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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)

The expansion, which cost an astonishingly frugal $35 million, has tripled the museum's size and allowed it to display a much richer and denser cross section of its collection. And, as usual with museum expansions these days, it has also allowed the museum to cater to all the ancillary functions that it claims patrons demand -- a cafe, a lecture hall, a gift store and educational endeavors.

The architectural dilemma -- again, the usual one with these kinds of expansions -- was how to fuse the new with the old. The solution: Don't bother. Even Mitchell Kahan, the director of the museum and the energetic force behind the project, says the buildings are "smashed together."

The old museum is the kind of dutiful and well-made building that every city should be happy to have and eager to preserve, but it is nothing you'll ever find in a picture book of great architecture. So Coop Himmelb(l)au tore a great, square chunk off one side, attached the glass atrium to the hole and then built a fantastical roof, in the form of four metallic arms that glow purple at night, one of which extends all the way over the old building.

That arm could be doing any number of things. One might say it is an attempt to integrate the new building with the old, a protective arm shading the brick box. Kahan once described it as "embracing," which is a little at odds with the idea of two buildings smashed together.

You might also see it as patting the old building on the head. Perhaps a little condescendingly. Nice doggie. Nice old brick-mutt doggie.

But is there something lascivious about it, too? Is this the robotic equivalent of a come-on artist, a mechanical barfly extending a boozy limb over a simple, brick girl, whispering something along the lines of, "Have you ever kissed a radical European deconstructivist architect, baby?"

In any case, one senses a kind of joke in that arm, a veiled criticism by an Old World architect of the New World fetish for "historical" buildings that are, in relative terms, inconsequential blips on the greater timeline.

"People love the old building here," Prix says, in a monotone. "They don't want to destroy it."

Ohio has an impressive architectural record, so it shouldn't be so surprising that Akron has built such a confrontational new structure. There are major buildings in the state by the usual brand-name architects (Frank Gehry, I.M. Pei). A huge, $258 million expansion, by Rafael Vinoly, is underway at the Cleveland Museum of Art. And there are important buildings by "difficult" architects, including museums by Zaha Hadid (in Cincinnati) and Peter Eisenman (in Columbus).

Still, it is a shock to come around the corner in this low-slung city of gritty buildings and see the new addition. Nothing anywhere near it can compare. Certainly not the dutiful and sometimes tacky Akron convention center or the National Inventors Hall of Fame, both by Akron-born architect James Polshek (the architect designing the unfortunate and unnecessary visitors center on the Mall next to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial).

So even as you admire the building -- its long, open gallery spaces all on one level, or the zigzag concrete column, reminiscent of something by Brancusi, inside of which an elevator has been cleverly hidden -- you can't help but keep wondering, why here? Why in Akron?

One reason is that Kahan decided he wanted a new building by an architect who had never built in Ohio before. Small institutions run by dynamic leaders can often forge ahead, aesthetically, where larger ones are constrained by more assertive but retrograde donors. No doubt Akron is looking for good press, too -- the mayor showed up at a news conference to announce that he was pleased that there was now something in Akron to rival the fame of Akron-born LeBron James. And perhaps the locals have succumbed, just a little, to the "Bilbao effect" (the supposed economic and tourism boon that buildings, such as the Guggenheim museum Frank Gehry built in Bilbao, Spain, can bring to undistinguished cities).

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