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Space to breathe

Clark’s redesign, expansion to be unveiled July 4

  • The new Visitor Center, designed by avant-garde architect Tadao Ando, takes up 42,650 square feet and provides new exhibition space, a kidspace, a dining area, cafe, and a pavilion for lectures and special events. A pedestrian walkway crosses the reflecting pool. (scale model, Tadao Ando Architect & Associates)

    The new Visitor Center, designed by avant-garde architect Tadao Ando, takes up 42,650 square feet and provides new exhibition space, a kidspace, a dining area, cafe, and a pavilion for lectures and special events. A pedestrian walkway crosses the reflecting pool. (scale model, Tadao Ando Architect & Associates)

  • The new Visitor Center, as well as the institute’s two other buildings nearby, will be heated and cooled with seven geothermal wells. Rainwater from roofs and from the semi-porous parking lot will be used for nonpotable needs. The center makes use of triple-paned windows with a low-heat emission and a 95 percent reduction of UV rays. (rendering by Tadao Ando Architect & Associates)

    The new Visitor Center, as well as the institute’s two other buildings nearby, will be heated and cooled with seven geothermal wells. Rainwater from roofs and from the semi-porous parking lot will be used for nonpotable needs. The center makes use of triple-paned windows with a low-heat emission and a 95 percent reduction of UV rays. (rendering by Tadao Ando Architect & Associates)

  • Don Stewart photo<br/>Construction of the Visitor Center in early December. Prominent is the three tier reflecting pool and the entrance to the 42,650-square-foot building. Institute director Michael Conforti is confident of the July Fourth opening date. “There will be some ‘punch listy’ types of things left, I’m sure,” he quipped.

    Don Stewart photo
    Construction of the Visitor Center in early December. Prominent is the three tier reflecting pool and the entrance to the 42,650-square-foot building. Institute director Michael Conforti is confident of the July Fourth opening date. “There will be some ‘punch listy’ types of things left, I’m sure,” he quipped.

  • Photo by Keitaku Hayashi<br/>Tadao Ando, 72, is self-taught in architecture and has taught at Harvard University. He created the innovative design of the Clark’s Stone Hill Center, which opened in 2008 as well as the new two-level Visitor Center. In the United States, he’s also designed the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis. (photo courtesy of Clark Art Institute).<br/>Tadao Ando photo by Keitaku Hayashi

    Photo by Keitaku Hayashi
    Tadao Ando, 72, is self-taught in architecture and has taught at Harvard University. He created the innovative design of the Clark’s Stone Hill Center, which opened in 2008 as well as the new two-level Visitor Center. In the United States, he’s also designed the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis. (photo courtesy of Clark Art Institute).
    Tadao Ando photo by Keitaku Hayashi

  • The new Visitor Center, designed by avant-garde architect Tadao Ando, takes up 42,650 square feet and provides new exhibition space, a kidspace, a dining area, cafe, and a pavilion for lectures and special events. A pedestrian walkway crosses the reflecting pool. (scale model, Tadao Ando Architect & Associates)
  • The new Visitor Center, as well as the institute’s two other buildings nearby, will be heated and cooled with seven geothermal wells. Rainwater from roofs and from the semi-porous parking lot will be used for nonpotable needs. The center makes use of triple-paned windows with a low-heat emission and a 95 percent reduction of UV rays. (rendering by Tadao Ando Architect & Associates)
  • Don Stewart photo<br/>Construction of the Visitor Center in early December. Prominent is the three tier reflecting pool and the entrance to the 42,650-square-foot building. Institute director Michael Conforti is confident of the July Fourth opening date. “There will be some ‘punch listy’ types of things left, I’m sure,” he quipped.
  • Photo by Keitaku Hayashi<br/>Tadao Ando, 72, is self-taught in architecture and has taught at Harvard University. He created the innovative design of the Clark’s Stone Hill Center, which opened in 2008 as well as the new two-level Visitor Center. In the United States, he’s also designed the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis. (photo courtesy of Clark Art Institute).<br/>Tadao Ando photo by Keitaku Hayashi

“We’re not only building, but building with a great consciousness of this land. This extraordinary land will be preserved in the future.”

