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Sense of transparency

Renzo Piano sensitively adds to a Richard Meier design.

November 09, 2005|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Staff Writer

Atlanta — THE Italian architect Renzo Piano is in the process of rewriting the book on American museum architecture. Well, it might be more accurate to say he's rewriting the book on museum expansions: His firm, Renzo Piano Building Workshop, has additions in the works at a remarkable number of the most prominent museums in the country, including the Whitney in New York, the Gardner in Boston and the Art Institute of Chicago. And, of course, there's his reconfiguration of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and its muddled collection of buildings along Wilshire Boulevard, the first phase of which will open in 2007.

The progress of Piano's museum commissions is being closely watched in art and architecture circles. The first of the batch to be finished is a $109-million, 177,000-square-foot addition to Richard Meier's High Museum of Art, Atlanta's sole landmark of postwar architecture. It opens Saturday.

The High, a pure white and highly sculptural design completed in the fall of 1983, helped make Meier's international reputation -- it opened when he was 49 -- and kicked off the infatuation with iconic buildings and big-name architects that now holds American museum boards in a tighter grip than ever. The High has long seemed typical of postwar museums by well-known architects in this country, in the sense that it is a beautiful and provocative building that has never been very satisfying as a place to look at art. Its galleries are small and low-ceilinged by contemporary standards, and are particularly ill-suited for the large-scale installation work that has become common in the last few decades.

The new High, which adds three separate gallery buildings connected to the Meier wing and to one another by glass-enclosed walkways, is not likely to please those who find Piano's work overly restrained. Nor will it end the debate about whether his unprecedented run of recent U.S. commissions represents a larger turn toward conservatism in museum architecture.

Indeed, Piano's design in Atlanta is nothing if not polite to Meier: It matches the scale of the original, its generous use of glass and its signature shade of white. (Meier's exterior is enamel, while Piano uses painted aluminum panels.) And it leaves the High's front facade untouched: If you approach the museum from Peachtree Street, its traditional frontyard, you see remarkably little of the extensive square footage that Piano has added toward the back. Along with a renovation of the older building that was completed two years ago -- and has left its 135,000 square feet of space looking better than ever -- Piano's deferential approach helps soften the indignity for Meier of watching from the sidelines as a rival redesigns one of his best-known buildings.

But the new High also puts on impressive display all of the qualities that have made Piano and his firm, which is based in Genoa and Paris, so sought after. The design is modern in its forms and its detailing but classical in its sense of urbanism and proportion -- a combination that may not make for splashy or swooping forms but tends, at least in this architect's hands, to produce unusually rich experiential architecture. The High's new galleries -- particularly the ones on the top floor, which are bathed in natural light filtered through an unusually effective skylight system -- are an absolute joy to walk through.

It is hard to think of another American example where connected buildings by two prominent architects get along so well. Too often in this country we have thought about expansions of well-known buildings as an either-or proposition: You can either put up an addition that echoes the forms of what's already there, or you can try something aggressively new. Piano has used the Atlanta commission to suggest a Clintonian third way, an approach that covers crisp, generously modern spaces in a cloak of serene accommodation. The result might seem overly, even dispiritingly safe if it weren't so assuredly executed in terms of scale, material and manipulation of light. It's in this last category that the design impresses most. Piano has experimented with natural light in three earlier museums: the Menil Collection in Houston (1986), the Beyeler Foundation Museum in Switzerland (1997) and the 2-year-old Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas. At the High he has done so to nearly sublime effect: The quality of light in the new top-floor galleries, which for the most part hold postwar art and sculpture, is unusually fine.

The effect is achieved through a system of "light scoops." A thousand of them stick up about 7 feet from the roof of the museum. They collect sunlight from the north, which is less damaging to artworks than intense southern light, and filter it before delivering it into the galleries.

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