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Crystal Bridges Challenge: Molding Moshe Safdie’s Arki-tecture into Art-chitecture

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Wall text about Moshe Safdie at the inaugural installation of Crystal Bridges

As I mentioned in my previous post, Moshe Safdie, the Haifa-born, Montreal-bred architect (now based in Boston and Jerusalem) is on a roll in this country, having recently completed not only the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, AR, but also the widely admired Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, Kansas City, and the United States Institute of Peace. The latter, on the Mall in Washington, DC, was panned (unjustifiably, in my view) by Washington Post critic Philip Kennicott (who later penned both ambivalent and positive assessments of Crystal Bridges, on two successive days more than two months ago, when the project was still incomplete).

I haven’t yet made it to the Kauffman Center, but I did recently visit and photograph the USIP in Washington, finding it engagingly airy and uplifting. Safdie has stated that he wants his buildings, in general, to be “aspirational”—a quality particularly fitting for the headquarters of an organization devoted to peaceful resolution of international conflict.

Here is a view of the USIP’s striking exterior, embodying both solidity and transparency, as well as a look at the interior of its soaring atrium (with offices at the right in that photo):

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United States Institute of Peace

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United States Institute of Peace

Like the two other recent additions to Safdie’s American oeuvre, Crystal Bridges is a “wow” building from the outside. But it is something of a problematic puzzle on the inside. I have already discussed (in previous video commentary), my strong misgivings about the most vexing space—the glass-walled suspension-bridge pavilion for early 20th-century art.

Here’s another look at one of the two unlovely gallery boxes that are incongruously plunked down in the center of that pavilion, shielding the art from the potentially damaging sunlight that enters through long expanses of glass. The exterior created a serious problem for which the architect contrived an inelegant solution:

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Whatever its shortcomings as a home for art, this pavilion undeniably casts a magical spell at night:

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When I initially set foot inside the museum, I felt entranced by the mesmerizing aura created by Safdie’s awe-inspiring spaces, with their dramatic wood-beamed ceilings and off-kilter angles. But these cavernous volumes are chopped up by a maze of walls—a not entirely successful attempt to tame the architectural beast by subdividing the space with some art-friendly right angles:

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The first gallery in “Celebrating the American Spirit”—Crystal Bridges’ chronological installation of its permanent collection
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

As I immersed myself in the galleries and their contents over the course of two days, I began to appreciate how much work the curators had cut out for them during the installation. Their task (complicated by the fact that they didn’t have the art on premises until a couple of months prior to the opening) was to adapt a collection of predominantly small-to-medium sized pictures to pavilions that will never be described as “well-proportioned”—critical shorthand for art-friendly spaces.

“I initially felt that I was going to have the fight the architecture,” admitted American art curator Kevin Murphy (featured in this CultureGrrl post and video). “I thought that whoever was going to be the curator here was going to have trouble with the curved walls [such as the one on the right side of the above photo]. But we all cracked the code….Once I felt I had figured it out, I liked having different types of spaces to work with.”

“What originally seemed to be challenges turned out to be opportunities,” agreed Matt Dawson, the museum’s deputy director for art and education….It turned out to be no problem to put a flat painting on a curved wall. But the bigger problem, conceptually, was, ‘What do you do with a curved wall?’ The long views that you get on those curved walls are unique opportunities that you do not normally experience in museums….You get to see long adjacencies of 40 works on one wall, so you get to tell those long stories.”

While they allow for grand vistas, those long, curved walls also impel you to march along their full arc, then double back to take in the works that you had initially passed by, in the squared-off interior spaces. This is a sometimes disjointed, confusing journey. But, for the most part, the curators made it work, by gathering pieces that resonate with each other, stylistically or thematically, within the walled-off sections.

