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Fine Art: Saint Louis Art Museum, Missouri, USA, by David Chipperfield Architects and HOK

David Chipperfield adds a tactfully austere new gallery pavilion to an American Beaux-Arts institution in Saint Louis

If every building extension is notoriously fraught with trouble, being a marriage not a stand-alone birthday, this is especially true when adding to a historic institution and one as cherished by the community as the Saint Louis Art Museum. Founded during the 1904 World’s Fair, the museum is famed for its Cass Gilbert structure, an exemplar of Beaux-Arts mastery whose position is of prime importance on a dominant hilltop overlooking the formal lakes of Forest Park, larger than Central Park, created at the same time. So though the brief was relatively straightforward, to make more room for the permanent collection, and specifically postwar holdings, it required a civic solution of discretion and elegance, one amply provided by Chipperfield’s work.

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Here all emphasis is on the art, to grant maximum extra space allowing a full-scale reorganisation and re-hang of the rest of the museum to fully reveal a major international collection. And above all else, literally, it is the light that makes these new galleries so impressive. An abundance of natural light is filtered through a sophisticated ceiling system, allowing optimum viewing conditions, an entirely natural ambition which among the gimmickry of contemporary museum design seems radical in its simplicity.

In explaining his intentions Chipperfield quoted the late David Sylvester that ‘the artist has no greater enemy than the architect’, and also local patron Emily Pulitzer, who was sick of going to new museums where it takes half an hour before you can see a painting. So in opposition to such ‘lobby-itis’ and atrium-mania, the new single-storey building opens directly into a simple space where, despite restaurant to the left and gift shop to the right, you have an immediate sense of the art on display, a notably fine Diebenkorn, and views of the works to come, luring you into the chain of galleries without further ado.

natural light is diffused through the gridded concrete roof structure and washes around the sober gallery spaces

Natural light is diffused through the gridded concrete roof structure and washes around the sober gallery spaces

Chipperfield admits that the classic enfilade deployment of galleries is hard to better and has provided an updated version of the pleasures of such a formal promenade. These spaces flow together with rare ease, having obviously been closely plotted with the curatorial team, providing a classic chronological story but also the opportunity to cut through, across time, to adjacent rooms, and most importantly providing a vista of work in later galleries, pulling you toward them.

The dominant feature of the galleries, happily not ‘dominant’, is a ceiling built out of a poured concrete grid, a vibrant geometric pattern built from the paradox of using a ‘heavy’ material to provide light, bounced from skylights onto the smooth surface of the white concrete, diffusing out into the galleries below. Though there is a complex filter system, including a ‘light-spreader’, a stretched panel of ‘Freeform’ fabric complete with a discreet metal disc that hides sprinklers, the effect of daylight on concrete is consistently pleasing. There are also standard lights, the same basic ’70s metal cases used throughout the museum, according to fluctuations in natural light.

When needed, artificial lights complement the daylight diffused by the concrete ceiling

When needed, artificial lights complement the daylight diffused by the concrete ceiling

As well as the permanent collection there are exhibition galleries − currently showing the museum’s exceptional postwar German holdings − which do not use daylight so can show more sensitive works but which maintain the concrete grid. One piece on display, Thomas Struth’s photograph of the Parthenon, even suggests a direct precedent in the fabled coffered-ceiling of that Roman building.

Chipperfield has also been generous with the windows, those full floor-to-ceiling walls of glass as mistrusted by conservators and curators as any top-light itself, though they are kept dim by automated scrim-screens which supposedly open according to the weather but which you suspect may remain long closed. And it must be admitted that the siting of these windows is curious, especially as there is intended to be a surrounding sculpture park; for example at the moment a pair of major Henry Moore sculptures have been seemingly stranded on the blind side of the building unable to be seen from within the institution.

Site plan of Saint Louis Art Museum, Missouri, USA

Site plan of Saint Louis Art Museum, Missouri, USA

There seems to be some ambiguity about the rear of the museum which, rather than greeting the surrounding park, turns its back on it, refusing to provide exit or entrance upon that axis, ensuring visitors cannot pass through the building but only round it. Likewise the only real formal vista of the park is from the restaurant by the front entrance, but perhaps all this serves to remind us that we are here to look at the art not the surroundings.

Along with the ceiling, the other most notable feature of the design is the solid white-oak floor, an entirely satisfying artistic work in itself, with each 6-inch wide plank inspected and approved by director Brent Benjamin. Even individual knots and whorls were chosen for their aesthetic relation to each other, the entire composition being as pleasant to walk upon, especially with bare feet should one so dare, as to contemplate. However, the perfection of this wooden floor is challenged by the mootest element of the whole interior design, long metal HVAC grill-strips that run the length of the galleries and right through the middle of the floor-flush sculptures.

Floor plans of the Saint Louis Art Museum by David Chipperfield Architects and HOK

Floor plans of the Saint Louis Art Museum by David Chipperfield Architects and HOK (click to enlarge)

The heating and air-conditioning of galleries is always a major source of contention between architects and conservators, not least due to the risk of the direct passage of air and dust over works of art, and there are strong arguments both for the usual American approach, of air flowing from above, and for the more European system of ventilation from below here adopted by Chipperfield. These currently highly shiny metallic elements may become less bright with age, and could reference Minimalist art, Carl Andre floor-works, but they seem oddly intrusive, a technical solution of inapt visual dominance.

