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.)

Meier tried to ignore the mammoth building, or at least fend it off, by stepping away from it as much as possible and sharply angling the long pathway to his famous skylit lobby in the opposite direction. Piano, on the other hand, bravely engaged the goliath. There was, he strongly felt, no other choice.

Piano accepted the Atlanta job on the sole condition that he be enabled to draw up a master plan for the 12-acre site. Understandably, he proposed chopping off the front half of the Woodruff building, replacing it with a park and building a symphony hall on a typically wrongheaded, featureless 1960s urban plaza.

Atlanta's cultural powers rejected this sensible, if radical, advice, and instead opted to buy a big parcel of land a block to the south for a new symphony hall, to be designed by Santiago Calatrava, another world-renowned architect. Calatrava's hall, with the startling mien of a gleaming white prehistoric beast, will contrast strongly (to say the least) with Piano's remarkable restraint and even with Meier's geometric wizardry.

But that's another story. Piano, assisted by the Atlanta firm of Lord, Aeck & Sargent, did what he could to humanize the Woodruff, lopping off its top-heavy overhang and boring colonnade, then adding pieces for that stylish restaurant and for underground parking access to the rear of the building's north facade. These were not merely cosmetic touches.

Rather, along with the two exhibition pavilions, they contribute in crucial ways to the framing of what Piano continually referred to as the "piazza" -- an Atlanta first. To make it a truly engaging space, the architect amply displayed his sophisticated urbanism -- narrowing the main entry point with projecting architectural wings (for the museum store and the restaurant), sheathing the ground floors of surrounding buildings in glass, providing access from each of the four nearby streets.

He also planted trees in formal rows as visual accents and providers of much-needed shade. Trees were key to Piano's strategy. Overall, the architectural team placed more than 140 of them -- magnolias, of course, along with nearly a dozen other varieties. In places, the architects effectively deployed bamboo as a screening element. "Atlanta is a city of nature," Piano pointed out repeatedly, and always gracefully, to crowds small and large.

The largest of Piano's new pavilions will serve as the High's new main entrance. But for many, that angled pathway up to Meier's early masterpiece will remain the favored route into the complex. For one thing, because of its angle, it's by far the more compelling way up from Peachtree Street. For another, it puts you immediately into that towering quarter-rotunda, still the museum's most exhilarating interior space.

I must say, however, that the top-floor galleries in Piano's new exhibition wings come a close second. As his 1987 building for the Menil Collection in Houston amply demonstrated -- along with the 1995 Cy Twombly Pavilion in Houston, the 1997 Beyeler Foundation Museum in Basel, Switzerland, and the 2003 Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas -- Piano is a magician when it comes to designing spaces for art.

Natural lighting is the key. In each of the buildings listed above, Piano and his collaborating engineers from Ove Arup & Partners devised a different, equally elegant way to get natural light in through the roof. For the top floors at the High, they invented a system of 1,000 "light scoops" -- metal half-cones facing north and attached to vertical cylinders made of reinforced concrete.

The cylinders are fitted seamlessly with narrow vaulted sections of the roof and ceiling so that from the inside, they add a strong, regulated, sculptural presence that gives character to the flexible gallery spaces. Large works of art -- paintings, in particular -- look gorgeous in these high rectangular rooms with their soft, filtered light.

Taken altogether, then, the High Museum is greatly improved. Walking from one space to another -- particularly from Meier's building to Piano's via a third-floor bridge -- becomes a stimulating adventure.

(Meier suggested the exact point of contact, Piano says, by drawing it on a napkin -- always a napkin! -- during a lunch with Philip Johnson at the latter's Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan. "Richard said, 'If you must do this to my building, do it in exactly this place,' " Piano recounts. "And he was right. That's where we made the connection.")

Piano's lofty, vaulted interiors are just the kind of spaces the museum needed to move aggressively into the field of contemporary art. Starting next fall, one of the new pavilions, for instance, will be devoted to a succession of art treasures borrowed from the Louvre Museum in Paris as part of a three-year partnership initiated by Shapiro.

Meanwhile, Meier's lower, more confined spaces still work well with smaller paintings and decorative objects. The low-key facades of the new buildings definitely set off Meier's vigorously geometrical building. Even the color of the aluminum panels -- matte white with a hint of gray -- defers to Meier's shining white porcelain panels.

And the piazza really does transform what had been two isolated buildings -- the Woodruff beast and Meier's beautiful "ballerina," as Piano sometimes refers to it -- into a campus with a genuine center and a distinctive personality.

All the same, something is missing. The very best Piano buildings -- as is many times demonstrated in "Celebrate Architecture! Renzo Piano & Building Workshop," an exhibition occupying two floors of one of his new pavilions -- allow visitors to experience a certain rare unity of form-making, engineering, care for materials and detailing that is gripping in its precision.

This unity of experience is not quite there in Piano's High Museum buildings -- their scalloped roof edges are but weak indications of the wonderful march of light scoops on the roof, and the detailing is sometimes just matter-of-fact. Birds definitely get the most powerful views of this architecture.

I asked Piano whether he thought he deferred too much to the Meier building and he answered, "No, I prefer the word respect." Perhaps, then, he respected the Meier building too much.

Or maybe it's just that he didn't get the chance to design the symphony hall he proposed in his master plan to replace that 1960s plaza. In that more prominent position, Piano and his colleagues would have been freer to push their art to its customary limit of near-perfection.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company