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A paean to art, not the architect

Coolly restrained, the SAM expansion keeps its ego in check and the focus on what's inside.

May 02, 2007|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Staff Writer

SEATTLE — American museums, still flush with expansion fever, have become more convinced than ever that real estate is destiny. Every museum in the country seems to be opening a new wing or a satellite building or scouting locations for one. And the recent news that the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth has hired Renzo Piano brings the number of American museum jobs the Italian architect has won to 63. OK, to nine. But still.

Few museums, however, can hope to match the double expansion pulled off in just 3 1/2 months by the Seattle Art Museum. In late January, the museum -- known as SAM -- finished the waterfront Olympic Sculpture Park by the New York firm Weiss / Manfredi. And this weekend it will open a spacious, crisply proportioned new building downtown by Allied Works Architecture, a Portland, Ore., firm run by Brad Cloepfil.

Separated by about a dozen blocks, the two projects have little in common save their obvious ambition. The park, with zigzagging paths leading down to a small beach littered with driftwood, doesn't try to smooth over its rough edges; the backdrop for its pieces by Alexander Calder, Roy McMakin and Richard Serra is formed not just by ferries churning across Puget Sound but also by train tracks, signage ("Bavarian Meats: Family Owned Since 1961") and idling SUVs.

The $86-million downtown building, an extension to SAM's 1991 home by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, is by contrast coolly restrained. It was planned as a refuge not just from the life of the city but also from the aggressive exuberance of some recent museum architecture.

Room to grow

Wrapped in glass and stainless-steel panels, Cloepfil's wing is a vertical design -- 18 floors altogether -- that will allow the museum to expand in phases as it grows. It is part of a complex developed jointly with Washington Mutual, which is based in Seattle. For the opening, the museum has moved into the lower four floors of Cloepfil's building, which is nestled into the side of Washington Mutual's new world headquarters (a 42-story skyscraper by the Seattle firm NBBJ Architects). In future years, SAM can move up into the eight floors above, which are now being leased by the bank but were designed with the kind of mechanical systems required for showing art.

The symbolism of the arrangement is blatant enough to make even Andy Warhol a little uncomfortable. Not only does the Washington Mutual tower seem to be taking the museum under its wing, shielding it from the tinted-glass skyscrapers that surround it, but, at least from the outside, the Cloepfil design is also much more concerned with its relationship to the bank than to the Venturi building. The same is true of the NBBJ tower, which, along 2nd Avenue on the uphill side of the site, connects bluntly and awkwardly to the old museum.

Still, the deal SAM struck with Washington Mutual is a savvy one, allowing for phased expansion while also cushioning the museum's bottom line. And with the sculpture park joining its original home in Volunteer Park -- a 1933 Art Deco building that now holds the SAM-run Seattle Asian Art Museum -- the museum now has a diverse roster of venues that its competitors across the country can only envy. It shows art in the middle of a park (the 19th century model), in a busy section of downtown (the 1990s model) and in a postindustrial waterfront setting (a model for this decade, where landscape design and architecture are merging in new and compelling ways).

Cloepfil's building is in many respects a West Coast version of the recently expanded Museum of Modern Art in New York, where Yoshio Taniguchi also emphasized elegant precision over architectural fireworks. Inside, narrow escalators lead from a plain, double-height foyer to serene, handsome and roomy galleries. The palette of materials (terrazzo and light oak floors, frosted glass and dark metal panels) is seriously MoMAesque, as is the well-behaved geometry of the interior spaces. And the strategy of using an ambitious real-estate deal to finance a museum expansion has a precedent, of course, in MoMA's 1984 Museum Tower, a high-end residential building by Cesar Pelli.

On top of that, it's easy to read the facade, with its vertical signage and storefront-style openings to the street, at least partly as a homage to the 1939 MoMA exterior by Edward Durell Stone and Philip L. Goodwin. Though Cloepfil finds spots to vary the forms of the building -- particularly on the upper floors, the facade folds and bends in complicated ways -- he's also saying quite clearly that the Modern is the basic template for contemporary museum architects on either coast.

Cloepfil runs an increasingly busy office whose projects include a new Disney animation studio in Glendale and museums in New York, Colorado and Michigan. His buildings, always lean and strong at the same time, easily mix references to Louis Kahn, Donald Judd and other postwar architects and artists.

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