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A most mannerly evolution

The Huntington adds space with an eye to sightlines and complementing its botanical and architectural mainstays.

July 24, 2005|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

"The center of gravity of the Huntington has been crucially affected by a series of developments," John Murdoch said, weighing his words as he moved into exactly the right position. Nothing -- apart from the plants -- is expected to change at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino. But a parade of construction projects has effectively tilted the balance of the 86-year-old institution, creating a new hub of public activity.

Standing on a circular lawn north of the historic heart of the campus, Murdoch, director of the art collections, was surrounded by buildings that didn't exist a few years ago, at least in their current guises. To his back was the Rose Hills Foundation Conservancy for Botanical Science, scheduled to open in October. To his right was the Mary Lou and George Boone Gallery, a 5-year-old temporary exhibitions space carved out of a former garage. To his left, a bit farther afield, was the Munger Research Center, a major addition to the library that began serving scholars last fall.

But the focal point of Murdoch's discussion was the Lois and Robert F. Erburu Gallery, in front of him. Named for the Huntington trustee emeritus and former Times Mirror Co. chairman and his wife, the gallery opened in late May. It was built to accommodate the Huntington's rapidly expanding collection of American art, but the inaugural display consists of European artworks removed from the Huntington Gallery while that historic building undergoes a long-postponed renovation.

Many visitors have already discovered that the Huntington's "greatest hits" -- 18th century British full-length portraits, including "The Blue Boy" by Thomas Gainsborough and "Pinkie" by Sir Thomas Lawrence -- have a new, temporary home at the Erburu. But with that installation complete, Murdoch has his eye on the future.

The north side of the Huntington's campus will become "a hothouse of educational activities and exhibitions," he said, when public programs at the Conservancy and the Erburu are added to temporary exhibitions at the Boone. New Chinese gardens, under development just west of the Boone, will welcome their first visitors next year. And the exhibition space at the Erburu will grow, from 16,000 square feet to 25,000 square feet, when the area now used for storage is converted to galleries.

Despite all the action, the Huntington maintains an aura of gentility and calm. And Murdoch credits the designer of the Erburu, Los Angeles-based architect Frederick Fisher, with helping to keep the peace.

"One essential aspect of classical architecture is that it has very nice street manners," Murdoch said, pointing out a continuity of roof lines and cornices as his eyes shifted from the Erburu to the adjacent Virginia Steele Scott Gallery of American Art and the more distant Boone. "Classical architecture is proportioned to its neighbors so that it doesn't diminish them. That point was well observed by Fred."

Fisher said his challenge was to design a modern building that looked as if it belonged on the campus.

"This project was really about balance," he said. "Balancing the existing neoclassical architecture with a building that would be appropriate for 2005 and beyond. A building that would make the English and French collection look very good for the next three to five years and then have a new life when the Huntington develops and installs its collection of modern and contemporary American art."

Having designed many art spaces -- including L.A. Louver in Venice, the Broad Art Foundation in Santa Monica and a wing of the Long Beach Museum of Art -- Fisher thinks of them in terms of typologies: raw, open "lofts"; pure, neutral "boxes"; and domestically scaled "houses." The Huntington is essentially a domestic complex, he said, and the scale and character of rooms in the new gallery perpetuate the concept.

"Another factor I brought into it, which was oddly missing from the Huntington," he said, "is a place where you can experience art and the landscape at the same time. Two museums were my points of reference. One was John Soane's Dulwich Picture Gallery in London, which has a similar domestic scale and abstract neoclassical quality to it. The second is the Louisiana Museum in Denmark, where you walk along glass corridors and there is art on one side of the hall and landscape on the other side. There is a close interaction between the experience of the landscape and the experience of the art. I jokingly say that if the Dulwich and the Louisiana had a baby, this would be that building."

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