Monday, July 5, 2010

A Museum for Corvallis

The new Benton County Historical Society Museum will allow the Society to exhibit its diverse cultural and natural history collections, connect with a broader audience, and bring new life to a streetscape of shops, residences and historic buildings. (Unless noted otherwise, all images by Allied Works Architecture from the Benton County Historical Society & Museum website).

Museums are full of life! Despite old stereotypes to the contrary, museums are living, breathing institutions that evolve on a daily basis. The Benton County Historical Society & Museum is a case in point: In 2008, the BCHS acquired the Horner Collection from Oregon State University, a truly remarkable treasure trove of significant artifacts.

However, like the fascinating attic full of wonderful objects we explored as children in our grandparents’ house, the Horner Collection is largely hidden away. The majority of the artifacts is not on public display at the BCHS’ current home in the 1867 Philomath College Building, (restored and converted to use as a museum in 1980); rather, the bulk of the collection is housed next door in a spacious storage and curatorial facility. Only limited public access to the storage building’s contents is possible.

The need for additional display space is clear to the Historical Society, and it has embarked upon an ambitious campaign to build a new museum in downtown Corvallis. A new building will ensure that the artifacts in the Horner Collection are shared with as many Benton County residents and visitors as possible, including anthropologists, geologists, archaeologists, paleontologists, historians, genealogists, educators, students, and laypersons.

The proposed museum will be located at the corner of Second and Adams Streets in downtown Corvallis, Oregon.

The Bilbao Effect
Over the course of the past twenty years or so, institutions and entire communities have placed their faith in the development of new showcase museum buildings designed by “star” architects like Frank Gehry, Santiago Calatrava, Renzo Piano, and Daniel Liebeskind as a means to increase patronage and support. Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, is particularly famous for the power of its dramatic architecture to revitalize an entire city and region.

While the BCHSM lacks the enormous financial endowment and support that institutions like the Guggenheim enjoy, it nevertheless aspires to develop an architecturally distinctive building in downtown Corvallis. Toward this end, it issued a Request for Qualifications following its acquisition of the Horner Collection, receiving 12 submissions.(1) The BCHSM ultimately selected Allied Works Architecture’s (AWA) Portland office to prepare a conceptual design.

Allied Works is well-known for its museum projects, which include the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, the expansion of the Seattle Art Museum, the Museum of Arts & Design in New York, and the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver (presently under construction).

Museum of Arts & Design, New York, by Allied Works Architecture (photo via Wikipedia)

Clyfford Still Museum, Denver, by Allied Works Architecture (model photo from website of the Clyfford Still Museum)

Born and raised in Portland, AWA’s principal, Brad Cloepfil, is a 1980 graduate of the UO School of Architecture and Allied Arts.(2) His profile has steadily risen since the success of AWA’s seminal Weiden + Kennedy adaptive reuse project.

I'm only starting to learn about Brad Cloepfil’s approach to creating architecture. He is sought after by museums because of his ability to craft buildings that shift your perception so that you are open to new experiences. He views each of his museums as a “vessel” whose purpose it is to prepare you to see something different.

Cloepfil often looks to art to inform his design process; in the past, he has taken inspiration from artists like Donald Judd and Richard Serra, whose works are overtly spatial in their genesis. He has also been profoundly influenced by the Oregon landscape, as well as the expressive potential of construction and structure. Museum directors appreciate that he searches for the right questions to ask in an attempt to gather in the forces of their institution – its dreams, as well as the spirit and history of the place.

His buildings are famously non-expressive, at least when compared to those of the more heralded “starchitects.” In a July 2007 piece for Metropolis, writer Andrew Blum characterized Cloepfil as an “elementalist,” the embodiment of a shift away from glib shape-making (a la Gehry or Libeskind) toward a more timeless and lasting architecture:

. . . the relative unrenderability(sic) of Cloepfil’s work is a remarkable change from most museum projects—undoubtedly a blessing and a curse. Not that the finished buildings suffer; if anything, they gain power for not pandering to the camera. But architecture is salesmanship, and Cloepfil doesn’t make it easy for himself. “There are at times frustrations with clients and boards because they always want to know what it looks like,” he admits. “And if you say, ‘We don’t know yet,’ rather than sit at the podium and do a watercolor and say, ‘Here it is’—that’s just not the way we work. It isn’t like I don’t care how a building communicates visually. It’s just not a beginning place.”

