Synthesising allusions to the vernacular with contemporary abstraction, the new Parrish Art Museum encapsulates the changing dynamic between art, landscape and architecture
Opened last November, the new Parrish Art Museum displays works from the museum’s permanent collection of American art, encompassing paintings, works on paper and sculpture amassed over its 115-year history. The building is sited next to the village of Southampton, one of Long Island’s most affluent communities and a weekend refuge for many Manhattaners who periodically flee the island for the bucolic idyll of the Hamptons.
A 90-minute drive takes you from the traffic-congested city to the serene dune-and-shrub landscape of Long Island. Amid the disjointed, small-scale beachside buildings, Herzog & de Meuron nest an abstractly detailed, longitudinal bar with a double-pitched roof set on a strict east–west orientation to catch north light for galleries through rhythmically-placed skylights.
In this project, H&dM revisit two of the key themes that have come to define their architecture. On one hand, they see architecture as emerging from the genius loci, and on the other, they interpret it as the tautological tectonics of the ‘house’. While these two aspects reconfirm their own penchant for a phenomenological architecture, perfected over the years and shared with contemporaries such as Steven Holl and Peter Zumthor, in respect of this latest project, one consequential question remains.
What should one think about the harmonious, attuned and seamless coexistence of art and architecture at the Parrish Museum and the insistence on genius loci at a time when notions of local materials or crafts, and the unmediated and genuine access to both nature and art seem to have been displaced for good in our culture?
For all the tectonic perfection of this building and the elegance of its materiality and detailing, the architecture of the Parrish has an orthodoxy and sternness which seems atypical of both contemporary museum architecture and of H&dM’s own work. Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao (AR December 1997) challenged theorthodoxy that a museum had to be a neutral backdrop to suspend art in an autonomous, conceptual, ‘zero gravity’ space. In the face of contemporary art, which abandoned its more traditional ‘object’ status and now claimed to be spatial in its own right, Gehry’s riposte involved making architecture even more sculptural and object-like.
Similarly, Jean Nouvel’s Musée du Quai Branly in Paris (AR October 2006) explored the fundamentally mediated nature of exhibits (in this case anthropological artefacts). Here, architecture engages art in a spatio-geometric dialogue by immersing it in a sensually intense and formally complex experiential milieu that exploits to great effect the superposition of reflections, transparencies, textures, colour and light.
On the building’s facade, Nouvel devised a vertical garden (mur végétal), which transformed nature itself into an artefact and object of the manmade environment. Arguably, these twobuildings are emblematic of what came to be called the era of postmodernity, where the belief in the essential differentiation between medium and content, between container and contained, and between architecture and art object, has been suspended. Not so in the Parrish Museum.
On Long Island, H&dM’s earnest take on the interaction of museum, art and nature is surprising, especially in light of their own repertoire of museum projects. Take the Museum der Kulturen, which plays with the traditional iconography of Basel’s medieval roofscape and wittily invokes nature when suggesting (at least rhetorically) that part of the building is supported by ‘inverted’ columns made of hanging plants. Every element is treated without any pathos about the alleged genuineness of nature or tectonic authenticity of architecture.
Similarly, the ongoing extension to London’s Tate Modern likens architecture to a gigantic mineral landform, so severing the romantic connection between natural environment and architectural form. And at the de Young Museum in San Francisco (AR October 2005), architecture and nature are integrated in diagrammatic and abstract ways that largely deny all sentimental apprehension of the genius loci.
A satellite image reveals the Parrish Art Museum’s autonomous scale and orientation in the landscape and points up one of its most important characteristics, the silvery metal roof, which makes the structure stand out against the dark ground plane. Standing in front of the building, you immediately grasp the phenomenological intention. The long roof reflects and merges with the bright and luminous sky, the cast concrete sidewalls are rooted and terrestrial. Architecture is see as a meeting point between sky and earth; a sort of horizon in its own right, or at least an expressive interpretation of this notion.
The typological choice of a long linear structure, which exceeds the possibility of being apprehended as a finite object, confirms this intent. Unlike the small houses that seem whimsically scattered around the landscape, this building wants to be a matrix of the landscape itself: it makes visible what is otherwise only conceptually accessible.
