Correction to This Article
The Design column in the April 23 Style section contained an incorrect telephone number for Hillwood Museum & Gardens. The correct number is 202-686-8500.
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Michael Graves Makes Himself At Home in the Shenandoah

In the new Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, artifacts from the region's past are enhanced by the architecture of the galleries.
In the new Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, artifacts from the region's past are enhanced by the architecture of the galleries. (By Ron Blunt)

These cover a wide range -- tables, desks, sideboards, paintings, baskets, textiles, vintage photographs, earthenware pots, kitchen utensils and an 1825 ink stand that is "the first documented tin-glazed ceramic object made in America." This emphasis on authentic historical objects, rather than facsimiles or films or other secondhand materials, is the secret of the new museum's success.

And, oh yes, there is the architecture. Characteristically -- and fortunately -- Graves and his team (firm principal Patrick Burke and associate Joshua Zinder) paid as much careful attention to the inside as to the outside. A primary concern was to ensure that the interior architecture in some way contribute to the story being told by the objects.

Public spaces set the tone. Immediately behind the entry doors is a hexagonal lobby distinguished by an elegant, Gravesian information desk sheathed in a blond wood veneer. It is an intimate space, but it seems expansive. Your eye immediately gets drawn up to the natural light coming from a cupola high above.

On a bright spring day, the little lobby is thus washed in light. Likewise, the long ground-floor corridor is invitingly illuminated from outdoors through the parade of high arched windows in the facade. The vaulted corridor, stretching the building's entire length, leads to a cafe at one end and the shrunken, but still quite nice, reception hall at the other. Glass doors and windows are aligned at either end, too, so there is light at both ends of this tunnel.

In the galleries themselves, ceilings play a major role. Several spaces -- including the hexagonal orientation gallery, the spacious, rectangular Shenandoah Valley Gallery and the reception hall -- are topped with timber trusses reminiscent of old farm structures. (These were put together with traditional mortise-and-tenon joints by Blue Ridge Timberwrights of Christiansburg, Va.)

Both direct and indirect references are combined in Graves's architecture. A Graves building, we can be sure, always makes a bow in the direction of local context and, at the same time, to some mix of classical, pre-classical and post-classical Western art and architecture.

(Besides being probably the most allusive architect on the planet, Graves also is one of the most courageous and strong-willed: He keeps working full steam ahead despite having been paralyzed in early 2003 by a debilitating virus. He doesn't travel as much as he used to, but he showed up for the black-tie opening dinner of the Shenandoah museum.)

Graves is often spoken of as a traditional architect, but he is far from it. He often risks being obvious but, at the same time, tries hard to be distant and even mysterious. He is as far as far can be from avant-garde, but he is, all the same, wholly original.

All of this is apparent even in the reduced version of this Shenandoah museum. As originally envisioned, each of the pieces would have had its own personality, expressed, of course, on its facade. But now, the main facade is the only one left that's worth speaking of.

And, as I said, it declares its classical allegiances like a billboard. It is symmetrical, with a central pediment and cupola framed by pedimented wings. It is sheathed mostly in red brick. The row of arched windows is crystallized Renaissance. The high windows of the wings look elegantly French.

Of course, many of these design decisions were made in deference to Virginia's classical tradition, in general, and in particular to the neighboring Glen Burnie Historic House, a plainspoken late 18th-century mansion with 20th-century additions. But the new building could hardly be less like the old one, or any other Virginia building, had it been covered in titanium.

Well, maybe not that different. It's a big, factory-size building. Its fat, cylindrical entry columns, supporting a lightweight wooden arbor, look as if they'd lead you to the Colossus of Rhodes. Even the hexagonal cupola is outsize. It could be an airport control tower, made over for a "Colonial" environment. And then there is the super-size masonry motif, similar to the one Graves used to magical effect to shield the Washington Monument scaffolding during renovation. Here, the pattern is painted on, with a light coating of white on conventional red bricks.

All in all, this declamatory facade turns out to be oddly alluring. You look at it a lot more sympathetically after having been inside. Even so, the facade is a bold set of tricks that definitely needs a new approach road. Seeing it for the first time in a side view, as one does now, does the architecture an injustice.

What is needed is the direct, on-center access that was planned, but cut for cost reasons. The best way to encounter this building would be to come over a gentle valley hill and--wham! There it would be.

Graves plays by his own rules, but like many of the top modernists these days, he also creates strange buildings for strange times.


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