In some respects, I find Cloepfil’s design approach akin to that of Peter Zumthor and David Chipperfield, with their emphasis upon the sensory aspects of the architectural experience. I’m also reminded somewhat of the architecture of Herzog & de Meuron, particularly because of the focus upon materiality they share with Cloepfil.

I hope to learn more about Brad Cloepfil and the work of Allied Works Architecture. There appear to be two recently published monographs that showcase the work of AWA but I have yet to get my hands on either of them. I expect to eventually add one or the other to my bookshelf.

The first floor includes two courtyards, a museum store, spacious lobby, education/event space and a project gallery. The red line indicates a series of built-in wall cases.

The second floor includes three gallery spaces, two of which can be sub-divided.

Fundamental Issues
A museum is a dynamic operation with an ever-changing collection, and its architecture must be responsive to much more than just the functional demands associated with the display of artifacts. The architecture of a good museum will be in harmony with the type of museum and subject matter that it supports – neutral for the exhibits, but expressive and memorable in its own right where people access the museum and formulate first and last impressions.

The architecture ought to be compatible with its surroundings, reflective of community pride and values, and be inviting and accessible. In short, the architecture should seek to both draw its inspiration from and support the evolving, dynamic life of the museum.

Upper floor gallery spaces.

There are several other issues related to realizing a new museum for the Historical Society in downtown Corvallis. These include:
  • Development of a broadly-appealing design that will attract the support of donors and friends of the Museum.
  • Provision of flexible gallery spaces capable not only of optimally displaying the diverse pieces of the Horner Collection, but also accommodating the needs of varied traveling exhibits.
  • Clear organization of a functional program and barrier-free building circulation on a site that, by necessity, requires arraying displays and other spaces across multiple floors.
  • Creation of a building that contributes positively to the urban experience of a vibrant and revitalized area of downtown Corvallis.
  • Implementation of appropriate sustainable design strategies to achieve LEED Gold certification as required by the RFQ’s project brief.
AWA’s concept addresses these issues with a two-story scheme that features high-ceilinged galleries, flexible exhibit space, a pair of courtyards, and a museum store rendered in the firm’s characteristically modernistic idiom. One measure of AWA’s success will be how successfully it assembles the desired complement of functional spaces on the relatively tight, urban site. The Historical Society’s charge to AWA is to ensure that the layout of spaces maximizes efficiencies to the greatest extent possible, while simultaneously providing a gracious experience for museum visitors.

Upper floor gallery spaces.

Ultimately, the new museum may or may not resemble the images shown here. AWA’s work is not conceived in scenographic terms; as Andrew Blum noted in Metropolis, the firm’s projects do not pander to the camera. Like everyone else, I will have to look forward to visiting the completed project before being able to render fair judgment about the design.

Second Street elevation.

By selecting Allied Works Architecture, the Benton County Historical Society has swung for the fences. It remains to be seen if it has hit a home run. Based on the promise of his past projects, Brad Cloepfil offers the Society good odds to deliver a one-of-a-kind facility that will bring to light the wonders of the Horner Collection.

(1) My firm – Robertson/Sherwood/Architects – coveted this project. Alas, we were not short-listed because a) on reputation alone, how could we compete with the likes of AWA?; and b) we could not boast a large portfolio of museum-related projects (our most relevant project is our 2009 addition to the Museum of Natural & Cultural History at the University of Oregon).

During our pursuit of the commission, I had the pleasure to speak with BCHSM Executive Director Irene Zenev several times. Irene “gets” architecture and recognizes the fact that the proposed museum will be a civic asset for downtown Corvallis. She understands that outstanding architecture will deliver added value to the display of the Horner Collection.

(2) Because Cloepfil graduated in 1980, he and I never crossed paths (I began my studies at the University of Oregon in the fall of 1980). He completed graduate studies at Columbia University in 1985 after a stint working with Mario Botta in Switzerland, with whom he shares an emphasis on craftsmanship and geometric order. Cloepfil founded Allied Works Architecture in 1994.

Enhanced by Zemanta

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That design is really ugly and will be a blight on downtown Corvallis. It does not reflect the historic architecture of its surroundings or the historic nature of the collection that it will contain.