The design of the 201,000-square foot building is by Moshe Safdie, the same architect who created the Peace Institute and the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms headquarters in Washington. Safdie’s work — institutional, overbearing and slavishly subservient to its government agenda — hasn’t exactly added luster to the District, but he is having a productive run in the Midwest. On Sept. 16, his $326 million Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts opened in Kansas City, Mo. And on Nov. 11, Crystal Bridges will debut.
The museum is a series of connected pavilions, two of which function as “bridges” over ponds built into the forest site. The distinctively shaped undulating pavilions remind some people of an armadillo, or a turtle shell. They are not remotely crystal — that part of the name is borrowed from the nearby Crystal Springs, which feeds a stream that once ran through the site.
Most visitors to the new museum — which features six main galleries, a restaurant, gift shop, office and library space, and “great hall” for gatherings and performances — will not be aware of the giant building lurking in the forest until they are right upon on it. The main entrance, approached by a forested road, is marked by a simple, semicircular colonnade, from which the museum is reached by descending an elevator or pathway. Inside, the building is connected to the forest and ponds around it, but essentially insular, a place of escape, disconnected from Bentonville and its nearby suburbs. If the trees grow as hoped, they will overshadow the museum, furthering the feeling of isolation.
There is a substantial “wow” factor to the building, but no one would ever call it refined, or meticulous or perfectly wrought. Safdie’s design is often sloppy, with elements that feel provisional, afterthoughts or improvisations. Metal panels have been added to the building’s exterior to cover structural elements — enormous cable stays that hold up the pavilions — that would have been appealing if left exposed. For some reason, a circular courtyard at the entry level to the main museum is divided, without symmetry, by a mysterious joint. An ugly black fence prevents visitors from wandering from the forest onto one of building’s roofs.
But there are compensating elements. The building has been set into a bowl blasted out of a forested basin. Care was taken to nestle the building tightly into the space, without damaging the surrounding forest, which is held back by enormous retaining walls that were still partly visible during a visit in late September. When the ponds are full and the retaining walls hidden from view (by dirt fill and vegetation), the “river runs through it” effect could be stunning. Museum officials said that substantial storms had demonstrated that the site can handle major water runoff, and that the sound of the water gushing through the site may be one of its architectural attractions.