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“Integrating Art and Architecture”: Peabody Essex Chooses Rick Mather for Expansion UPDATED

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Rick Mather

London-based, American-born architect Rick Mather has another U.S. museum gig—deservedly so. It’s the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA.

Mather’s deft expansion of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts was unaccountably under the media radar, although it was favorably reviewed by me last year in the Wall Street Journal (and also on CultureGrrl, although with a few quibbles).

At its annual fundraising gala last night, the PEM announced that a hefty $550 million has been raised towards its $650-million capital campaign, bankrolling (and providing endowment for) Mather’s 175,000-square-foot, $200-million expansion, to open in 2016. Support for new installations and other projects is also included in this capital campaign.

Mather was chosen from “a list of internationally acclaimed architects…due to [his] firm’s keen sensitivity to urban context, ability to unite contemporary design with existing structures, and success in integrating art and architecture,” the museum stated.

According to the PEM’s press release:

The expansion will add up to 75,000 square feet of new galleries; a new restaurant and roof garden; new public program and education space; and essential improvements to collections storage, exhibition processing and conservation functions.

What’s interesting is that the PEM isn’t re-engaging the architect who designed its last expansion, which opened in 2003—Moshe Safdie, architect for Alice Walton‘s Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which opens this Friday in Bentonville, AR. CultureGrrl called Safdie’s expansion, The Atrium that Ate the Peabody Essex.

[UPDATE: Here's what a PEM spokesperson has now told me about why Safdie wasn't selected: "The Safdie expansion is such a strong, defining, elegant statement---one of his very best among museums---that it would be difficult to have two such statements in juxtaposition in the same institution." She added that no renderings of what the expansion may look like are yet available, because it's "too early in the design process."]

Chatting with me in July, Dan Monroe, the PEM’s director (and current president of the Association of Art Museum Directors), expressed satisfaction with Safdie’s work. Here’s what he told me:

Moshe’s a great architect and it was a delight to work with him….We had a very productive relationship with Moshe. But if you talked to him, he’d verify that we were also very strong and involved clients. [Look out, Rick!]

I’ll give you one example: When it came to the selection of brick, we went through a very extensive process to find a brick that worked in many ways. It wasn’t the brick he recommended….We wanted dimensionality, texture, some color differentiation. We wanted something that would resonate in a contemporary context and also historically, in relationship to the historical architecture….We built about 20 walls that were 20 feet wide and six feet tall and we looked at 136 kinds of brick before we found the one that we wanted and that worked….

We’re actually really happy with our building. People love to be in it. It’s extremely functional. It’s inspirational. And it’s wearing extremely well.

Not so the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, which I visited this summer. Here’s what the monumentally tall exterior concrete pillars of its 23-year-old Safdie building now look like:

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And here’s a closer view:

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This is what the NGC’s facilities manager had to say, through the museum’s spokeperson, about the unsightly staining:

Most of the staining is due to carbonation of the aging concrete and moisture in the surface cracks. There is also some organic staining occurring in some areas. Some corrosion stains are found at times and they have been attributed to iron inclusions in the concrete mix or exposed steel wire ties that corrode….

In 2001, locations showing signs of deterioration were selected for trial repairs and have been monitored since to determine effectiveness of repairs and progression of deterioration. Repairs have consisted of sack-rubbing, mortar patching, replacement of precast elements….

In 2010, a comprehensive review and hammer sounding of all cast in place columns, beams and flat roofs from a telescoping boom revealed minor deterioration. Based on the findings of the 2010 reviews, the exposed concrete columns, beams and roofs are not showing signs of performance or durability issues that would warrant major rehabilitation work in the short term. Minor repairs to specific locations have been recommended in the short term.

But back to the PEM: An article that its director wrote for the current issue of Architecture BostonThe Museum as Medium—suggests what may have led Monroe to Mather (although PEM’s circumstances are not specifically mentioned in the article):

The totality of the [museum] experience includes a host of factors that have, in far too many instances, been ignored or given short shrift by architects and museum staff and trustees. Examples are all too familiar: unwelcoming entrances; awkward placement and design of admission and orientation desks; inadequate signage; poor acoustics; insufficient restroom facilities; lack of comfortable seating; confusing circulation flows; fatiguing and disorienting gallery layouts….

Now, at the beginning of the 21st century…, we frequently see ourselves designing buildings that in too many instances are not very removed from their Beaux-Arts predecessors: advancing the monument at the expense of the visitors and their experience of art. The seamless integration of architectural expression, interpretation of art, and the visitor experience should be our goal.

Speaking of which, here’s my WSJ assessment of Mather’s VMFA expansion:

The genius of Mr. Mather’s design is its enhancement of the visitor experience through ease of circulation and navigation, interrupted by ample opportunities to take a break and refresh the eyes in lounges and on an outdoor deck overlooking a reflecting pool….

Once in the galleries, you are impelled onward by sightlines that extend across the breadth of the museum, anchored by “axial objects”–powerful pieces strategically positioned along the linear thoroughfares, beckoning you into the next room. The museum’s “wow” spaces are created not by flashy architecture but by exceptional collections, enticingly installed.

I suspect that’s precisely what Monroe and the PEM have in mind.Geoff EdgersBoston Globe report on the PEM’s expansion is here.

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