North Adams museum design aims to evoke connection to city's industrial past

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NORTH ADAMS — The exterior design of the Extreme Model Railroad and Contemporary Architecture Museum evokes the modern high-speed "bullet" trains.

Architect Zhu Pei employs a shiny, silver-colored metallic siding on a smoothly curved edifice with no sharp angles shaped to fit between its neighbors — the Hoosic River on one side and the Pan Am railroad tracks on the other.

The design, Zhu Pei told The Eagle this week, is meant to evoke a connection between the impact of trains on the small industrial city of the past century, as well as its connection to nature.

He also wished to give the perception of movement and innovation. It is, after all, going to house a museum of contemporary architecture.

Zhu Pei recently accepted the challenge of designing the building that is the focus of a team put together by museum developer Thomas Krens to be built on the site of the former Sons of Italy building just east of the Hadley overpass, behind the American Legion.

"When people see it, I want it to be strongly connected with the industrial past, truly representative of the last century," Zhu Pei said.

The importance of the train to the history of North Adams is the driving force behind the museum concept, and Zhu Pei's approach to the design, he said.

The interior will be a multimedia experience that changes as the patron walks through the building, leaving them with a perception of movement and multidimensional connections between community, industry, architecture and nature, something Zhu Pei said he used as inspiration in the design.

Zhu Pei said that in his work, "I always emphasize having an experience, an interaction, with the edifice, rather than just seeing a grand object."

Zhu Pei, a leading Chinese architect who founded Studio Pei-Zhu in Beijing in 2005, is a dean at the Central Academy of Fine Arts' School of Architecture; a visiting professor at Harvard and Columbia universities, and won the Architectural Review Future Project Awards in 2017.

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He has been honored with a number of other prestigious architectural awards, including being named one of "the five greatest architects under 50" by the Huffington Post in 2011.

In 2006 and 2007, Zhu Pei was commissioned by the Guggenheim Foundation to design the Guggenheim Art Pavilion in Abu Dhabi and the Guggenheim Museum in Beijing.

His built works include the CaiGuo-Qiang Courtyard House Renovation (Beijing, 2007), the Digital Beijing, Olympics Control Center (Beijing, 2008), the OCT Design Museum, and the Minsheng Museum of Modern Art (Beijing, 2015). He is working on the Dali Museum of Contemporary Art, Himalaya Culture Center in Tibet, and the Yang Liping Performing Arts Center and Imperial Kiln Museum in Jingdezhen, China.

According to Ben Sosne, general counsel for the EMRCA project, the museum is in the schematic design phase, and the effort to attract further investment in the project is ongoing. The hope is that construction will begin within the next year, to be completed by 2021.The interior of the museum will feature a range of model trains traveling through a cityscape, all created at the same miniature scale — at a 1:48 scale ratio. There will also be view screens on the walls in the background of the cityscape offering moving views of scenery. Another room will feature the contemporary architecture museum space offering miniature examples of the most dynamic of modern architecture, and some of those models will be switched out for new architectural offerings.The building is designed to be 800 feet long. Sosne noted that museum officials are in talks with Pan Am Railway to build a pedestrian bridge over the tracks in the area of the American Legion building. Such a structure would offer new connections for locals and visitors to the downtown area, and relieve Pan Am of a looming liability issue — that stretch of track is notorious for being the site of numerous trespassing violations when folks cross the tracks to get to the commercial area just east of the tracks. Occasionally, pedestrians have been hit by trains while trying to cross the tracks in that vicinity.

The EMRCA team is working to price out the construction project, figuring out which materials will work and how much the ultimate price tag might be. Until that is done, they said, an estimated cost would be hard to pin down.

But at some point, at its proposed location, this museum would be at a nexus of a variety of travel modes.

The Berkshire Scenic Railway stops nearby on its tourist runs between Adams and North Adams.

The planned hike/bike trail that is projected to pass through downtown will pass by.

The effort to revive the Hoosic River's banks to be more user friendly would be right next door.

And the planned pedestrian bridge over the tracks and the existing pedestrian bridge connecting Western Gateway Heritage State Park with Main Street and the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art will create a traffic pattern that encourages pedestrians to find new paths through downtown and the various attractions that might soon grace the neighborhood.

Scott Stafford can be reached at sstafford@berkshireeagle.com or 413-629-4517.


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