The interior walls should have been temporary, to allow flexibility for different configurations in future installations. But most of these walls won’t move: They permanently house elements of the building’s climate-control system, as evidenced by the vents at the base:

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The long wall on one side of the pavilion is not only curved, but also considerably taller than the flat wall on the opposite side. The curators finessed this by having the top of the tall wall painted a darker shade, to visually “reduce” its height to the level of the interior walls. You can see this attempted illusion on the blue wall below:

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In a long phone conversation I had with Moshe Safdie shortly after my visit last May to Crystal Bridges’ construction site, he told me this: “I’m not at peace with the dark [painted] bands. I would have done it differently. That’s a curatorial decision. If there was an issue of the scale of the paintings, I would have introduced some kind of a molding on the wall that zoned it, rather than changing the color.”

Here’s how he did it (with both molding and color) in the more classic spaces of the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (which I visited last summer):

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The sloping ceilings and the resulting different-height walls in Crystal Bridges’ galleries made it difficult to light the artworks appropriately and evenly. As Murphy noted, “Some lights have a throw of 40 feet and some have a throw of 12 feet….What lenses and what intensity of bulbs to use varies.” These complications, he said, weren’t entirely resolved “until very late. We had a lot of options. And we didn’t have a lighting designer.”

Safdie expressed some dissatisfaction with the decision by museum officials to scotch his initial plans, as publicized in a previous Crystal Bridges press release, to include skylights in every gallery. After Don Bacigalupi became the museum’s director (October 2009), “there were different views,” Safdie told me, “and the skylights were removed” before they were ever built. Eschewing skylights permitted the curators to install light-sensitive works-on-paper in close proximity to the paintings.

Skylights did, however, survive (very heavily scrimmed) in the suspension-bridge gallery for early 20th-century art:

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Perhaps things might have gone more smoothly (and turned out somewhat differently) had the current curatorial team been involved during the design phase, providing informed input and monitoring the progress. But with the exception of founding curator Chris Crosman, today’s curatorial team came on board less than a year ago. Bacigalupi replaced longtime director Bob Workman as director after construction was already well underway.

Another late change, Safdie said, was relocating the planned special exhibition space from the pavilion now devoted to the permanent collection’s 20th- and 21st-century art to the space below, marred by two bulky columns. (The second pillar is further down the gallery, directly behind the one shown.) This space now houses Wonder World, a quirky, sometimes gimmicky assortment of works from the museum’s contemporary collection:

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Here’s one gimmick that the organizers could not have anticipated—a visitor who appears to be scrutinizing his double!

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Evan Penny (b. 1953), “Old Self: Portrait of the Artist as He Will (Not) Be. Variation #2,” 2010

Visitors to Crystal Bridges will have an opportunity to appreciate the full range of its architect’s oeuvre when the traveling exhibition, Global Citizen: The Architecture of Moshe Safdie, arrives at the museum (dates to be determined—possibly fall 2012 or the following year).

Given Safdie’s long, extensive experience with projects of enormous size and scope (not to mention my complete lack of engineering expertise), I’ll have to take on faith the architect’s unequivocal assertions to me that the project’s weir system can handle any amount of torrential rains, and that the idiosyncratically designed suspension bridges (hung from their roofs, not, as is customary, from their bases) will withstand even the tornados that sometimes afflict the region.

And this just in:

Crystal Bridges has announced a planned four-year exhibition collaboration with the High Museum, the Louvre and the Terra Foundation for American Art. The first resulting installation, “American Encounters: Thomas Cole and the Narrative Landscape,” will be on view May 12-Aug. 13 at Crystal Bridges, after which it travels east to the High in Atlanta (Sept. 22-Jan. 3). This display (with a different title) premieres at the Louvre on Jan. 14, when the Paris museum will host a symposium of experts from the four cooperating organizations.

This dossier show consists of only four Coles, as well as an Asher B. Durand (not Crystal Bridges’ iconic “Kindred Spirits,” which depicts Cole). The Louvre will contribute a work by Pierre-Antoine Patel the Younger.

[NOTE: I had previously stated that I would publish a two-part post on Crystal Bridges' architecture, but decided, instead, to do this as a single post.]

All photos by Lee Rosenbaum

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