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Little Huts on the Prairie: A Sooner Success

The addition to the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma exudes the welcoming air of a village.
The addition to the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma exudes the welcoming air of a village. (By Jerry Laziure For The Washington Post)

It was the recent growth of the collection under the leadership of Boren and museum Director Eric M. Lee that created the need for the $14 million expansion. The "transformative bequest," in Lee's words, was a gift five years ago of a small but choice collection of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings assembled by Oklahoma oil heiress Clara Rosenthal Weitzenhoffer.

The practice of multiplying identical or almost-identical units has a long history in Jacobsen's architecture -- it's almost as if the idea had somehow been embedded in his architectural genes.

In 1959, just a year after he had begun his own practice, Jacobsen added to a Victorian house at 2813 Q St. NW, in Georgetown, by remodeling an existing facade and then duplicating it. I've often thought of this as the "mitosis house" because of this amusing resemblance to cell division. But it was, of course, an altogether serious effort. By now, two generations of Washington architects have gone to school on this remarkable design, which managed to be both contextual and modern at the same time.

In 1963, for a new Martha's Vineyard house, Jacobsen gave individual expression to each of the primary functions -- bedrooms, living/dining area and kitchen -- so that the result was a chain of rectangular units, each with its shallow pyramidal roof. And so it has continued, through the decades. Several of Jacobsen's most exquisite abstractions of American vernacular architecture -- in Minnesota, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania and on Maryland's Eastern Shore -- have been of this cell-dividing kind.

In this most recent example at the corner of Boyd and Elm, the basic module is a square with sides 30 feet across, each of which rises 22 feet straight up and then is capped by a pyramidal roof rising another 16 feet. Connected by glass-walled passageways, nine of these vertical pavilions are arranged in a large square, forming the basic, well-ordered cluster. A 10th pavilion, situated directly in the center of the Elm Street elevation, announces itself clearly as the primary entrance. Four smaller pavilions, used to shield fire stairwells and connected to the main structure only at basement level, stand like sentinels guarding the corners of the main compound.

During my first visit to the museum, in the late afternoon after closing time, I mused about how much better the distinctive little village would look in isolation, in the center of a field with lots of space and green around it. Jacobsen definitely wasn't kidding about giving the addition a look of its own -- philosophically, this is a free-standing work of architecture, a cluster of strangely exquisite huts sheathed in gorgeous Texas limestone.

But architecture, like politics, often is the art of the possible, and Jacobsen's design certainly is not disrespectful of its neighbors. It is attached by a 10-foot-wide, 30-foot-long glass-walled passageway to a low wing that extends from that appalling 1970s tower -- a simple, gentle arrangement.

Inside, the transition from new to old is effortless. That connecting central passageway leads directly into the galleries of the existing museum. Thus, once inside the front door of the new wing, a visitor can see all the way to the rear wall of the old museum -- a distance of 240 feet. (Of the 10 principal pavilions, six are devoted entirely to art display. The others perform as an entryway-cum-coat-room, a spacious lobby, an "orientation room" and a museum store.)

Jacobsen's spaces, Lee says, "are a curator's dream for hanging art." The symmetry of the plan provides many axial views, and Lee took full advantage of them. An erect and stately abstract bronze by Barbara Hepworth, beautifully positioned in the center of the lobby pavilion, lures a visitor inward. The alluring colors and emphatic forms of a 1945 painting by William Baziotes beckon you from a wall of European prints. The black bronze form of an art deco horse captures your attention from 90 feet away when you look up momentarily from a minutely detailed Persian miniature.

I'm hard put to define the special magic of these interiors. It comes, in part, from the serene intelligence of the plan -- Jacobsen knows just how to manipulate a simple grid so that it seems a gracious sequence of spaces and not just a boring, repetitive device. The 10-foot-wide corridors here are just as important as the rooms -- they're wide enough to double as galleries for small works of art, and they lead always to a glass wall. Consequently, you never feel far from the outdoors.

Furthermore, Jacobsen knows how to subtly manipulate three-dimensional spaces to give them human scale. Squares measuring 30 feet to a side and rooms that are 22 feet high, after all, are not exactly "domestic" (even in this day of McMansions). But they feel so here because of Jacobsen's practiced skill -- he lowered the walls to 11 feet just at the edges of the square space, and then angled the ceilings sharply upward to a central square opening for the skylight. The ambiance is at once comfortable and spacious.

Above all, I suppose, it's the natural light that counts. It gets into the building in two ways -- from those six-foot-square skylights atop each of the pyramidal roofs, and from all of those glass walls at the end of the corridors. During the daytime, all the glass openings usually are screened with a fine mesh to protect against too much brightness. The result is a subtle, variable interior light that's very appealing and even a bit mysterious.

I must say, however, that the museum made a serious mistake by installing the Weitzenhoffer collection, with its excellent assortment of smallish paintings by an all-star lineup (Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, van Gogh, Gauguin, Vuillard, Bonnard and others), in wood-paneled rooms said to resemble those the collector lived in. What a terrible idea! The effect is distracting and claustrophobic, a tribute to the collector rather than the art. It's a waste of superb architecture, too.

Aesthetically, the basement level likewise is a disappointment. Jacobsen did a characteristically elegant job designing the stairwell leading down to it, and he was able to squeeze in needed facilities, such as a 148-seat auditorium. But by international standards, the big multi-purpose room is not even a halfway adequate venue for the display of contemporary art -- it's not high enough, its columns are visually interruptive and its scale is sort of in-between room-size and very big. If the university ever gets serious about that subject, it'll need another building to do the job.

Still, this is a splendid -- even an enchanting -- work of architecture. The great Louis Kahn, Jacobsen's mentor at Yale University in the 1950s, once defined architecture as "the thoughtful making of spaces." Kahn's onetime student has been doing that for years, of course. But, here on the prairie, Jacobsen outdid himself.

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