A Museum Addition That Refuses to Be Boxed In

The new wing of Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis has an aluminum skin that shifts color tones as the light changes.
The new wing of Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis has an aluminum skin that shifts color tones as the light changes. (Photos By Ben Garvin For The Washington Post)
By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 8, 2005


Smart. Deadpan. With it. Edgy. Elegant. Evanescent. Over-the-top.

These are a few of the contradictory, non-architectural terms one can use to describe the new addition to the renowned Walker Art Center here. The words also might be used to suggest the general attitude and personality of Herzog & de Meuron, the Pritzker Prize-winning architectural firm that designed the Walker expansion.

The Swiss team is best known for transforming a power station on the south bank of London's Thames River into the Tate Modern five years ago. The Walker job is the firm's first museum building in the United States, with another -- the new de Young Museum in San Francisco -- to be completed this fall.

In Minneapolis, it is the smartness that affects a visitor first as he stands on the opposite side of broad Hennepin and Lyndale avenues, looking back at the darkly impressive 1971 Walker building and its bright new wing.

Building anything that would look good next to the existing, 34-year-old structure, designed by the highly respected Edward Larrabee Barnes, is quite a feat. The Herzog & de Meuron addition actually goes one better. It gives the dour old Barnes building a new sense of life, enticing it into a new composition that's full of contrasting qualities.

Barnes's idea, way back when, was to build a sculptural bastion against the tide of movement and noise outside -- to form a retreat where art and people would be protected from a hostile world. A first encounter with the site makes one sympathize with the architect's protective impulses. The building is set beside one of those intense collisions of big roads that occur on the edges of many contemporary cities.

Cars blast by in front of the museum on the busy, parallel avenues, each four lanes wide. A six-lane interstate highway disgorges its speeding cargo from an underpass less than a hundred yards from the front door. Other roads sneak in along the sides. (And we think 160-foot Pennsylvania Avenue is wide. A pedestrian bridge that spans this urban divide, designed by the artist Siah Armajani and commissioned by the Walker in 1988, stretches some 379 feet.)

Putting first things first, the new architectural team wisely decided to leave the Barnes building pretty much alone. (The design team consists of Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron along with partner Christine Binswanger and project architect Thomas Gluck of the Swiss firm; plus the Minneapolis firm of Hammel, Green and Abrahamson.) These sophisticated folks recognized that, faults and all, the old building is a free-standing sculpture that deserves to remain that way.

All the same, their assignment was to nearly double the amount of space available for the Walker's famously innovative programs. The new wing had to be big enough to contain added gallery space, offices, a museum shop, a restaurant, a large "event" space and a theater with a 48-foot-high fly loft. There was no good way to modestly hide the new architecture and, for that matter, no desire to do so.

Thus, the main bulk of the new addition, enclosing the theater, the store, the restaurant and the top-level event space, is separated from the original building by a low structure containing corridors, offices, galleries and gathering places. This long architectural "hyphen" or "barbell," with two massive rectangular structures at either end, sets up a fascinating play of contrasts.

Though it echoes the rectilinearity of the Barnes building, for instance, the principal part of the addition -- the counterweight at the other end of the barbell -- is not strictly rectangular. A cantilevered, trapezoidal "skirt" projects from one of the corner facades on Hennepin Avenue. The form provides a clear signal to passersby that this is the new main entryway, and makes an effective, if unusual, canopy. It also subtly skews the geometry.

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