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Photo © Timothy Hursley

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

Safdie Architects

Bentonville, Arkansas

Walmart heiress Alice Walton's new institution, a series of pavilions in a forested ravine, links nature to a major collection of American works.

By James S. Russell, FAIA

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The centerpiece of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, in Bentonville, Arkansas, is a vast room that rises in a graceful arc of laminated-wood roof beams and swells outward with canted walls of glass as it vaults a pond. An elaborate network of cables, pipes, and metal fittings suspends this spectacular copper-roofed contrivance from beefy anchors at either end, thanks to the engineers at Buro Happold. Sloping glass walls draw in the pond's reflections, while stripes of sunshine pour through skylights. This space is just the appetizer—it's a restaurant called Eleven—before the grand buffet of paintings and sculpture that fills up America's newest art museum.

The architect is Moshe Safdie, a maestro of spectacle, who seems to be everywhere in recent months. In Kansas City, Missouri, just 200 miles north of Bentonville, his Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts opened last fall. There, a vast lobby walled and roofed in glass and big enough to host a cotillion unites two performing-arts venues. In Washington, D.C., a cluster of overlapping, translucent quarter spheres flutters above the three-level atrium of the U.S. Institute of Peace. It opened in September (see sidebar).

Safdie's work can be as hard to resist as a fattening dessert: You never get the anonymous mediocrity that has come to define our straitened times. In an era that's supposed to have set aside fanciful architectural spectacles for earnest social uplift, Safdie can seem to be a populist outlier. He recognizes that the theatrical gesture can ennoble public and institutional gathering places like the Peace Institute and the Kauffman Center. But he can also infuriate because too often, he's ham-handed.

Of his new projects, Crystal Bridges is the most appealing because he attempts, if not entirely successfully, to let a lovely forested ravine speak louder than his building.

Alice Walton, the Walmart heiress and second-richest woman in the United States, acquired an astonishing survey of four centuries of American art in just six years, with the help of veteran scholar John Wilmerding (see sidebar). The museum will not say how much the collection or Safdie's 93,000-square-foot structure cost, though the Walton Family Foundation has promised the museum $1.2 billion in additional funds. Clearly, the stakes were high—for Walton and for Bentonville, Walmart's hometown. Walton has said she wanted to build appreciation for America's artistic heritage in a region with little art on display. She sought out Safdie after she saw his 1994 Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles.

Inspired by the Louisiana Museum in Denmark, where a stunning natural setting is integral to viewing art, Walton and Safdie looked at a ridgetop site before deciding to set the museum in a ravine in the stream-laced woodland just north of Bentonville's central town square. Safdie dammed the stream to form the two-level pond and arranged the museum in eight pavilions that follow the ravine's contours. Yet the complex is too big for this setting—it doubled in size since his first design—and lacks the delicacy of, say, the late, great architect Fay Jones, who lived and worked in nearby Fayetteville and whose famous woodland chapels are as diaphanous as the forest. Safdie did not weave his pavilions into the landscape. He wedged them so tightly together that the forest becomes just a backdrop.

You could walk through Crystal Bridges thinking that architecture is the main event. Before you have set foot in a gallery, you have descended three levels in a glass-fronted elevator, crossed a circular courtyard, entered a high, daylit lobby, and gazed into the extraordinary restaurant-bridge. Safdie is canny enough to recognize that he had to create a destination, not just a museum—that, besides a great collection, visitors might need the lure of a fantastic architectural experience and a lush natural setting.

Safdie separates Crystal Bridges's large gallery-suites with glassy linking structures and daylit lounges that open onto views across the pond or into the landscape. He cuts in little balconies and courtyards. These vistas invite contemplation while echoing the museum's extraordinary landscape paintings by such masters as Asher B. Durand and Thomas Cole.

Safdie's work is full of references: to Louis Kahn in the cast concrete forms; to Mario Botta's way with striped walls; to traditional Japanese building in the laminated wood beams. But he only assembles these elements; there's no transformation of the whole that draws out deeper meanings. And the expressive exterior bravura at times overwhelms the art-viewing experience. As he shaped the pavilions around the pond and wedged them into the hillside, Safdie produced exhibition spaces with long, curved walls that unfurl a daunting array of paintings at once. A cavernous gallery devoted to Modern art dwarfs even the most monumental works.

But the real clunker comes along halfway through the chronological circuit, when you leave a series of windowless galleries to cross the pond on a glass bridge that is the twin to the restaurant bridge. The bridges are Safdie's most original contributions, but they are unsuited for art display. So Safdie had to build white boxes inside the glass bridge to provide walls to hang art on and ceiling scrims to control light (See page 85). It's a ridiculous feat, the architect ostentatiously solving a problem of his own making.

Visitors may well take away the sensuous memory of those “crystal bridges,” the theatrical entrance sequence, and the pleasing alternation of galleries and views of the woods. But the art-viewing experience is merely serviceable. It's too bad that Safdie could not truly unite his collection of forms into an extraordinary, deeply realized whole.

