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.
The individual pavilions are also appealing. Their curving forms are reminiscent of the roof of Eero Saarinen’s Ingalls Hockey Rink, built at Yale University in the late 1950s. Enormous cables and wood arch supports are combined to create large, open, column-less interior spaces, from which canted glass walls are hung. The restaurant pavilion, one of the bridges set over a weir of flowing water, is bright, open and feels more like a tent hung in the forest than an interior space.
Too bad, then, that no one figured out how to deal with the longer stretches of glass panels near the two ends of the bridge system. Intrusive joints create horizontal lines where the glass is divided into two or three spans, interrupting the view and creating unwanted rhythms. Yet another example of Safdie getting the big gesture and mussing the details.
The path through the building takes one first down an elevator and then into a lobby and the first galleries, devoted to the oldest art on display. These are windowless interiors that protect the art and enclose the visitor in space that feels domestically scaled, an appropriate choice for historic paintings. As visitors work their way around the ring of pavilions to the 20th century spaces, there is yet another large, open, arched room, reminiscent of the restaurant. But unfortunately, to create galleries within this odd geometry, the architect has simply added two large, white rectangular forms in the middle of open room. That, too, feels like an improvisation, a haphazard compromise between intriguing architecture and the bare necessities of displaying art.
The building has been designed with copper roof cladding, and wide, wooden panels set into its concrete exterior, in hopes that it will take on a weathered patina as it settles into its forest site. But if the building has been deferential to the forest on an aesthetic level, it has been remarkably aggressive in its appropriation of forest charms. The site is a natural basin, which falls more than 100 feet from top to bottom. But to make room for the museum, the stream had to be diverted, hundreds of thousands of pounds of rock blasted, and almost 1 million pounds of material removed. The stream is now channeled into enormous underground pipes. Museum officials say the building can withstand a 4,000-year flood event.
Safdie’s two major buildings in Washington fail because they respect only the people who use them, not the people who pass by or live near them. They are fortress-like, so polished and forbidding on their exteriors that they seem like alien objects in the cityscape. Crystal Bridges is not so antagonistic a building. But it, too, feels a bit like an acropolis, a small city state devoted to art, not just set in the forest, but reconfiguring the forest to its own liking.
There is hope that Crystal Bridges will charm its visitors, and much of that hope rests upon the two large ponds and the falling water that connects them. They weren’t running late last month. And to properly judge their impact, it will take years to be sure that they are lovely in all seasons and can be maintained without excessive cost and downtime for cleaning and repairs. If they work, if they create a focus to the building, a quiet, meditative center of gravity, with the pavilions clustered around them, the building probably will be a success.
But its name will always be odd, a reminder that Crystal Bridges put bridges where there was never a need for them, channeled and re-purposed a stream that once flowed without obstructions, and gathered around it a forest that was, like many people on this planet, perfectly happy without art or museums or any other signs of “civilized” improvements. It speaks of the well-packaged life, where everything is lovely, but there are no foxes at Foxwood Terrace or eagles at Eaglecrest Hills. Those are overtones of hollowness that a museum funded with money from the Wal-Mart fortune would probably like to avoid. With luck, Crystal Bridges will be better than its name.