A Museum Addition That Refuses to Be Boxed In

By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 8, 2005

MINNEAPOLIS

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.

Such reversals of expectations, both subtle and dramatic, run throughout the design. The internal structural steel frame of this new "almost rectangle" is every bit as stable as the concrete structure of the Barnes building. Likewise, the aluminum exterior sheathing is

altogether as weather-resistant as Barnes's bricks. But the new building doesn't quite look that way. It looks a little bit unstable, a little bit porous.

This is because of the light-reflecting and light-absorbing characteristics of the building's skin. Herzog and de Meuron are known for their interest in unusual materials, or conventional materials used in unusual ways. They're also known for using a building's skin as a form of allover decoration, treating it as a minimalist painter -- an Agnes Martin, say -- would use a canvas.

In Minneapolis, the architects sheathed their main building in three-dimensional boxes, each 3 feet 9 inches square and 8 inches deep. They're made of 3/ 16 -inch thick sheets of aluminum with diamond-shaped perforations -- a material you'd ordinarily see over alley windows in the wrong part of town. As part of the fabrication process, the outside panel of each box was embossed with a pattern of subtle folds.

The result is quite remarkable, a grid of evanescent silvers and grays shifting with changes in the light. The building doesn't disappear, of course, nor does it quite shimmer, even in the sunlight. But it does something strange, something in between -- something quite beautiful. (The skin is practical, too, says project architect Gluck, in rain or snow. Only about 5 percent of the moisture, he says, gets through to the protective surface behind the boxes.)

And so it continues, the game of contrasts. The old building turns its back to the busy roads outside. The new one opens up to them. Three enormous windows with irregular polygon shapes provide spectacular views from inside out, and outside in. One wraps around the second-floor corner of the restaurant, another makes a grand gesture for visitors to the top-floor event space, and a third stretches vertically on a rear facade, following the path of an interior stairwell. In addition, there are quirky little hexagonal windows here and there, focusing on particular views.

The all-glass wall of the tall ground floor of the connecting link (the "hyphen") between new and old is transparent on the bottom and translucent on the top. Thus, when you are strolling in the passageway between the main buildings, you're treated to a startling view of onrushing automobiles outside. (At night, the translucent layer of glass is used as a projection screen for messages about upcoming museum events. Rather blurred messages, in my sole experience. You could wreck your car trying to read one.)

Talk about using ordinary materials in unexpected ways -- this is the only art museum I know of that celebrates traffic! And talk about weird architectural parallels. In his 2001 building for the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis, Japanese architect Tadao Ando used a similar split-wall device to give the visitor an unexpected view of . . . a quiet pool of water.

Inside, the Swiss architects treated the Barnes building with the utmost respect. That is, they imitated Barnes's exhibition spaces in the galleries of the new building. "We refined them," says architect Gluck, and perhaps his verb is more precise.

The Barnes galleries are high and white -- the "neutral" spaces preferred by former Walker director Martin Friedman and a whole generation of curators -- and so are those in the new building. (Current Director Kathy Halbreich and chief curator Richard Flood likewise believe in galleries that offer maximum flexibility with minimal distraction.) But where the Barnes spaces are a little rough around the edges, because of the construction techniques and air-handling technologies of the 1970s, the new galleries are detailed to a fare-thee-well. The air exhausts and intakes, for example, are hidden away in door frames and lighting tracks. Sprinkler fixtures are similarly unobtrusive. The edges of the white ceiling beams are perfect right angles. Similarly precise, it seems, is the meeting of white wall with terra-cotta floor.

Thus, if you want perfect white containers for art, the new Walker is the place to go. However, in the corridors outside the galleries and in other spots throughout the new building, you'll encounter bits of sheer goofiness. The ceilings of the antechambers to these minimalist galleries, as well as the sliding doors, are ornamented with a cutout pattern of stylized plant motifs that are said to derive from a piece of ordinary lace that Herzog admired.

The discordance is at once hilarious and arch, and it reaches some kind of apogee in the interior of the 385-seat theater, whose walls are lined with an embossed metal version of the same motif. The balconies and theater doors, not incidentally, are framed in a thick, black, wavy leatherette pattern. It's what in the 1960s would have been celebrated as camp. And, as we know, camp did not wear well.

Clearly, the architects were not just joking around. Herzog's obsession with deadpan ornamentation -- that is, with decoration that does not pretend to have higher meaning -- is sometimes attributed to the fact that his mother was a tailor, and thus he was surrounded by patterned fabrics from an early age. The Swiss architect also may have absorbed something of Robert Venturi's notion of architecture as a "decorated shed," and he is known to be a big Andy Warhol fan.

In any case, at the Walker, Herzog's obsession works wonderfully on the exterior -- magically, even -- and falls flat on the inside. Wit is notoriously hard to pull off in architecture because, generally speaking, it fades with time while architecture is for the long haul. But the good far outdistances the bad in this big Midwestern effort. It is a work of architecture that is worth seeing, worth seeing again, and worth thinking about for a long time.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company