A High Complement: Museum Wings Fit In Fine

By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 20, 2005

ATLANTA Renzo Piano's expansion of Richard Meier's High Museum of Art is not an architectural triumph -- yet it is a grand success.

How to explain the paradox?

Taking first things first, expectations today are distorted. We've come to anticipate what might be called Big Bang architecture when globally famous architects are involved, particularly when it comes to high-image cultural projects. But that's not what happened here on Peachtree Street in midtown.

The enormous reputations involved -- Meier won the Pritzker Prize, often referred to as "architecture's Nobel," in 1984, and Piano won the award in 1998 -- suggested a sort of clash of the titans. What we got, instead, when the long-awaited pairing was unveiled last weekend, was the complex equivalent of a friendly handshake -- not awfully exciting, but satisfying in myriad ways.

A sensible, sensitive, low-key sort of triumph, then.

Piano, whose Building Workshop in Genoa, Italy, is famous for elegantly combining architecture and engineering, took the high road here, almost to the point of self-abnegation. The aluminum-paneled facades of his buildings are repetitious and dull, but they frame attractive urban places -- rarer than crossable sidewalks in sprawling Atlanta.

Plus, they make Meier's 1983 building look like a jewel in a complementary new setting. It's now a vivid frontispiece for a greatly enlarged and vastly more interesting museum complex.

Those were two primary reasons the museum hired Piano, rather than Meier, when it went fishing for expansion architects seven years ago, according to High Museum Director Michael Shapiro.

"We wanted someone who would address some of the urban design issues of this block, and that seemed to speak to Renzo's forte," Shapiro said. "But we didn't want anything to compete with Richard's building. It was to remain the principal sculpture on the block."

(Another reason, several present and former staff members say off the record, was enormous frustration with the layout of the exhibition galleries in Meier's building. They are rather small partitioned rectangular spaces, with wall openings in unpredictable places and structural columns that get in the way. Nor were they designed for large-scale contemporary art.)

Piano's disciplined sense of grace, proportion and urban nicety won the day here. Although he was more than doubling the size of Meier's landmark building, he respected its scale by breaking the addition into four buildings -- two for exhibitions, one for administration and one for a replacement dormitory for students of the Atlanta College of Art. The total reaches five if you count the restaurant Piano tacked onto the mammoth Woodruff Memorial Arts Center next door. (Construction costs totaled more than $163 million, all privately raised.)

Ah, yes, the Woodruff. Critically important to culture in Atlanta, it houses the city's symphony hall, a stage for an award-winning regional theater and studios and such for the art college. But as an architectural object, it's a 10,000-ton gorilla, an especially heavy-handed version of the arts megastructures so popular 40 years ago. (Our own awkwardly overlarge Kennedy Center looks almost gossamer in comparison.)

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