12 August 2009

Do Not Go Gently!

When Creativity Diminishes Along With the Cash

Herzog & de Meuron

A MORE MODEST PROPOSAL Above, a computer rendering of Herzog & de Meuron’s new plan for the Parrish Art Museum.

Published: August 11, 2009

It was hard to get excited three years ago when the Parrish Art Museum unveiled its plan to build a lavish new home in a meadow in Water Mill, part of the town of Southampton, N.Y. The problem was not with the architecture. The design, a villagelike cluster of pavilions by the Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron, was perfectly suited to its pastoral setting. Its interlocking galleries made an engaging statement about the bonds among viewer, artist and the art-making process.

The issue was location. In the wild days before Bernie Madoff’s fall from grace, the Hamptons had a way of reducing everything to its crassest form. More than likely, the museum would be performing the same function as a Bridgehampton polo match: serving as a place for fashionistas and hedge funders to pass some time before the cocktail hour. Few, surely, would be paying much attention to the art.

So when I learned that the museum couldn’t raise the money for the project, and that it was asking the architects for a cheaper, more modest proposal, I wasn’t bothered. True, a spirited design would now never see the light of day. But given the context, wouldn’t a dumb shed — a barn, maybe, or a Quonset hut — serve just as well? And wouldn’t the architects’ considerable talents best be concentrated elsewhere?

Herzog & de Meuron

A computer rendering of a gallery in Herzog & de Meuron’s new design forthe Parrish Art Museum in Southampton.

I was wrong. The new design, budgeted at less than a third of the original $80 million, will be a perfectly nice place to view art — or host a party. Its handsome profile — a long, narrow bar under a corrugated metal roof — has a serene, low-key quality that is a far cry from the ostentatious mansions that defined the Hamptons of the last decade. Yet the design is also a major step down in architectural ambition. And it suggests the possibility of a worrying new development in our time of financial insecurity. It is a creeping conservatism — and aversion to risk — that leaves little room for creative invention.

Herzog & De Meuron

The original design featured a villagelike cluster of pavilions.

Established at the end of the 19th century, the Parrish was the brainchild of a New York lawyer who wanted to transport some of the exoticism of the Italian Renaissance to this small village built by Puritans. But its vaulted brick entrance ended up looking like a cross between the two cultures. Since then, it has remained a sleepy institution whose principal holdings include realists like Fairfield Porter and William Merritt Chase.

Part of Herzog & de Meuron’s task was to shake the museum out of its slumber. The firm began by looking at the studios of some of the area’s most celebrated artists, eventually settling on four models: Porter and Chase’s traditional, salon-style studios; Willem de Kooning’s industrial-looking space; and Roy Lichtenstein’s renovated farm building.

The architects then designed abstract versions of these spaces for their new museum. The idea was to preserve the essence of each — the pitch of the roof, the proportion of the room, the position and size of the windows and the quality of light — and use them as anchors for the museum’s other, more generic galleries.

The “studio” galleries were then placed around a central lobby, and the others, along with an education building and a cafe, were fit in among them at odd angles, to create a loose-knit conglomeration.

The design immediately brought to mind some of Frank Gehry’s revolutionary work from the mid-1980s, in particular the Sirmai-Peterson House in Thousand Oaks, Calif., and the Winton Guest House in Wayzata, Minn.: projects where rooms were treated as discrete objects, suggesting a fragmented community that has been carefully pieced back together.

Here the fragmentation emphasized the identities of individual artists — a challenge to the leveling quality of most museum designs. And by replicating the experience of the artist’s studio — without resorting to kitsch literalisms like paint-splattered palettes and dirty brushes — the galleries would also draw the viewer into a more intimate relationship with the making of art.

The large, airy, generic galleries set among the “studio” ones, meanwhile, allowed the architects to address the common fear of curators that the architecture would overpower the art. And all of the structures would be made of smooth, cast-in-place concrete, gently emphasizing flow of spaces. (It’s as if the architects wanted to balance the clash of artistic visions with a sense of historical continuity.)

The new design, which was filed with the town’s planning board last week, does have some upsides. Enclosed inside a narrow, one-story structure — 94 feet wide and 634 feet long — the building’s galleries, arranged in two rows along a central corridor, are designed for flexibility, with temporary walls so that the size of the rooms can be adjusted. The building is covered by two parallel pitched roofs — one for each row — with north-facing windows that take full advantage of the soft northern light.

The building should also fit sensitively into its surroundings. As you approach by car from the east, you will be able to see just the narrow western end, which will look like twin barns standing in a big meadow. Only as you pull up alongside the museum will you get a true sense of its scale. A deep porch will run the entire length of the building, covered by an overhanging roof. The roof, made of corrugated metal and supported on big wood beams, will be painted soft white, giving it a tough, agri-industrial look in keeping with the area’s history as farmland.

It’s the kind of design, in short, that is difficult to object to. And at less than one-third of the cost, no one can complain about the budget.

What’s scary is what the design suggests about the future. Is this kind of downscaling the beginning of a trend? Herzog & de Meuron is not the only architecture firm that is being put through this process. Just a few days after I saw the new Parrish design, Rem Koolhaas told me that he was in a similar predicament over a condo and screening room design in Manhattan.

It makes you wonder if the cultural consequences of the financial collapse will be as liberating as some have predicted. I’ll be as gleeful as anyone if the excesses and vulgarities of the past decade really do turn out to be over. But it will be a shame if the atmosphere of creative experimentation that coincided with them is over too.

From the New York Times online, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/12/arts/design/12parrish.html?_r=1.

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