Earning its Stripes: A Museum Builds on its Many Legacies
The Cleveland Museum of Art is one of the city's enduring assets and a legacy of its history as an industrial powerhouse. Like other American temples for art built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—in Detroit, St. Louis, Toledo—this Neoclassical pavilion, completed in 1916 on a rise overlooking a verdant Olmsted Brothers park, reflects the lavish patronage of a wealthier era. Among the finest art museums in the country, it has an encyclopedic collection with unsurpassed holdings of Asian art.
Even as the city's fortunes declined over the last half-century, the Cleveland Museum continued to add to its original building. Yet several expansions—including a 1971 education wing designed by Marcel Breuer—resulted in a hodgepodge of interior spaces and confused circulation. In 2001, Rafael Viñoly won a design competition to expand the museum again.
The idea behind the architect's scheme was surprisingly simple, inspired by the logic and symmetry of the original Beaux-Arts museum, which was designed by a local firm, Hubbell and Benes. “Whatever you say about the 1916 building, that it's a Greek temple or whatever, in terms of space and circulation it is spectacular,” says Viñoly. “All you had to do was clarify it.”
Over the years, the various additions had shifted the museum's center of gravity to the west, and the main entrance had moved to the boxy Breuer wing, beneath a massive, 115-foot-long concrete canopy. Viñoly's scheme called for razing everything between the original rectangular museum and the Breuer addition, which sat parallel to the north. The plan of the expansion is essentially a U shape, with a new bar building on the north end that wraps the length of the Breuer addition, and east and west wings that link it to the original museum building. That leaves an immense rectangular “hole” in the center of the Viñoly plan, where the architect has made his boldest move by creating a huge glass-roofed atrium. The new construction almost doubles the museum's size, to 592,000 square feet.
The $350 million project was so ambitious that its construction has been phased—a process that's been prolonged by the economic downturn. In 2009 the first phase opened: the new east wing, with three levels of galleries. Now the second phase is complete: the atrium and the new four-level north wing, housing more gallery space, a museum store, a learning center, and offices. A second-level balcony along its length overlooks the atrium and wraps around the interior of both new wings, connecting to the 1916 building on either end and creating an open loop of circulation. The final phase will be the opening next year of the west wing; it will contain a ground-floor restaurant and galleries above.
Grappling with the Breuer addition was difficult, says Viñoly. “A good furniture designer is usually a bad architect—and vice versa.” An early version of his design called for replacing the Breuer entrance canopy, but that was abandoned, and it remains the primary museum entrance.
Viñoly has tried to bridge the stylistic chasm between Breuer's brownish Brutalism and the dazzling white prettiness of the original marble museum. The concrete 1971 structure is clad in alternating light and dark horizontal bands of Minnesota granite, a homage to such striped Italian Renaissance buildings as the cathedral in Orvieto. Viñoly's steel-frame east wing, which is staggered in profile to follow the curve of a road along the edge of the site, is clad in stone-faced precast-concrete panels. In a bow to Breuer, the stone is striped, using similar dark granite alternating with light bands made of the same white Georgia marble as the original 1916 museum. The new west wing mirrors the east, and as each wing's facade extends south to wrap the ends of the old museum, the dark stripes decrease in density and the white marble dominates. Atop the striped base of each wing is a glass-box gallery.
Inside Viñoly's skylit atrium—a space the length of a football field—the exterior north facade of the elegant old museum is revealed. An analysis of the wall's structure determined it could support the glass-and-mullion atrium roof, which rises in a gentle curve to a height of 61 feet, atop a row of slender steel columns that make it appear to float above the old museum. To prevent condensation on the glass, the architects employed an integrated technology widely used in Europe: Hot water is pumped through the mullions in the cold months, and cold water during the summer.
The atrium is poised to become a major urban amenity in the newly invigorated University Circle neighborhood. “The idea of the civic role of the museum is central in Cleveland,” says Viñoly. As the museum's admission is free, this enormous sun-splashed room is a public space that belongs to everyone.
Completion Date: 2009 (phase one), 2012 (phase two)
Size: 592,000 square feet, gross (new building)
Cost: $350 million
Rafael Viñoly Architects