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Reality from vision: At long last, The Clark has reopened, unveiling its transformation

  • Tucker Bair photo<br/> “I love the reflection of the light by the water,” architect Tadao Ando said of the new Clark Center. “My philosophy is to have an element of nature in all my buildings.”

    Tucker Bair photo
    “I love the reflection of the light by the water,” architect Tadao Ando said of the new Clark Center. “My philosophy is to have an element of nature in all my buildings.”

  • Don Stewart photo<br/>Visitors to the new Clark Center will pass by the lilies of Schow Pond, a 100-year-old feature of what was formerly farmland.

    Don Stewart photo
    Visitors to the new Clark Center will pass by the lilies of Schow Pond, a 100-year-old feature of what was formerly farmland.

  • Japanese architect Tadao Ando

    Japanese architect Tadao Ando

  • Tucker Bair photo<br/> “I love the reflection of the light by the water,” architect Tadao Ando said of the new Clark Center. “My philosophy is to have an element of nature in all my buildings.”
  • Don Stewart photo<br/>Visitors to the new Clark Center will pass by the lilies of Schow Pond, a 100-year-old feature of what was formerly farmland.
  • Japanese architect Tadao Ando

“Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.”

— Frank Lloyd Wright, architect (1867 - 1959)

On July Fourth, despite a steady downpour that threatened to transform Berkshire County into a navigable waterway, at Williamstown’s Clark Art Institute there was a brass band, a gaggle of local big wigs and fireworks, a decibel-shattering pyrotechnical display rarely seen in this pastoral setting.

An estimated 8,000 people arrived for the unveiling of the Clark Center, the institute’s newest building and the fulfillment of more than a dozen years of planning.

As scores of umbrella wielders and less shielded, and undeniably more soaked, individuals looked on, State Sen. Ben Downing, D-Pittsfield, spoke moments before a ceremonial ribbon was cut.

“I think it’s a great day in Berkshire County,” he said enthusiastically. “I don’t need an umbrella! Don’t you guys think it’s a great day in Berkshire County?”

The crowd cheered and applauded vigorously.

A few yards away, huge glass doors allowed entrance into one of the more remarkable architectural undertakings in the region. The Clark Center, designed by avant-garde Japanese architect Tadao Ando, provides a cornucopia of expanded visitor services, from a gift shop, cafeteria and conference rooms to 11,000 square feet of new exhibition space. Outside the building, where a patio provides views to the nearby woodlands and meadows of Stone Hill, there’s a one-acre reflecting pool segmented into three tiers. A concourse links the Clark Center to the newly renovated white marble museum.

Describing the institute as “a gem,” Downing added that “when people come to the museum, they’ll talk about the hardy souls who lined up like this is Woodstock, that lined up to see ... what we created here as a community.”

An intricate waterworks

During a press preview a week before the opening, institute director Michael Conforti explained that the institute’s vision for expansion dated from a master plan created in 2001.

“We were growing,” he said. The question became “how to grow and where to grow while making this landscape somehow more special for the more than 200,000 people who come here (annually), as well as the community people who come here and see this as a community park.”

Within the serenity of the institute’s 140 acres, for years visitors conspicuously parked behind the red granite Manton Research Center and may have gazed momentarily at a thick-walled and boxy concrete building, a complete visual rebellion from esthetic design. The site housed the physical plant as well as the Williamstown Art Conservation Center. Eminently forgettable as a building, its visual values could only be improved with complete demolition, which took place in 2012. The center relocated a few minutes away to Ando’s 2008 building, now known as the Lunder Center.

Visitors will now park less conspicuously in a lot to the north of the institute and will formally enter via the Clark Center. Unbeknown to most, the sensitivity to the local environment and the recycling of water begins just beneath their feet. The pavement is porous and part of an intricate water collection system, which conveys rain from the institute’s roofs, as well as from parking and field areas, meeting the institute’s non-potable needs as well as providing for the reflecting pool. Beneath the pool is a 50,000-gallon reservoir designed to anticipate fluctuations from evaporation and overflow in the waterworks. The collected water passes through sand filters and an ozonator. Any runoff reentering the wetland ecosystem is as clean as the surrounding Hemlock and Christmas brooks.

“It looks passive. It’s actually a working, functioning system to take care of storms,” landscape architect Gary Hilderbrand said of the water feature. His firm, Reed-Hilderbrand of Cambridge, was commissioned for the enhancement of the site’s environment, including overseeing the waterway’s construction and the planting of 1,000 native tree species.

