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Windows of Opportunity at A German Museum

In small, wealthy Baden-Baden, a fashionable Black Forest resort about 85 miles south of Frankfurt, Meier was asked, in a sense, to repeat his Frankfurt success. Here, too, Meier's job was to build a modern building for art that would complement both an existing historic landmark, the Baden-Baden State Art Gallery, and a historic setting -- the Lichtentaler Boulevard, a treasured, tree-lined pedestrian pathway through the town's principal park.

And here, too, he succeeded brilliantly. The new building complements its neighbor by keeping a certain distance (crossed by the lovely glass bridge) and by maintaining the basic shape and scale -- both are about the same height and are fundamentally cubical in form.


The Richard Meier-designed public home for a private art collection in Germany. (Above: Klaus Frahm -- Sammlung Frieder Burda, Left: Sammlung Fr)

But no two jobs are exactly the same. The relative simplicity of the Baden-Baden commission for a single, rather small and almost free-standing building allows us to focus without any distraction on fundamental things that Meier has done throughout his long career.

From early on, Meier has been an architect for whom walls and windows -- or, more precisely, abstract planes and openings -- are supremely important as expressive devices. In classic modernist fashion Meier frees the wall from its traditional function of structural support and scatters "windows" of all sizes on roofs, ceilings, floors and "walls."

The purpose of these sophisticated manipulations, Meier has often told us, is to shape interesting spaces and control the widest possible variations in natural light. Meier's famous fixation on whiteness is in large part a function of his love of light because white, he strongly feels, best reflects changes in conditions of light, be they as subtle as a passing cloud or as emphatic as a pattern of dark shadows.

But none of Meier's buildings can properly be understood without crediting the architect's near obsession with movement -- the way light and shadows change and, above all, the way human beings move around, up, down and through the buildings. This helps to explain, for instance, the architect's frequent use of ramps because, on ramps, you have plenty of time to appreciate the spaces and changes you are passing through.

All of these Meier qualities are exemplified at their best in the Burda Collection building. Its front elevation gives a visitor some idea of what's in store. It is a finely balanced asymmetrical arrangement of white planes and differently shaped, very large glass openings, with here and there a strategic narrow band of glass. Surrounded by high deciduous trees and green grass, the white building stands out gorgeously -- a human-made jewel in a forest.

The floor plans could hardly be simpler. On each of three above-ground levels there are three parallel sections -- a relatively narrow space for entry and, on the mezzanine and uppermost floor, for rather intimate galleries; another narrow space for primary circulation (ramps, of course); and, finally, a space for two wide, long, high-ceilinged exhibition galleries.

Though the plan is simple, the experience of the building is complex and intensely pleasurable. As spaces to display a few sculptures and a lot of large paintings (including a selection of American abstract expressionists and an outpouring of important German art of the past 40 years or so), the large galleries are excellent.

Yet they are not the vast, neutral, enclosed spaces that many curators (and artists) prefer. Rather, they are quietly active spaces, subtly enlivened by occasional changes -- a pedestrian bridge here, a hidden window there, and so on. The overhead lighting system, too, is ingenious, and lets a visitor marvel at the ever-changing quality of natural light.

What's really marvelous about the architecture, though, is the experience of moving through it, stopping from time to time to contemplate a painting or a sculpture or to appreciate a view into the trees outside or simply to admire a particular effect of the architecture itself. Despite its openness and generous scale, the building has something of the intimacy of the small art places aficionados love to love, such as the Phillips or Frick Collections.

And yet in its melding of the experiences of nature, art and architecture, it is beguilingly unique.


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