— Michael Conforti, Clark Art Institute director

If you’ve never visited Williamstown’s Clark Art Institute, or if you’re fervently awaiting its midsummer reopening, July’s unveiling will be something to behold.

“It’s certainly one of the most complex projects that’s going on in this country, not complex because of scale, but because of the number of principals (contractors) who are involved,” institute director Michael Conforti said during an early winter press reception.

The cynosure of the Clark’s $115 million omnibus expansion and renovation project will be the Visitor Center, a two-level glass and concrete building enclosing 42,650 square feet, a quarter of which will provide new exhibition space. The building, one story in height, will be mirrored by a one-and-a-half acre reflecting pool and will provide a glass concourse entrance to the site’s 1955 white marble museum.

The center was designed by the Japanese architect Tadao Ando, the creator of the institute’s $25 million Stone Hill Center, which opened in 2008.

“What we tried to do was have a building that is integral to the landscape and its surroundings,” Ando said during the reception, speaking through a translator. The Visitor Center, he said would reveal “a quiet presence ... and it has the strength to express itself.”

When considering the bombastic, grandstanding style of Frank Gehry and other bumptious architects, Ando stands at the polar opposite of the scale. The Stone Hill building, which contains two intimate galleries and is the home of the Williamstown Art Conservation Center, conveys a serene quality. To provide texture, its concrete walls were cast against forms made of deeply grained wood. Looking through north facing windows on the first floor, visitors can see conservationists at work with state-of-the-art equipment. Staffers revive anything from aging and historic fielder’s gloves from the National Baseball Hall of Fame to the canvases of big name artists. From the terrace above there are broad views of Williamstown and the Green Mountain range. The center, displaying some of the Clark’s most crowd-pleasing artworks, remains open with free admission during the construction period.

A quiet revolution

Under the direction of New York-based architect Annabelle Selldorf, both the original white marble museum and the red granite Manton Research Center are undergoing subtle renovations.

“The mandate for us was to make (them) better without anyone noticing what you’ve done,” Selldorf said in an institute promotional video.

The museum, its exterior design based upon a Greek temple, will again be entered from both the east and west, as it was originally. The second story bridge entrance, a long-standing architectural misfire attached to the Manton building, will be removed.

There will be an increase of some 15 percent in gallery space in the museum and the lower floor, previously consigned to storage, will display early American decorative arts. The quarter-sawn oak floors have been refinished and the galleries renovated with new lighting sources. Visitors entering through the eastern doors, a few paces from where the museum’s founders Sterling and Francine Clark are interred, will first travel through a sculpture conservatory before viewing 19th century impressionistic paintings.

Describing the subtle changes to the museum, Conforti said that there may be some initial disorientation for visitors familiar with the previous layout.

“It will be both reassuring and confusing at the same time,” he joked.

The Manton Research Center, built in 1973, has been the entrance to the museum for decades. The retail shop will migrate to a more spacious interior at the Visitor’s Center while a coffee bar and book store will remain. Given that the building houses one of the largest public art libraries in the nation, the courtyard space will become a large reading room featuring a mezzanine. First floor galleries will be dedicated to the display of light-sensitive print and paper art. Other galleries will feature the institute’s collection of British art.

The Visitor Center, renamed from what in past years was known as the awkwardly unpoetic “VECC,” or Visitor, Exhibition and Conference Center, will feature a cafe, dining area and a studio for children’s art projects.

The lower level, below grade, will provide three galleries and, through innovative design, a dramatic use of natural light.

A pavilion, facing the reflecting pool will serve as a meeting place for lectures and special events.

“The pool is sort of a beautiful facade of a very complex water management system,” Vicki Saltzman, the institute’s director of communications, said during a phone call. “A lot of the ‘cool stuff’ is underground. It’s the way that we’re harvesting the rainwater.”

