One Smashing Smashup

The metal-mesh arms of Wolf D. Prix's addition to the Akron Art Museum glow purple at night, and one hovers over the original 1899 museum building.
The metal-mesh arms of Wolf D. Prix's addition to the Akron Art Museum glow purple at night, and one hovers over the original 1899 museum building. (By Roland Halbe)
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 13, 2007

AKRON, Ohio Transformers(TM) are a popular line of robot characters, known to children through cartoons, video games, comic books, movies and especially toys (by Hasbro, ages 5 and up). They are machines that morph, metallic humanoid creatures that unfold out of the shell of a car, truck, cellphone or some other everyday object.

Little boys, who can't get enough of them, seem to respond to the bristling, sci-fi menace hidden inside the familiar lines of an ordinary toy. That primal appeal, the magic of unfolding something angular and energetic and maybe even violent out of an innocuous shell, also defines the aesthetic of architect Wolf D. Prix -- and a whole generation of so-called deconstructivist architects.

With its metal-mesh-encased arms, its chrysalis glass core and its long thorax of aluminum-covered gallery space, Prix's new addition to the Akron Art Museum feels biomorphic and mechanical at the same time. It is a discombobulated building pulsing with space-age energy, operating on different levels and at wild angles. It is so "deconstructed" -- whatever that means -- that it feels as if it might well have been a very normal-looking building that someone decided to unfold into weird shapes on the drafting table. And it sits next to a simple brick box, the old Akron museum that it dwarfs and expands -- which could be the box the toy came in.

Although Prix's Austrian firm, Coop Himmelb(l)au, has been around since 1968, the Akron museum is its first public project in North America (a public school in Los Angeles is also underway). The firm's name, with the silly parenthesis that suggests someone there may have ingested too much literary theory, offers a range of meanings from "building heaven" to "sky blue." Its aesthetic emphasizes architecture that defies gravity, that is intentionally counterintuitive and otherworldly.

One of the lead architects on the Akron job said that when people see pictures of the completed building, they think they must be renderings or computer-generated. It is so deliciously odd and unlikely a structure that it doesn't feel quite real. And that seems to be the point.

Decades ago, in the heady and anarchic years of the '70s and '80s, Coop Himmelb(l)au's lead architects were given to writing manifestos, and a small sample of their prose may help explain why it took them so long to get a major commission in the United States.

"Architecture has to be cavernous, fiery, smooth, hard, angular, brutal, round, delicate, colorful, obscene, lustful, dreamy, attracting, repelling, wet, dry and throbbing," they wrote in 1980. Not many CEOs will sign off on a new corporate headquarters that is wet, throbbing and obscene -- as much as they might secretly like to.

Over the years, however, the rhetoric has mellowed, and so, on Monday, Prix was able to pull a chair to a favorite spot in the atrium of his first major American building and admire the view. He favors sunglasses indoors and double-breasted suits with no tie. Sitting in a space he calls "the crystal," he was able to look past a powerful, squat, concrete ziggurat-shaped column, over the top of a long, wide staircase, up to a kaleidoscope of steel girders and window frames above him.

"Not by chance am I sitting here," he said. Asked to elaborate, he mentions Piranesi, the 18th-century Italian artist who, among other things, published a collection of drawings of fantasy prisons, architectural designs filled with ominous arches, wild bridges and beams and ladders at weird angles, very likely impossible to build.

"You look closer if there is an irritation," he says. Asked whether the long wait in this country for a major building by Coop Himmelb(l)au had anything to do with its paper trail of cryptic and even anarchic writing, he demurs.

"Finally it happens," he says.

Finally indeed. The Akron Art Museum is a fascinating building and a major addition to the landscape of this small, Rust Belt city just south of Cleveland. The new addition sits next to the Renaissance-revival brick post office, built in 1899, that has served since 1981 as the museum's offices and (cramped) exhibition space. Very little of its impressive collection of post-World War II American art could be displayed in the old digs.

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