Chipperfield has provided some of the most ideally proportioned and perfectly lit display rooms of any recent museum, but the real achievement is not in the gallery design but the larger agenda, the infrastructural masterplan, those hidden issues of site and circulation. For example, the very elegant lavatories are highly important additions − being scanty and obscure in the old building − the sort of practical issue which is as crucial as any aesthetic consideration. And just as the galleries are built for massive Modernist works, requiring Chipperfield to provide even larger walls than originally planned, so the building extends below to provide three floors of parking, suggesting the symbiotic correlation between the large scale of postwar American art and its automobile culture.

Section of the Saint Louis Art Museum, by David Chipperfield Architects and HOK

Section of the Saint Louis Art Museum, by David Chipperfield Architects and HOK (click to enlarge)

These garages are crucial to the success of the museum; its operations are literally built on such foundations − a beautiful single-storey gallery sitting atop the very garages that support it. Without these, the site and grounds could not maintain their pristine Novecento aura; there would be no visitors and no staff. Chipperfield has built them into the programme with as much sensitivity as pragmatism. You could even read a symmetry to the three floors of the original Gilbert building and the three floors of sunken parking, at either end of the site and linked by the single level new addition, looking in cross-section like a weighted seesaw.

Circulation between the original building and the addition is as fluid and natural as the circulation in the new galleries themselves, aided by a well-planned curatorial segue, for example Surrealism in New York exile leads on into the origins of Abstract Expressionism, so you are barely aware of the transition, only signalled by glass doors. On the main axis of connection the museum has boldly placed its Ancient Art collection. This can be seen crossing from the old building or immediately on entering the new, juxtaposing the ancient and modern and emphasising that this is a ‘universal’ museum like the Metropolitan, with which it can well stand comparison.

‘In opposition to ‘lobby-itis’ and atrium-mania, the new single-storey building opens directly into a simple space where you have an immediate sense of the art on display’

This might seem at first a curious choice, breaking with an otherwise fairly orthodox chronological display, but on a crowded Sunday its effectiveness is evident, as many visitors for once studying Greek and Roman sculpture as contemporary art. The seamless link between the two sections of the museum acts as a sort of handshake extending into the past and the future, a handshake that confirms the continuity of the institution’s objectives.

 A new staircase in the original Beaux-Arts building has a formal and material precision

A new staircase in the original Beaux-Arts building has a formal and material precision

Chipperfield has also provided a lower-level loop that brings visitors, especially those from the garages, back into circulation through the two buildings, a long sloping corridor − decorated with architectural elements by Louis Sullivan − which leads to a new café and the remarkable ‘Stone Sea’. This is a new site-specific sculpture by Andy Goldsworthy, a cluster of Missouri limestone arches which discreetly reference Saarinen’s Gateway Arch, also in St Louis, and more practically fill the gap at the back between old and new buildings.

Chipperfield is keen to emphasise the discretion if not humility of his addition, an entirely practical single storey tucked neatly into the edge of the original structure, rather than a freestanding sculptural monument, and this is particularly evident when looking at the main museum from the other side of the formal lake from whence it was originally intended to be seen, and from where the new structure is hardly noticeable. Likewise, even when lit at night the facade of the new building works in harmony with the Gilbert frontage, despite being of such differing material and idiom.

With its shades of Mies’s Neue Nationalgalerie, Chipperfield’s discreet new art pavilion docks onto Cass Gilbert’s Beaux-Arts precursor

With its shades of Mies’s Neue Nationalgalerie, Chipperfield’s discreet new art pavilion docks onto Cass Gilbert’s Beaux-Arts precursor

This is the more remarkable as Chipperfield deliberately signals the break between the two structures by using signature dark concrete panels incorporating Missouri river aggregates, as opposed to any continuity that could have been provided using a similar tone to Gilbert’s pale stone, for example the soft Missouri limestone of Goldsworthy’s sculpture. Chipperfield may well have feared that extending a similar tonal or material version of Gilbert’s frontage would smack of a sort of Robert Stern historicism, and the visual shift actually works to both buildings’ advantage.

‘The seamless link between the two sections of the museum acts as a sort of handshake extending into the past and future’

Chipperfield was obliged to occupy the site to the east of the Gilbert building because the most ideal direction for any such extension, at the back to the south, was taken by a long addition begun in the 1950s and completed in 1980 which, in providing administration offices, library and auditorium, at least allowed the new building, for once, to concentrate upon the art itself. This southern extension also provides a statutory lesson in humility as it is as seemingly unloved as the latest wing is celebrated, nobody even being able to recall the name of the architects (in fact Murphy & Mackey, a St Louis firm, followed by Kivett & Myers, with Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer). 

The new extension’s official name, the ‘East Building’, also surely deliberately has a historic resonance, most obviously with the ‘East Building’ at the National Gallery, Washington DC, long-considered one of the most successful postwar museum additions. But rather than IM Pei’s monumental Modernist massing, Chipperfield’s own facade not only nods to the canopy of Mies’s Neue Nationalgalerie but also might suggest a very different East Building, the classical colonnade of Claude Perrault’s Louvre, an equally resolved extension of an equally revered cultural institution.

Though inherently mistrusted by curators, floor-to-ceiling glazing offers tranquil views of the surrounding park

Though inherently mistrusted by curators, floor-to-ceiling glazing offers tranquil views of the surrounding park

FACT FILE

Architects: David Chipperfield Architects and HOK
Photographs: Simon Menges

 

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