an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me

Clash of Perfectionists: Ando and Conforti at the Clark

For those clicking here from my article, This Tadao Ando Project Is a Berkshires Rental, in today’s Wall Street Journal, here’s some of the quirky stuff not suitable for mainstream media, as well as some illustrations to accompany my WSJ commentary:

Michael Conforti (left) and Tadao Ando (facing front) in the galleries during the press preview of the new Stone Hill Center

The ribbon-cutting ceremony for the opening of the Tadao Ando-designed Stone Hill Center in Williamstown, MA, which includes gallery space for the Clark Art Institute and spiffy new digs for the Williamstown Art Conservation Center, was spookily ill-fated. Torrential rains suddenly drenched the scene and many onlookers, just minutes before the ribbon cutting. The first enormous clap of thunder startled us almost precisely at the appointed scissor-wielding moment—the stroke of noon.

Clark director Michael Conforti and Anne-Imelda Radice, director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services (who came from Washington for the occasion) managed to muster smiles beneath umbrellas that were supposed to have been “Clark green,” but were manufactured in a paler, less vibrant hue.


Umbrellas also figured prominently at the soggy press preview two days before, when we gathered for lunch on the scenic terrace beneath enormous umbrella/canopies, which apparently had occasioned a contest of wills between the director and architect:


“I fought for these umbrellas, Conforti informed us almost at the outset of his opening remarks. “You have no idea of the level of resistance I got to these umbrellas.” He went on about this at some length, defending the need for these sheltering canopies (which did have the effect of cluttering the clean lines and obscuring the views of Ando’s architecture). Finally, Lisa Green, the Clark’s highly accomplished director of communications and design, could no longer restrain herself:

“Enough with the umbrellas!” she blurted.

I saw little evidence of warmth, let alone cameraderie, between Ando and Conforti during my visit. More significant than the umbrella brouhaha: Ando’s preference, I’ve been told, had been to use his customary smooth-as-silk concrete, but he bowed to Conforti’s desire for concrete molded to echo the building’s wood cladding.

The client-architect relationship is always a complex dance, but we can only hope that enough goodwill remains to get these two through the main event—the planned construction of a new Ando-designed Clark building, behind its existing facility on the main campus.

Here’s Ando (left), meeting the press under what he apparently regarded as an unwelcome encumbrance:


The most striking expression of the director’s perfectionist obsessions occurred when fellow blogger Ed Lifson and I caught him in the act of micromanaging the plants. We both took photos, with Michael’s full knowledge. Ed’s image was, of course, better than mine:

Photo by Edward Lifson

Michael had decided that these manzanites needed to be moved a smidge farther from the wall and, as you can see, he’s a hands-on guy. When I told a Clark worker (who gave me the name of the plants) about this occurence the next day, she exclaimed, “Those plants are HEAVY!” So I tried lifting one myself and couldn’t—whereupon I concluded that I’m a wimp and Michael is secretly pumping iron (or very large flower pots).

Here is the happy result of his labors:


The above photo shows the main entrance. But the door into the building, to the right of the opening, is screened from view (as I wrote in the WSJ) by the concrete outer walls that were molded in acid-etched pine forms to imitate the wood panels of the building, seen through the gap. It’s a rather austere first impression, which is why publicity shots of the Clark (like the one published with my WSJ article) are taken from the rear, where the intersecting angles of concrete, wood and glass are more visually striking.

Here’s what I called in the WSJ, “the most frustrating design misstep.” It’s the alluring porch, whose white oak floors extend inside the galleries (as you can see through the glass at the right side of the photo):


The problem is that the only door (below) through which you can access this porch from the building is marred by subtle lettering with a forceful message: “EMERGENCY EXIT ONLY.” That didn’t stop Ando (left) and his crew from using it, however. They had passed through the forbidden portal just before I took the photo. Architecture does have its privileges:
To get from the building to the porch, non-architects first have to exit onto a terrace (which includes a café), then slither through an opening next to the building, too small and unkempt to be called a path, and climb over an I-beam like the one you can see bordering the porch, above. There is one spot where the step onto the porch is gentler, but you have to walk a bit further around the perimeter to get to it.

Back to the umbrella-embellished terrace: Those Conforti-driven additions may disrupt your view of the new building, but the terrace’s concrete walls frustratingly interfere with your view of the breathtaking vistas beyond (even more so if you are sitting on chairs further back on the terrace):

You have to stand close to the edge to get full benefit of the scenery:

But when you do, don’t look down at the top surface of the concrete railing, or you’ll discover
a sight that’s far from appealing. COMING SOON: CONCRETE MATTERS.

an ArtsJournal blog