By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 23, 2005
WINCHESTER, Va. -- An architectural poem in a springtime field. That's what I was looking for as I headed out to the new Michael Graves-designed Museum of the Shenandoah Valley.
And that is what I found here, more or less. But the poem was a whole lot simpler than the one Graves initially conceived.
His original idea was to separate the museum's various functions -- display, storage, entertainment, administration -- into distinct, although linked, architectural pieces, something like a little village of attached buildings. Each unit would be a different take on a certain aspect of architectural history and the Shenandoah Valley context.
What got built, however, after a series of cost-induced design modifications, is more like an engaging one-liner -- a billboard almost -- than the rich, three-dimensional composition Graves originally visualized.
Yet to the considerable credit of both architect and client, the whittling-down process did not eliminate anything that was absolutely essential to the new museum, which opened earlier this month. Storage and exhibition spaces were folded into one large building and maintained at the intended sizes.
The interior, in a sense, saves the design. Galleries and public spaces were planned and finished with creativity and a high level of craft. The feel of an important civic structure was maintained.
"We were disappointed that the full-size, multipurpose reception hall had to go," says museum Director Jennifer Esler, "because it was something the community really needed."
What the community did get, however -- and that includes both the Shenandoah Valley and the Washington region as a whole -- is more important: a first-rate regional museum.
Unlike many a new museum with an ambitious building program but little in the way of collections, this one started out with a core of fairly high-quality art objects. These were assembled by Julian Wood Glass Jr., the last private owner of the estate on which the building is situated.
Glass, who died in 1992, was a descendant of the family that originally built the nearby Glen Burnie Historic House in the 1790s. He collected mainly European paintings, drawings and furniture of the 18th and 19th centuries. What the new museum would desperately need, Esler realized, was a full complement of valley-made materials. With a lot of luck, given the soaring market for old American furniture and crafts, the museum was able to reach this goal in less than a decade.
The result, in the capable hands of the 1717 Design Group of Richmond and Williamsburg multimedia company Two Rivers, is a fascinating tour of the valley's history.
Although there are plenty of interactive exhibits in a pleasant variety of large and small galleries, they do not dominate the museum-goer's experience here. Rather, as it should be (but often is not), the electronics are thoughtfully integrated into displays focusing on real objects from the valley's past.
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.