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A simple beauty as clear as glass

There's strength in the restraint of a Tokyo firm's design for an Ohio museum's new pavilion.

August 23, 2006|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Staff Writer

TOLEDO, Ohio — Is there any meaningful difference these days between the sparest of modern architecture and a minimalist approach to building, in the tradition of Donald Judd and other postwar artists? The Toledo Museum of Art's remarkable new Glass Pavilion, the first American project by architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa and their Tokyo firm, SANAA, suggests how useful the distinction can be, however slender or academic it might look on paper.

Most of the modern-revival buildings that have filled the design press in the last decade, after all, have been anything but rigorous conceptually. Marked by a sleek, airy, flat-roofed style, some are effective only as backdrops for expensive furniture -- stage sets, to put it another way, for a high-end and sometimes self-congratulatory lifestyle.

Though it looks superficially the same, Minimalist architecture deserving of the name pares itself down not in the pursuit of style points but in an effort to frame the relationship between solid and void, nature and culture, and color and its absence -- and to explore how the eye sees and the mind understands those differences.

SANAA's $30-million building in Toledo, which will open to the public on Sunday, qualifies on all those counts, and as such -- despite its modest size of 76,000 square feet, half of which is buried in a basement level -- it packs a significant architectural punch. Even more successfully than Yoshio Taniguchi's 2004 renovation of the Museum of Modern Art, which lacks its fluidity and economy, the Glass Pavilion offers a resounding response to the idea that museums, in an era of never-ending expansion, need to deploy formally aggressive, eye-catching architecture to stay competitive.

The free-standing pavilion stands across a four-lane road from the museum's 1912 Neoclassical main building, which holds a fine if not very deep collection of mostly Western art -- including "The Architect's Dream," Thomas Cole's famous 1840 panorama on the history of architectural styles -- and a 1992 classroom wing by Frank Gehry. Seen from the broad steps of the 1912 building, the Glass Pavilion threatens to disappear into the landscape of grass and trees surrounding it.

True, it's a rather obvious conceit to design a transparent building to hold transparent works of art -- in this case, a vast collection that includes Egyptian spice jars, Venetian goblets and a giant cut-glass punch bowl by Toledo's Libbey Glass Co., whose president, Edward Drummond Libbey, founded the museum in 1901. But there is strength in the pavilion's restraint and an undeniable perfectionism. Architecture like this is a high-wire act. A single misconceived design gesture or choice of material can throw the whole thing off balance.

Above ground, the building is a simple, low-slung box, just 15 feet high. It is wrapped entirely in glass: museum architecture's answer to Philip Johnson's 1949 Glass House in New Canaan, Conn. Inside, a handful of rooms hide behind plaster walls, which contain most of the steel that, together with a few thin white columns, holds up the roof. But for the most part the galleries and public rooms of the building are created by delicate, curving glass panels that seem capable of propping up little more than a paperback.

Made of low-iron glass -- clearer than traditional architectural glass, which can look faintly green -- the panels are slotted into serpentine tracks that run along the ceiling and the floor. Though fixed in place, they appear, in a stunning visual trick, to have been pulled through the building like curtains.

Like all of the most impressive work by SANAA, which has three Japanese museums to its credit, the pavilion is transparent, largely colorless and almost obsessively precise. Walking through it, you can easily understand its architectural plan, as if you were tracing a giant blueprint with your footsteps. A plain white ceiling with recessed lighting and ground-concrete floors further the sense of restraint. On the lower level, classroom and storage spaces are utilitarian.

Whenever the design veers in the direction of severity or humorlessness, it's saved by its interest in shifting, shimmering visual effects -- in exploring the full architectural spectrum from a transparent wall to one that's fully opaque. When you stand outside the pavilion and spot trees or people on the other side, you are looking through more than a dozen layers of glass, each of them reflecting the sunlight or the interior of the building or the trees in a different way.

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