The water harvest

An intricate collection system, designed by Reed Hilderbrand Associates of Watertown, conveys rainwater from several locations — the institute’s roofs and a new, northerly parking lot with a semi-porous pavement. The “gray water” which is captured is then filtered by a benign process for nonpotable uses, or functions not involved with drinking water. It’s estimated that the rooftop collection will trap 120,000 gallons annually. Overall, approximately one million gallons of potable water will be spared, an annual reduction of 50 percent.

The three-tier reflecting pool, available for wintertime skating, is a lifeguard’s dream. No deeper than 14 inches, a walkway allows you to stroll between its currents. Any clean overflow from the pool travels to a nearby brook.

Seven new geothermal wells, pumping water from a depth of some 300 feet, will meet the heating and cooling needs of the institute’s buildings.

The Clark’s unveiling should hopefully spark a multitude of curiosities. If you’re not nutty about art, there’s innovative architecture. If that doesn’t appeal to you, there’s the technological feat of water collection and geothermal efficiency, although the system is almost entirely subterranean. If you’re still bored, somehow, the Clark sits upon 140 acres, with woodland trails to be enhanced and amended with two additional miles of paths. As part of its greening, 1,000 new trees of native species will be planted on the campus.

After all the construction dust has settled, the institute will be seeking Silver LEED certification, a federal designation awarded for environmentally sustainable buildings. The certification enhances surrounding real estate values and adds merit to institute grant applications.

The $115 million undertaking was funded by an amalgam of private contributions, grants, foundation awards and bond financing created by the institute.

A self-taught architect

Ando, 72, was at one time a truck driver and bantamweight boxer. As a teen, upon seeing Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, he became inspired with the dramatic presence that architecture can achieve. As a young man, he toured the historic buildings of Europe and immersed himself in the study of innovative building approaches.

Although he speaks a fractional amount of English, he’s taught at Harvard and has been honored with the prestigious Pritzker award for his architectural achievements.

His creations stretch from Europe to Asia and several books, including a weighty, full-color coffee table opus, have been written about his career.

Overall planning for the project transpired over a 12-year period and Ando was initially a reluctant candidate. When approached by the institute, he asked an old friend, a former Boston Symphony Orchestra director, as to where Williamstown was.

“I called up Mr. Ozawa and he told me ‘That’s very far,’” Ando recalled.

Ando sent a letter to the institute expressing his regrets. However, after viewing photographs of the site, there was a sea change. He arrived in Williamstown a few days later.

“He saw the land and it changed his mind,” Conforti said.

“I haven’t experienced any location that has the hills so close by ...” Ando said. “(They’re) almost adjacent and so the difficulty (became) designing a building that would be completely integrated to the landscape.”

The architect said that the challenge was “to create a stage for artworks to be viewed in the most beautiful way and to promote the quiet, contemplative site for visitors … That’s why I created transitional spaces here so you view several pieces of art and then there is a ‘breathing space’ to reorient yourself.”

Pyrotechnics promised

According to Saltzman, the July 4 opening day will be low key. The day will highlight new exhibits ranging from works by Jackson Pollock and Jasper Johns to rare Chinese bronze works dating to the Xia Dynasty (c. 2100 to c. 1600 B.C.) and, at the Stone Hill Center, sculptures by David Smith (1906 to 1965).

There will be no admission charged and, with a nod to the suggestion of our founding fathers as to the proper celebration of Independence, there will be fireworks, a spectacle rarely seen in Williamstown.

Some 200,000 people annually travel to the institute, the Berkshire’s second largest attraction after Tanglewood. Saltzman was asked if there were concerns that the expansion would take way the intimacy of the site.

“We invite closeness,” she said. “That’s very much a part of who we are and every effort has been made since the beginning of this project to ensure that we maintain that specialness of the Clark.”

Don Stewart is a freelance writer who lives in Plainfield. He has written for The Recorder since 1994.

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