pool a sheet of ice. Likewise, big new visitor spaces and galleries, enlivened by viewers in high season, may look deserted and unwelcoming off-season.
Those possibilities surely were anticipated during the decade of decision-making that must rank the new Clark among the most thought-out building projects on the planet. We must wait to see the outcome.
Circulation routes have been expanded throughout the campus so visitors can follow multiple paths to the same destinations, inside or out, and more easily see where they are going and where they came from.
From the Visitor Center, for example, one can follow the outdoor terrace and staircase to the 1955 building lobby or proceed up a covered glass-walled corridor overlooking a lily pond. Either way, a visitor who enters the lobby will discover a panoramic view of where he or she has come from.
Entering the 1955 building, longtime visitors will find their favorite artworks in settings that look familiar and yet different. The entrance gallery, hung with Homers, Remingtons and Innesses, is a new one created in what was a loading dock/storage area. But step beyond it, and the galleries revert to a height, scale and decor Sterling Clark and his wife, Francine would have known.
Revert, to a degree. The long hallways that surrounded the original sky-lit courtyard devoted to Impressionist paintings have been subdivided into "rooms" where related artworks -- Barbizon, Romantic, Old Masters -- are grouped. The windowed galleries that adjoined the hallway on the outer side of the building have also been reconfigured so visitors can move through them without returning to the corridor.
New wall colors -- varying shades of muted gray, lavender and green -- set off the artworks vividly.
The reconstruction added 5,000 square feet of exhibition space to the building, much of it given over to silver, porcelain, sculpture and other artworks newly acquired or seldom shown.
Housed in new, custom-made display cases of ultra clear nonreflective glass, the decorative objects pop as if seen in high definition.
In all this, the new Clark has transformed itself from a regional attraction to a national, even an international one. It is indeed a big step into the future.