James S. Russell is the architecture critic at Bloomberg News. His book, The Agile City: Building Well Being and Wealth in an Era of Climate Change, was recently published by Island Press.

Completion date: November 2011

Gross square feet: 93,000 square feet

Owner: Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

Architect:
Safdie Architects
100 Properzi Way
Somerville, MA  02143
Tel: 617 629 2100
Fax: 617 629 2406

ON THE RECORD

Buying American

John Wilmerding, a Princeton professor and former deputy director of the National Gallery of Art, served as art advisor to Alice Walton as she acquired work for the Crystal Bridges Museum. Record’s William Hanley spoke with him about their six-year shopping spree to create the museum’s extensive collection of colonial-through-contemporary American art.

How did you start working with Walton?

We met in the fall of 2004. It’s hard not to like her instantly. We were on the same wavelength and basically got to work in a five- or six-year frenzy. We would visit every dealer imaginable—mostly in New York,
but also in the Southwest and on the West Coast. It was sort of kids at a candy counter.

How did the scope and organization of the collection take shape?

Buying Asher B. Durand’s painting, Kindred Spirits (1849), in 2005, triggered subsequent acquisitions over the next five years or so of landscape painting, which is a kind of subconscious thread that ties the collection together. Another unintentional theme was images of women. One of Alice’s favorite acquisitions is an Alfred Maurer portrait of a woman. She’s in a white dress—it’s sort of a Whistlerian kind of picture—and she’s smoking a cigarette. Later, through no particular consciousness, we acquired a large Tom Wesselmann cutout of a smoker’s mouth. Alice is a reformed smoker, and she once said, “Wouldn’t it be fun to hang the Wesselmann next to the Moore?” Well, they ended up in totally separate galleries.

Despite her fortune, Walton famously will not acquire work she thinks is overpriced. How did that affect your buying?

It drove me crazy. But she just won’t do that. At auction, she was the underbidder on an Edward Hopper painting from Steve Martin’s collection—and she had no Hopper oil. But she said, “It’s an A-minus, not an A, and we’re not going to spend the money.” She takes the long view—she likes the idea of restraint, because it forces attention to quality and strategic planning.

How do you respond to critics who claim that you quietly tried to take advantage of institutions looking to unload important work, notably the Durand from the New York Public Library and the failed attempt to purchase the great Thomas Eakins’s The Gross Clinic from Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia?

This is a particular bias of the Eastern press: that she’s a raider going around saying, “You’re weak and vulnerable, I want that.” The fact is that virtually all of these acquisitions have been offered to her. The Kindred Spirits auction was a closed-bid, invitation-only sale. She won it and saved the work for the public domain—it could have disappeared into a private collection.

And what do you think of the museum building?

I think it’s going to be transforming for its region—it’s going to be our Bilbao

Walton Ford’s 2009 watercolor The Island

According to Wilmerding, Walton was impressed by the narrative, technique, and “just the work’s sheer presence” when they acquired Walton Ford’s 2009 watercolor The Island. “This is not just going to be a museum that’s a tomb. It’s going to be fun, experimental, pushing boundaries.”

 

THE ARCHITECT'S PORTFOLIO

Glittering Tent, Fluttering Glass

Safdie’s Kauffman Center and U.S. Institute of Peace

The $304 million, two-venue Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts has a dramatically split personality. Two majestic serrated half-spheres, clad in stainless steel, face downtown Kansas City, Missouri, evoking lonely grain elevators towering over a prairie. The spheres form the back, while the front of the 356,000-square-foot hilltop building faces away from downtown. The facade’s 65-foot-high tilting glass wall, which runs the Kauffman’s full width, encloses a spectacular lobby, with three concourse levels overlooking this tent of light. Safdie makes no attempt to reconcile front and back; he simply crashes them together into a glittering mega-object. Working with Theater Projects Consultants and Nagata Acoustics, Safdie shaped a 1,800-seat proscenium house for ballet and opera in a three-tiered horseshoe configuration. In the 1,600-seat concert hall next door, 11 curving, wood-fronted “vineyard-style” seating tiers surround the stage.

If you thought of doves’ wings upon first seeing the $110 million United States Institute of Peace, you would not be the first, even though those roof-forms make an ill-fitting hat to the sober fortress they surmount. Still, the 150,000-square-foot building on the northwestern edge of the National Mall in Washington gives prominence to a little-known independent organization, created by Congress in 1984, that is devoted to conflict resolution. Two high, curving atria slice through the building’s office spaces. The smaller one includes a light-filled staff café. The larger one features a stunning vista toward the Lincoln Memorial as it steps down two levels to unite teaching, conference spaces, an auditorium, and a planned public exhibition space. While much of the building is dedicated to research and training, the transparent and serene interiors are meant to convey a commitment to peacemaking to those who come to engage in resolving international disputes.

The United States Institute of Peace, Washington, D.C.

The United States Institute of Peace, Washington, D.C.

Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, Kansas City, Missouri.

Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, Kansas City, Missouri.

 

January 2012
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