Tadao Ando’s new building for the Clark Art Institute in Massachusetts works beautifully with Reed Hilderbrand’s landscaping and Annabelle Selldorf’s reworking of the original building
You are in a forest. It stretches as far as you can imagine, mile after mile of it, covering the hills and valleys of Berkshire County, Massachusetts. Small towns and villages, farms and sawmills, have carved out niches in the forest over time. Almost everything apart from public buildings is made of or clad in timber, to the extent that the occasional brick house is almost shocking. But not as shocking as the original Clark art museum of 1955, built in 140 acres of parkland on the edge of colonial-era Williamstown.
This weird neoclassical edifice was built by architect Daniel Perry, in solid, glistening white marble. Built to last, with no regard to expense, it looks like a large mausoleum – indeed, that was the intention. Its art-collector founder Sterling Clark, together with his wife, fellow collector and former French actress Francine Clary, turn out to be buried beneath what were originally its front steps, now a rear terrace.
In this museum-tomb respect alone it resembles the Dulwich Picture Gallery, except that here the tomb in question is out of sight and out of mind. The point about the Clark is its collection – relatively small but mostly good, particularly strong in the French Impressionists and the sundry sculptures and art-objects that the Clarks collected, especially during their years in Paris from the early 1920s. But an equal selling point is its Walden-ish location, up here in the forest close to Vermont and upper New York state. Sterling Clark had toyed with the idea of leaving his collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, or building his own museum there, but in the end decided to head for the hills, making the museum also an art research institute associated with the town’s venerable Williams College.
A brutal-but-interesting extension clad in pink granite (another material associated with tombs) followed in 1973, the Manton Research Center, designed by the noted modernist Pietro Belluschi with The Architects Collaborative, founded by Walter Gropius. The usual clutter of associated lesser buildings also arrived, until, eventually and inevitably, the time came to sort out the whole campus. It has taken a long time. Director Michael Conforti and his trustees first initiated a masterplan in 2001, and the brakes inevitably went on during the financial crash, but they have seen it through with a programme that includes two buildings by Tadao Ando, a thorough refurbishment of the original building by Annabelle Selldorf, of New York based Selldorf Architects (now proceeding to refurbish the Manton building), and a comprehensive landscape reworking by Reed Hilderbrand of Cambridge, Massachusetts. New York’s Gensler acted as the executive architect and sustainability consultant. All in all it has cost $145m.
The first of the Ando buildings, in 2008, was the Lunder Center, home of the Williamstown Conservation Center, but also with gallery space. Conceived as a ‘chapel in the woods’, away from the main museum, it freed up the main site for the big number: Ando’s new Clark Center, the gateway to the campus, with three generously scaled, temporary exhibition galleries, a cafe, and a shop. However it is much more than a container – it acts as an ordering device for the whole site.
Conforti, who I meet on the eve of the museum’s reopening on Independence Day, reflects that the long gestation of the project engendered confidence between the participants – in particular Ando, who visited frequently, and came to trust the landscape architects. In consequence, the distinction between the work of the various designers started to blur: there’s a particular new low external marble wall outside, crowning a landscaped slope as if slid out from the body of the original museum, which looks absolutely right but Conforti can’t recall whose idea it was. Similarly, since Ando’s new building commands a series of three broad shallow pools gently gurgling down the slope, and is orientated and shaped to bring the landscape into the composition, it’s sometimes hard to know where his work ends and Reed Hilderbrand’s begins. And finally, he and Selldorf overlap where the Ando building sends out a diagonal link to the original museum that culminates in a new lobby in the same architectural language as the rest of the new building.
Conforti says the museum chose Ando, from a roster of big names, for two reasons in particular: because he was not a maker of self-consciously ‘iconic’ buildings; and because he was skilled at building downwards and bringing light with him. It was always clear that the new centre should hunker down in the landscape, against the backdrop of hills, not competing with the natural surroundings or with the original 1955 museum.
The long gestation of the project engendered confidence between the participants. In consequence, the distinction between the work of the various designers started to blur
Ando’s response is a composition of solid wall, glazed pavilion and reflection from water. The principal freestanding walls are very bold, made of big slabs of the same pink, heavily veined granite as the 1973 building, but much more deftly handled. In just three long sections they manage to funnel you towards the entrance, define one edge of the first lake, enclose the entry courtyard, slice right through the new building, and re-emerge in the diagonal link to the revived old museum. There are other walls, of course, in Ando’s celebrated smooth pale in-situ concrete, and these were carefully done – and in some cases taken down and redone – to the master’s satisfaction.
In fact as you approach it from the car park, the whole building appears to be a wall. From the other direction, across the lakes, it appears to be a single-storey glazed pavilion. It’s only when you are inside and find you can look downwards as well as sideways – that there is a larger lower level – that the success of the project becomes clear. The museum chose wisely: Ando has indeed brought daylight down – and via reflections off water, back up again – in a thoroughly assured manner. The lower level cannot quite avoid the sense of being subterranean (galleries seldom have a sense of the outside world anyway), but the rest of the spaces, such as the cafe, are just fine.
Ando is the headline name here, but there’s another subtle architect at work. Selldorf has done a fine job of working within the traditionalist domestic-scale interiors of the 1955 building. She’s carried out some quite radical re-ordering of rooms, extended the usable gallery space considerably within the marble shell, while breaking down some larger spaces into more intimate rooms, such as one devoted to Degas and his little dancer. I’m prepared to bet that most previous visitors will be largely unaware of the extent of her work, which is exactly the point.
The Clark, then: a small art museum originally conceived as a monument that has found a way to grow out of its monumentality. You have to admit that’s clever.