In one of his more famous essays on the onto-phenomenological role of architecture, Heidegger likens architecture to a longitudinal structure − a bridge: ‘The bridge does not just connect banks that are already there. The banks emerge as banks only as the bridge crosses the stream … The bridge gathers the earth as landscape around the stream … a location comes into existence only by virtue of the bridge.’ In other words, nature does not simply predate the insertion of thearchitecture/bridge, but architecture frames the landscape so that it becomes, for the first time, visible with all its inherent qualities. Architecture is a bridge that connects the human to his/her environment − it is an Auslegung, interpretation, or ‘lay-out’, which makes things accessible to consciousness and thus renders them intelligible.
The Parrish Museum can certainly be conceptualised this way: its horizontality makes visible the smooth topography of the dunes; its hard geometry explicates by contrast the soft forms of the vegetation; its framed views of the landscape reveal the long-drawn-out spaces of the fields and the beaches. H&dM’s own precedent to the theme of building-as-horizon is to be found in the Dominus Winery in Yountville, California (AR October 1998), where they made horizontality itself into the very theme of their architecture.
The Parrish is essentially an extruded bar, cut off to reveal a double-pitched roof which runs with the grain of the building and thus evokes the imagery of a double house or barn on both end elevations. This architectural two-sidedness is reminiscent of John Hejduk’s IBA projects in Berlin, where Hejduk gave his buildings one figural facade with a sort of inverted roof obliquely referencing the iconography of the traditional house. He then extruded this architectural sign into deep space to create abstract and ‘modern’ side facades.
Hejduk designed a whole series of conceptual ‘double houses’, and also ‘half-houses’, suggesting that architecture had a double grounding in the symbolic and allegorical realm of the human imagination and, at the same time, in the material and pragmatic logic of the ‘real’ world. These ideas resulted in a two-and-a-half dimensional architecture that suggested the domestic scale of the individual dwelling and the scale of the urban apartment house could paradoxically coexist in the same building.
At the Parrish Museum, H&dM deploy the symbolism of the house in many different ways. The entrance to the building is marked by a missing section of the long bar, which takes on the shape of the ‘absent’ barn. At this point, the visitors set foot in the architectural thematic of the shed even before they proceed to enter the actual building. The entrance door is made of a very sophisticated black textured wood, which is more reminiscent of the small doors of a jewellery chest than of a building. Inside, the cafeteria and galleries are defined by the contours of the house, lined with white walls but opening the space to the whole height of the pitched roof. The exposed, untreated wood construction of the timberwork emphasises the reading and reinterpretation of a vernacular structure.
H&dM have previously turned to the symbolism of the traditional house. Projects such as the recent Vitrahaus in Weil am Rhein (AR March 2010) make clear how the iconography of the gable roof and Urhut have determined their architecture. With both the Vitrahaus and the Parrish Art Museum, they are less mythical about the motif of the house than Hejduk, but it similarly helps them to reconcile the institutional scale of a museum with the domestic reality of the local architecture.
The tectonic meeting point of the double roof is also spatially interesting − especially on the inside. Where the two roofs connect and their beams structurally and expressively cross over, their interior surface reads as an inverted roof, which compresses the space inside the building. At the same time, the ridge of this upturned ceiling becomes the spatial guide for circulation throughout the museum, granting access to galleries of variable size on either side.
On the whole, it’s hard to miss the careful and subtle details that are so masterfully deployed, such as the way the building sits on a thin concrete surface which appears to float above the natural ground by just an inch or so. The shadow joint between this surface and the ground is minute, yet it elevates the building into a realm determined by precision and meticulousness that is largely unknown to the American construction industry and is, at the same time, a trademark of Swiss architectural culture. Similarly, the exposed ceilings throughout the museum exhibit a sense of careful carelessness when electric cables are nailed to the timber beams or sprinkler pipes run along rim lines.
H&dM’s Parrish Art Museum is an extremely skilled and artful essay on the tectonics of timber-and-concrete construction and on the genius loci and it’s conceivable that the passive and conventional role their architecture assumes in relation to the art it houses comes with the territory.
Architect: Herzog & de Meuron
Associate architect: Douglas Moyer Architect
Photographs: All photographs by Iwan Baan apart from where credited otherwise