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Clark Art Institute: Contemporary Haven, But No Masterpiece

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Photo courtesy of Alexandra Lange on Instagram.

Welcome back to Critical Eye, Alexandra Lange's incisive, observant, curious, human- and street-friendly architecture column for Curbed. In this edition of her monthly column, Lange assesses the newly revamped Clark Art Institute in Western Massachusetts. And ICYMI, catch up on her past columns about architectural gamer paradise Monument Valley, the new Whitney Museum, the changing face of Buffalo, and the sidewalk-level impact of waterfront development around the Brooklyn Bridge.

When Sterling and Francine Clark built a museum for their collection in 1955, the building included an apartment with an octagonal breakfast room. On four of the room's eight sides they hung society painter Alfred Stevens's "Four Seasons," four paintings of elegant young ladies communing with the landscape (except for Winter, who is looking at herself). In the refreshed Clark Art Institute, those canvases still flank a window framing the Clarks' superlative Berkshires view, providing a capsule version of the play between inside and outside, artifice and nature, that was always part of the institute's allure.

Tadao Ando Architect & Associates' new Clark Center at the Clark Art Institute, opened in July 2014 in Williamstown, Massachusetts, part of a long-term expansion of the institution's photogenic 140-acre site that also includes the design work of Selldorf Architects (renovating the neo-classical museum and late Modern research center) and Reed Hilderbrand Landscape Architecture (restructuring and focusing the grounds), with Gensler as executive architect. The result is a museum that has blossomed into a campus, with geometric buildings, handsomely made of natural materials, arranged around a dramatic reflecting pool that has just the slightest hint of a curve. The concrete is silky, the staircases dramatic, the vistas extensive, the taste level, the highest. And yet, within the walls of the Clark Center and the original museum building, I felt confused, claustrophobic, and sometimes like I'd rather be eating lunch outside.

Aerial diagram of the landscape design for Clark Art Institute. Image courtesy of Reed Hiderbrand.

Details of the Clark interacting with landscape elements onsite at the museum complex. Photo courtesy of Alexandra Lange on Instagram.

The porosity of Ando's Clark Center is its strongest suit. The rolling Berkshire hills, combined with Reed Hilderbrand's landscape design, provide a glorious view, pulling the visitor through the long, boxy new building and out to the broad, pre-cast concrete-flag patio, where putty-gray Adirondack chairs enhance the Japan-meets-New England aesthetic. The stepped pools behind Ando's 42,600-square-foot, two-story building cast dappled reflections on its smooth stone, concrete, and wood surfaces. A deep roof overhang means most of the glass walls are in shadow, and they read as recesses rather than shiny surfaces, suggesting the whole building as a massive porch. The lower-level special exhibitions galleries, gracious if generic, also have views out to excavated grass courts, so you know you are never far from the outdoors. The patio and views are free to all, and it's not hard to imagine people camping out by the water for the day, snacking at the Clark's upscale cafes (picture quinoa bowls), using the wi-fi. You would have to be fairly determined, however. The main entrance off the big parking lot is stealthy, masked by a series of long granite walls that shunt the visitor toward the front door like minimalist pinball flippers. The payoff—that first sight of water and foliage through the glass portal—almost makes the dullness of that journey worth it.

I say almost, because the reconfigured campus seems to prioritize everything but the collection in its public moves. Before 2008, when Ando added the Lunder Center at Stone Hill to the Clark's portfolio, the institute consisted of a tight pair of buildings connected like railroad cars: the museum plus the 1973 granite Manton Research Center, designed by Pietro Belluschi and the Architects Collaborative. (The latter is now undergoing renovation by Selldorf Architects into a public reading room, bookstore, research center, and additional galleries.) The 2014 project added 13,000 square feet of gallery space, along with much more square footage for support facilities, events and education, so maybe this impression is not altogether fair. All of the art looked terrific, when you sought it out. The Van Goghs were downstairs, cached under a "pop-up eatery" named for benefactor Francine Clark (peevish feminists may ask, Why not name the restaurant after her husband?), and at the end of the long, angled series of glass-and-granite hallways hidden behind the entry sequence walls.

Details of the Clark's glass and steel details. Photo courtesy of Alexandra Lange on Instagram.

