The new Corning Museum of Glass, which opened here last Sunday, has the sensible beauty of a hand-cut crystal tumbler.
Although sophisticated in its many thoughtful details, the building is simple and eminently to the point -- the ideal vessel for the display of the world's largest collection of all manner of glass made by different civilizations over 3,500 years. It helps illuminate that history, relate it to our time and give sparkle to the display.
And like a crystal tumbler, the building can be viewed as a precious work of art or as practical utensil. The advance publicity photographs showed it in precious isolation. To my pleasant surprise, I found the actual building an integral part of this ruggedly romantic factory town with its bold shapes, forges and chimneys.
The architect is Gunnar Birkerts, who was born in Estonia, studied in Germany and came to this country after World War II to work with the late Ero Saarinen. Like Saarinen, Birkerts is a doggedly distinct talent, but up to now I found his work more startling than convincing. This building is both.
The original Corning glass museum opened in 1951 as a separate entity of the vast Corning and Steuben glass works. Over the years its scholarly reputation, collection of objects and library on the art and science of glass making, and most of all, its attendance, exceeded its founders' boldest dreams. In 1972, Hurricane Agnes made a new building imperative when the old one was flooded, irreplaceable art works, old books and all.
So the building is on stilts to raise it above the flood plain. It is also connected with the old building, which, in turn, is connected with Corning's displays of scientific and commercial uses of glass and Steuben's demonstrations of glassmaking.
The museum, however, is distinct -- a free form that follows its complex functions with brilliant clarity. The shape of the building is boldly undulating with convex and concave curves, which look somewhat like an eccentric flower in plan and in elevation, shimmer and seem to move in a play of gray light. The facade consists of roughly textured glass backed by stainless steel. Along it is a window ribbon with what appears to be awnings above and below. That's Birkerts' "linear periscope."
The "amorphous shape of a blob of molten glass. But like hardened glass, the shape also has its cold logic.
The layout of the museum is designed to give visitors a quick overview of its contents before they decide what to see in more detail. We get the overview in a dark circular hallway that encircles the core of the museum, its large and cheerful library. Display windows make visitors constantly aware of this impressive store of knowledge.
The dark hallway is punctuated by 12 illuminated "masterpiece columns" -- vitrines highlighting the collection's most exciting items. One of them is the newly acquired glass sculpture of the head of Amenhotep II, who ruled Egypt nearly 75 years before Tutankhamen. (Although reproductions make it appear large, the sculpture is a mere four centimeters high.)
Each of the galleries along the hallway is devoted to a different period or genre, and the size and configuration of each depends on the nature of the displays. This, then, accounts for the varying sizes and shapes of the "petals" behind that undulating facade.
Although most glass objects are dramatically lighted, the galleries are bright with daylight, a welcome comfort in a museum that is crowded -- I would say too crowded -- with small and intricate items. It is a blessing that we can even look out of the windows. Antique cameo bowls and enameled and gilt 18th-century English goblets are thus directly related to the Corning cityscape, ca. 1980 -- parked cars, highway traffic, romantic industrial buildings and all.
Yet there is no direct light to raise temperatures or fade colors. The windows are shaded by a band of mirrors set at 45-degree angles. Another row of mirrors below the windows projects the surroundings in Birkerts' clever periscope.
The exhibits were designed by Paul Seiz who worked closely with the museum's director, Thomas S. Buechner, and the architect. The three achieved a fascinating entity of art, scholarship and instruction in which the architecture, the exhibit design and the material seem inseparable. The building is as suitable for the effusive showmanship of the past, which often borders on kitsch, as it is for the modern "studio glass" sculptures, which are often more interesting than appealing. (Some of the museum's studio glass is on display at Washington's Renwick Gallery until Sept. 7.)
It seems to me precisely this integration of form and function that makes Birkert's building so refreshing. It also is a pragmatic as the best of Ero Saarinen's work, which was never subject to a "style," or even a "statement." Saarinen set out to solve architectural problems that, of course, include esthetic appeal. He would have agreed with Birkerts that "architecture may indeed be an art of accommodation, but it is also an art of communication."
With this principle, Birkerts has no taste for the self-conscious and self-indulgent striving for style that marks most so-called "post-modern" work. "I suppose I just feel too secure to need a dogma," he says.
The old Corning glass museum was visited by some 750,000 people a year, and more than half of them, a survey found, had never been inside a museum before. The new building will surely draw even larger crowds. Birkerts' building is a good way to get them into the museum habit.