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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

That legacy is evident inside the building, particularly in the way that Cloepfil manipulates views of Elliott Bay and the Olympic Mountains beyond. The sections of the museum facing west are shaded by a stainless-steel brise-soleil system that can be manually shifted when curators want to change the lighting as they rearrange the exhibitions. But Cloepfil also uses the system to frame and restrict views and even to actively block them. It's a game he's played before, particularly in an impressive recent house in Sun Valley, Idaho. The result here is a museum whose views can't begin to match those of Rem Koolhaas' nearby public library, which opened three years ago.

No 'look at me' building

Last week, during the museum's pre-opening celebrations, SAM director Mimi Gardner Gates -- stepmother to Bill -- was quick to praise Cloepfil for avoiding what she called "look at me" architecture. Former Getty director John Walsh, flown in by the museum to give an effortlessly smart lecture Friday morning, used the same phrase to describe everything the new design managed to reject. The message was clear: The museum wasn't going to fall for the sort of bombastic, postcard-ready architecture that Daniel Libeskind gave Denver (where, ahem, staffers are now being laid off) and Santiago Calatrava unleashed on Milwaukee. It was putting the spotlight squarely on the art.

But that notion of museum design -- the idea that architects choose to serve either the paintings or their own egos -- is oversimplified, not to mention frayed from overuse. There is plenty of ego, after all, in Cloepfil's design.

And, increasingly, the most satisfying new museums are the ones that manage to bypass that art-versus-architecture debate and give visitors a real variety of visual and spatial experience. The ones that do so most successfully -- Diller and Scofidio's Institute for Contemporary Art in Boston and Herzog and De Meuron's Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, to name two -- make clear that it's possible to combine calm, well-proportioned galleries with moments of real architectural cleverness and daring.

Museum officials and Cloepfil himself were quick last week to criticize the Venturi design -- which has a limestone facade stamped with surface ornament -- as cramped, dark and fussy. That was no surprise; part of generating excitement for your new museum wing is making sure that people understand just how dated and undersized your old building was.

The truth, though, is that cycles of taste move much faster than construction in the architecture world. Planned at roughly the same time as Taniguchi's museum and in something of the same spirit, the new SAM arrives just as many of us are feeling ready for at least a small corrective to MoMA's upright and largely corporate approach -- for a bit of humor and maybe a splash of decoration as well.

That doesn't mean going back to the stage-set Postmodernism that Venturi and Scott Brown were turning out in the 1980s and early 1990s, which was often tinny and overly mannered. It only means that every time Cloepfil or Gates or Walsh brought up the Venturi design just to knock it, it served mostly as a reminder of what the new wing is missing.


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