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Dwelling on a Mediocre Past

As it happened, the Phillips and the architects of Cox, Graae and Spack were stuck with the apartment facade, and proceeded to make the best of it. Although, truth be told, not entirely the best. There are many things to praise about the new addition -- named the Sant Wing after chief donors Victoria and Roger Sant -- but lots of disappointments, too.

Take the new entryway and lobby, added to the ground floor of Moore's Goh addition. These were necessary alterations, but it's hard to work up much enthusiasm for them. Making this the sole public entrance forces a rather awkward circulation pattern -- it's somehow disconcerting to have to go backward to get into the mansion, where the bulk of the great Phillips paintings are hung. Today, the most prominent object in the old wood-paneled vestibule is a sign telling you that the original front door is an Emergency Exit Only.

Awkward circulation is not the only issue. With those stone-faced columns supporting the new, curved entrance canopy, Cox and company chose a cautiously neutral architectural vocabulary that carries over into the oval-shaped lobby. With rich cherry-wood wainscoting and those same, elementary "classical" columns (also cherry-sheathed), the lobby has all the appeal of a second-rate gentlemen's club.

Nor is the ground-floor plan anything to sing about. From the lobby, one enters a "gallery" that feels more like a leftover room that somebody had to hang paintings in. It's a space no one will want to linger in. Its main function, in fact, is to lead visitors to the new cafe and museum shop in the back; or down a broad stairwell to the galleries on the low first floor behind the apartment house wall; or to Moore's spiral stairwell, which now seems a bit hemmed in.

As an entry sequence, this one is unprepossessing, to say the least. Actually, it's about as bad as they come. It's dull, unsettling and unresolved.

Phillips Director Jay Gates praises the Cox team for having "woven a fabric of spaces that seamlessly addresses the museum's needs, in ways that feel very, very comfortable with the existing spaces." But in this series of spaces, where vital first impressions are made, the fabric just falls apart.

Things do get better. Although the galleries in the new wing add considerably to the museum's flexibility, expanded educational programs and public facilities were the driving forces behind the addition. With these, the weaving analogy holds: Cox and his colleagues did skillfully fit a whole lot into a rather tight little package.

A lot of the new stuff is underground. There is a warmly pleasant auditorium with 180 comfortable seats set in a gentle rake. New classrooms greatly expand the museum's teaching capacities for teachers and youngsters. A spacious library will welcome the serious researchers that the Phillips is intent on attracting. Above ground, in addition to the galleries, there are an enlarged museum store and an attractive, larger cafe with access to the new outdoor courtyard in back. Such a list makes it abundantly clear that the old family gallery has been thoroughly transformed into an institution with an ambitious new set of goals.

In terms of architecture, the courtyard is worth special mention. Raised planting platforms frame stone-paved surfaces and are beautifully adorned with cherry, birch and other specimen trees. Other adornments are human-made -- a beautiful wall sculpture of black steel conceived on commission by Ellsworth Kelly and an impressive bronze by Barbara Hepworth. All in all, this is a welcoming back yard that will enhance many a visitor's experience of the museum.

The rear elevations are a lot better than those on the front. Cox must have felt he had more freedom here, and he expressed it with vertically proportioned facades that skillfully weave together fine brickwork and tall glass windows framed with copper sheets. Still, the vocabulary is redolent of the postmodern 1980s, a minor complaint to add to my overall disappointment in the project:

For reasons partly beyond the control of both client and architect, the new Phillips addition is not fresh enough, imaginative enough, good enough.

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