One Smashing Smashup
In Akron, a Museum Wing Lifts an Old, Earthbound Building

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.

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).

But it's also possible that, paradoxically, Akron is behind the times just enough to be ahead of the curve when it comes to building serious and challenging buildings. For one thing is certain about Coop Himmelb(l)au: While the firm is doing cutting-edge work, its rhetoric is intellectually mired in the same era that saw the decline of Akron. The 1970s.

Consider its view of architecture, and cities.

"Our architecture is not domesticated," the firm's architects wrote. "It moves around in urban areas like a panther in the jungle."

This was a curious echo of a statement by Le Corbusier (whom Prix cites when discussing aspects of the new building), who once described the wealthy industrialists who commissioned architecture in similar terms: "Our industrial friends seem sheepish and shriveled like tigers in a cage."

The difference, of course, is that Corbusier was going to liberate the client, while Coop Himmelb(l)au imagined the architecture itself as a beast that needed liberating. And the city was its domain and perhaps its prey.

This strangely violent view of architecture, as a panther stalking in the city, is beautifully out of date. Most people who live in cities probably don't think of the urban landscape as a bleak fantasy out of "Blade Runner" or "Batman." Many cities, after years of decline, and despite lots of undistinguished new buildings, are functioning rather well, thank you. As cities grow healthier, it seems very likely that they also grow more conservative about their architecture. Why take chances? Keep the panther in the cage.

Coop Himmelb(l)au has mellowed over the years. Today the rhetoric is mostly aimed against the homogenization of globalization and the ill effects of commercial development. While Prix talks about architecture as "intervention," he also stresses the importance of the new museum's public spaces.

Still, it's tempting to conclude that this new building is on the prowl in Akron in part because the city has yet to enjoy the simultaneous prosperity and protectiveness of a truly reinvigorated urban landscape. It has built a 21st-century building, based on 1970s ideas, because it has not quite experienced the rebirth that other cities enjoyed in the 1990s. Time is a little out of joint, which allowed the beast to creep in. And, strangely enough, Akron is better for it.

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