“The drainage system will handle a 100-year storm,” he said. “What they used to call a 100-year storm, we get them about twice a year now.”

Maintaining aeration and turbulence, 2,000 gallons of water are coursing through the system every minute. Hilderbrand said that the first designs from Ando’s Osaka offices were a series of studies attempting to visually join the new building to the 1955 neoclassical white marble museum and the “brutalist style,” red granite 1973 Manton Research Center.

“Could you imagine that they could have some coherence?” Hilderbrand asked. “The short answer is probably ‘No!’”

Maddy Burke-Vigeland said that one of the significant pivotal moments in the planning stages for the new center was when the pool was no longer looked upon as simply a decorative feature. She is a principal with Gensler, New York, executive architects for the project.

“It was a place where all of the foundation water, all of the drainage water could go,” she said. “So it was, from ‘Can we build this?’ to ‘Yes, we need this.’”

Ando, a recipient of the Pritzker Prize for architecture, is world renowned for his innovative use of concrete, glass and unexpectedly dramatic water effects. In a Williams College symposium in late June, he told the audience that he imagined the white marble building as a grandfather, the Manton as its offspring and the Clark Center as its grandchild.

“The three generations are tied by a central water feature,” he said. The trio is also linked with underground tunnels for the conveyance of artworks as well as physical plant operations.

The water conservation system has halved the estimated annual potable water use by the institute to some 3.2 million gallons. Another water feature, hidden from view, are eight geothermal wells for the heating and cooling of the buildings.

Some Freud suggested

To provide uninterrupted views of the nearby meadows, the Clark Center is just one story high. Its heart — meeting rooms, cafeteria and 11,000 square feet of exhibition space — are two stories below ground level. Light below is provided with floor to ceiling glass panels opening out onto open, exterior walls encompassing shallow pools of water.

Visitors may remember that a small, precariously inadequate loading dock was a feature of the marble museum.

“You really couldn’t bring a painting here without risking it,” Hilderbrand said. “This (new) building has provided one of the great loading docks of all time.”

Ando’s design hides that area from view with a wall of stone echoing another stone wall to the west of the center’s patio. The red granite was quarried from the same Minnesota site that provided the Manton Research Center’s unique exterior look.

During the press preview, Ando, speaking through a translator, said that “there were days and nights when I wondered if the project would be stopped or suspended altogether, (however) the teamwork was constant … There are things that didn’t come out as expected and there are things that came out magnificently.”

Given the enormity of the project and personalities involved, architect Burke-Vigeland suggested that much of the work was to create a reality from visions.

“As an interpreter of dreams, we often wonder if our training should have involved a little more Freud and a little less footing and foundations,” she quipped.

The ‘greater moment’

New York architect Annabelle Selldorf was commissioned for the renovation and redesign of the interiors of the marble museum and the Manton Research Center.

She spoke near the eastern entrance to the museum. Just a few paces away, the ashes of Sterling and Francine Clark are interred alongside the front steps. When the museum, resembling a Greek temple, was built, it was the largest requisition of white marble since the U.S. Supreme Court was constructed. The Clarks’ gift was to make their private art collection public. They left the institute a generous endowment and placed no legal restrictions on its potential future growth.

“It’s a large house. It’s a temple. It’s a museum and it’s a cross of all those things,” Selldorf said. The architect has reconfigured the hallways of the building, adding 15 percent more area for exhibit space while also improving lighting and refinishing floors and walls while maintaining its essential intimacy. She was asked what the biggest challenge was in renovating the building.

“Everything,” she said. “In some ways the idea was, when it’s all done, that you wouldn’t be able to pinpoint what is different.”

What will be different at the Manton building is that the cavernous atrium will become a reading room for students and the public. The bookstore and cafe will remain and the courtyard will be enhanced with a new skylight.

Selldorf said that the two projects succeeded in becoming the reality of what she’d imagined.

“When you work as an architect, you have a kind of vision of where you want to go,” she said. “Then, when you see that it worked out, that’s a kind of greater moment. That’s very satisfying.”

Williamstown’s Clark Art Institute is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. from July to Oct. 13; Admission: adults $20; from Nov. 1 to June 30, free admission; Ancient ritual bronzes from Shanghai Museum though Sept. 21; The circles of David Smith through Oct. 19; An exhibit of modern art from the National Museum debuts Aug. 2. For more information,

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

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