As the world goes gargantuan -- from suburban mansions with airport atrium-size foyers to SUVs capable of carrying small armies -- the museum world is keeping pace with the popular trend for biggie-fication.
The debut in 1997 of Frank Gehry's sensuous, critically hailed design for the Guggenheim Museum's branch in Bilbao, Spain, in many ways began the lemming leap for bigger, more architecturally "name" museums and destination architecture. Every major American museum now seems in the throes of expansion fever and engaged in a high-culture version of keeping up with the Joneses.
The enticement to expand is powerful. The Museum of Modern Art's $425 million expansion, designed by Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi, opened a year ago, resulting in doubling the museum's annual attendance to more than 2 million, and Gehry's Bilbao museum created a tourist pipeline that helped revitalize that declining industrial city.
The architectural overhauls continue in fly-over country, too. The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis recently completed a high-profile $92 million expansion, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston will complete a whopping $500 million addition in 2010.
Signs indicate Atlanta's High Museum of Art is anticipating a similar boom in its attendance and art-world profile when the museum debuts the addition to its critically heralded 1983 Richard Meier-designed building on Peachtree Street on Nov. 12. The bigger question, though, is what administrators will do with all that shiny new space.
The $124 million, 177,000-square-foot expansion, which more than doubles the museum's size, is part of a total $164 million expansion of the Woodruff Arts Center complex. The expansion is designed by the Pritzker Prize-winning Italian Renzo Piano, an architect highly regarded for designing the Menil Collection in Houston, the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas and the Pompidou Centre in Paris. The High Museum is Piano's first expansion project in a growing list of museum expansions so extensive, Architectural Record has queried, "Is Renzo Piano America's default architect?" Piano's upcoming expansions include New York's Whitney Museum of American Art, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Piano's design for the High is viewed by some as the dawning of a new age in museum expansions, a low-key alternative to the flamboyant "starchitecture" of Gehry and Rem Koolhaas, the architect whom Piano replaced for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art project. From all appearances, Piano's High expansion is a consummate entry in the architect's body of work, incorporating his signature use of natural light, nautical metaphors and a subdued design that complements rather than competes with Meier's building.
The Piano addition to the High features three new buildings, including an administrative center and the Anne Cox Chambers Wing, which will house temporary exhibition galleries on the second level and contemporary art and photography galleries with work drawn from the permanent collection on the Skyway level.
But the expansion's crown jewel and the largest of the three new buildings is the Wieland Pavilion, named for home developer John Wieland and his wife, Sue, who donated $12 million to the expansion project. The four-level Wieland Pavilion will feature the new main entrance to the museum and, on the lower level, new galleries devoted to African art, photography, works on paper, and a study center where visitors can peruse works on paper in the museum's collection by appointment. Temporary exhibition space will be featured on the second floor, and contemporary art and photography from the museum's permanent collection will be on the top Skyway level, which connects with the Anne Cox Chambers Wing.
The Meier building, now called the Stent Family Wing, will house the bulk of the High's permanent collection on its five levels, as well as the Greene Family Learning Gallery for preschool- to elementary-age children. Here, budding master builders can hone their Richard Meier and Renzo Piano skills by constructing their own architectural designs using custom-created blocks. Baby conceptualists can riff on shapes inspired by Frank Stella or Claes Oldenburg and create their own objets d'art.
Creating another point of entry for the Woodruff Arts Center is Piano's design of the elegant new Table 1280 Restaurant and Tapas Lounge (see review page 79), helmed by chef Shaun Doty, whose minimalist tapas will vie for conceptual attention with artwork by Spencer Finch and Alyson Shotz commissioned specifically for the space.
High Director Michael Shapiro says he not only hopes to see museum attendance double to 500,000 a year with the expansion's debut, but he wants to broaden the way the public interacts with the museum within the booming Midtown grid, which may someday boast another significant player in the international world of architecture, Santiago Calatrava's $300 million design for the Atlanta Symphony Center. To that end, Piano's expansion project includes a 15,000-square-foot outdoor piazza that bridges the museum's main entrance and Table 1280, meant to encourage the kind of informal, serendipitous meetings, pedestrian traffic and intermingling of life and art that injects an urban European model into Atlanta's car-defined sprawl.
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