The green slopes around the museum and Clark Center are not currently marked with sculpture, though the institution has had temporary exhibitions in the past, and could certainly use some accessories for the landscape. That fear of clutter widens the gap between the art experiences indoors and the nature experiences outdoors. The Jenny Holzer benches on the center terrace are so low-key as to blend with the Ando, and I have to admit I missed Thomas Schutte's "Crystal," a gem-like viewing pod located up Stone Hill. The Clark has added trails, restaurants, a gift shop with a view (installed as a color spectrum of product with fixtures designed by wHY Architecture). A path through the woods leads you to the Lunder Center, which holds an impressive conservation facility, small galleries, and a terrace café. Porches facing the woods and mountains hold rocking chairs, there are picnic tables on the grass. The setting felt like a spa, or an experience designed to make viewing art take up no more than 25% of your day. This is the way of the art world these days, but the balance at the Clark is off, putting your desire to enjoy the art in conflict with your desire to enjoy the various architectures.

Details of the marble material, both old and new, throughout the Clark museum complex. Photo courtesy of Alexandra Lange on Instagram.

The Clark's original Museum building is a sugary white marble throwback designed by Daniel Perry, which opened in 1955. It must be one of the last neoclassical temples for art built, meant to be reached up a stone staircase along a compelling, landscaped axis. Selldorf Architects renovated this building expanding its galleries and installing new, largely invisible lighting and climate control systems, as well as modernist cases for the museum's collections of china and silver. The contrast serves them well. One can now commune with Botticelli or Monet in rooms painted soothing historical tones of pewter, lapis, and aubergine. The Museum's central Renoir Room has a cloud-like feeling thanks to its lavender walls and white glass laylight (translucent panels set flush with the ceiling); it creates a puffy hub around which the smaller galleries cluster.

Getting to that central hub, and beyond it, to the museum's original front door, is difficult. Ando followed master planners Cooper Robertson's decision to expand the institution westward, behind the Perry, rather than placing a new building next door to the original (as Gordon Bunshaft did at Buffalo's similarly styled Albright-Knox Art Gallery). This decision upsets the strong classical circulation. One enters the museum from the back, through a new glass pavilion also designed by Ando that dumps you into a dark, narrow gallery. You have to circumnavigate the service stack to find the Impressionist cloud, and go through several more galleries to locate the original entrance hall. That space now serves as a holding cell for a guard and plants. When you move toward the "real" front door, there's an ominous clicking sound as you set off the motion detector. You can't go in or out here despite what the pediment and steps are telling you. The collection is also arranged roughly chronologically, with the objects and Renaissance art toward the original front, so most visitors end up seeing it backwards.

This new circulation undermines the old, turning the museum into an appendage that, depending on which lot you park in, you might not even notice. They shouldn't need the tiny "orientation center" embedded one of those unwelcoming stone walls. I had to ask one of the polo-shirted young people posted at the many entrances where to find the permanent collection. Low-key signs which read "Museum," "Clark Center," "Manton Research Center" don't really make those buildings' respective purposes clear. It wouldn't be difficult to follow the stone walls to Ando's building (that's the Clark Center), see the traveling exhibit, have lunch on the terrace, shop, and exit, missing what was, historically, the main event.

The power of neoclassical architecture is its legibility. The old Clark building, if entered from the front, would have confused no one. In plan, Ando's Clark Center looks as if it should be equally clear, a geometric box with a recessed front door. But the canted walls add other angles to the mix, cutting pointy corners through the gift shop, creating conflict between paving patterns at the back of the Museum, and closing off views between the buildings that would guide the visitor from the parking lot. In the bird's eye orientation map, you can see that one long wall leads to the Clark Center's front door and the main admission desk, another hugs the edge of the pool, and a third connects the museum and center. In my mind, they all blended together. Their purpose becomes clear in plan: They hold you off, as in a Japanese walled garden, building anticipation for the burst of landscape seen through Ando's building. But is this really necessary? Landscape is hardly a scarce commodity in the Berkshires, which makes this encircled campus too precious, too branded. Do summer people need an Adirondack chair of muted hue to reassure them that this is the best possible view?

In Mark Lamster's review of the Clark Center last summer, he suggested the Clark was suffering from Mass MoCA envy. If envy suggests a desire for replication, I'm not sure this is true, especially after visiting both on the same day—the difference in audience demographic is striking. Mass MoCA's visitors were at least two decades younger, and there were many more families with small children. But there's something going on in this corner of the Berkshires that doesn't feel entirely cooperative, with Thomas Krens's proposed Global Contemporary Collection and Museum in North Adam now part of the mix. If every museum becomes an all-day affair, doesn't it decrease the likelihood that you'll visit them all? The Clark campus seems designed to keep you there, encircled by good taste, though not necessarily leading you past the masterpieces.

· All Critical Eye posts [Curbed]
· The Museum, Clark Art Institute [Architectural Record]
· Architecture review: The Clark reflects changes in museums [The Dallas Morning News]
· All Critical Eye posts [Berkshire Eagle]