Dwelling on a Mediocre Past
Phillips Addition Hides Behind Apartments' Unremarkable Facade

By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 16, 2006

The dear old Phillips Collection is new once again after yesterday's public unveiling of its latest addition: a $27 million expansion to the north along 21st Street NW into space formerly occupied by a nondescript 96-year-old apartment building.

On the face of it, actually, that old apartment building still seems to exist. Because of neighborhood pressures and the city's historic preservation law, its thoroughly unexceptional facade was kept and restored. But everything behind it is brand new.

Such "facadism," as it is often derisively called, has in the past quarter-century become a familiar practice in Washington's many historic districts. On occasion, it is a justified tactic because of a facade's architectural merit and its importance to the urbanistic cadence of its street.

But the Phillips expansion definitely was not one of those occasions. Preserving this facade was a big mistake, a fruitless exercise in neighborhood nostalgia. After nearly 30 years of experience with our preservation ordinance, we as a city ought to have learned not to fear the architectural future, but to embrace it. And then to apply the law accordingly.

Thus, a great opportunity was lost. Instead of getting a new building that speaks honestly about what is behind its facade -- and that speaks for the 21st century while respecting its neighbors -- we got a timorous fake. One of the world's most respected cultural institutions finds itself hiding behind a frumpy relic.

It was sadly ironic, then, at a news conference Monday to listen as Phillips Board Chairman George Vradenburg enthusiastically defined the museum's new educational mission as "focusing on imagination and innovation." Those qualities are notably lacking in the primary elevations of the new building, and in many of the interior arrangements.

Opened in 1921 by Duncan and Marjorie Phillips as a "museum of modern art and its sources," the institution has had an uneven record with its expansions. A year earlier, the couple hired McKim, Mead and White, one of the nation's premier architecture firms, to add a second-floor gallery to their late-19th-century mansion at 21st and Q streets.

So far, so good. That modest addition continued the theme of understated elegance that distinguishes the original house. The 1923 addition of a fourth floor with a mansard roof and dormer windows was, by contrast, a bit heavy-handed, although much needed. (In the 1930s, after the Phillipses moved out, it was in these upstairs rooms that C. Law Watkins initiated the art school that later became the art department at American University.)

The first northward expansion occurred in 1960 with an unpretentiously modern, stone-faced annex connected to the mansion via a glass bridge across an alley. In retrospect, the modesty of this addition, by the Washington firm of Wyeth and King, has much to recommend it. In 1989, it was swallowed up by the Goh Annex, a rather bulky though earnestly contextual exercise that suffered by comparison to the mansion's delicacy of detail. Designed by Washington architect Arthur Cotton Moore, it added much-needed exhibition space and was distinguished, on its interior, by a commodious spiral stairwell that was Moore's own elegant flight of fancy.

That brings us to the 21st century and the need for yet another northward expansion. Architect David Cox of the Washington firm Cox, Graae and Spack recalls that after the purchase of the apartment building, there was discussion of "doing a big Corcoran thing that puts the Phillips on the map." He is referring, of course, to the architectural event that didn't happen -- Frank Gehry's bold but stillborn design for a billowing, steel-sheathed addition to the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

Maybe that's just what the neighbors were afraid of. Such thoughts, however, vanished during the protracted negotiations -- a polite form of aesthetic warfare -- that often characterize the design process in the nation's capital.

A point worth making, though, is that the Gehry analogy is misleading. One does not have to do something astonishingly sculptural to make a very good, or even a profound, modernist statement on Washington's streets. Restraint, delicacy, elegance, rigor -- those are all parts of the modernist vocabulary, too.

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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