Museum of Glass poster (2002). Photo by Russell Johnson. All other photos are mine.
My wife and I traveled north to Canada last week to attend my niece’s wedding, which was joyous and lovely, just as such occasions should be. On our return trek south, we stopped in Tacoma for lunch but, more importantly, we also made a point of visiting the iconic Museum of Glass along the city’s Thea Foss Waterway.
The Museum of Glass is far from new (it opened its doors in 2002) but this was our first visit. As a fan of the work of its principal designer, the late, great Canadian architect Arthur Erickson,(1) I had long been determined to see it firsthand. Poor timing had thwarted our previous attempts, as the museum’s fall/winter/spring operating schedule includes closures on Mondays and Tuesdays, and all too coincidentally our visits with my family in Vancouver involved traveling on those days.
View of the hot shop cone from the east end of the Chihuly Bridge of Glass.
"Fluent Steps" by Martin Blank form islands of glass in one of the Museum's reflecting pools.
The long wait did not disappoint: The Museum of Glass more than lived up to my expectations, architecturally speaking. Despite its relatively modest size, it projects a surprisingly monumental presence, punctuated by the inclined, 75-foot tall cone enclosing the dramatic hot shop amphitheater within. The towering cone alludes to the old wigwam burners that once dotted the landscape at sawmills throughout the Pacific Northwest; alternatively, its profile calls to mind the volcanic peaks of the Cascade Range. It rises above a series of terraces rendered in Erickson’s characteristically refined concrete. The warm tone of the concrete contrasts with the coolness of the stainless steel shingles that clad the exterior of the cone.(2)
The Chihuly Bridge of Glass looking toward the west.
Works by Dale Chihuly in the Venetian Wall, Chihuly Bridge of Glass.
The adjoining Chihuly Bridge of Glass(3) links the uppermost terrace of the museum with downtown Tacoma and its cultural corridor (which includes the Washington State History Museum, the Tacoma Art Museum, and the Children’s Museum of Tacoma). Sandwiched between busy Interstate 705 and the rejuvenated waterway, the Museum of Glass skillfully mediates that transition, while alluding to the greater landscape and history of the region at the same time. It does so serenely, an island of calmness amid an otherwise frenzied context.
The Museum is very much one designed for the 21st Century. It is experiential and dynamic, a place that, as the museum’s vision statement proclaims, “pulses with life, light, and fire . . . a place of discovery, surprise, collaboration, and joy that transforms the visitor as profoundly as fire transforms glass.” The Museum celebrates creativity, making it visible for the public to watch, learn, and participate in.
Looking up inside the hot shop.
Glass artists at work in the hot shop as museum visitors watch.
The exhibit spaces are predictably unassuming and deferential to the works on display, and the auditorium is likewise modest. The real spectacle occurs inside the hot shop amphitheater. To describe it as dramatic would be an understatement. The soaring space calls to mind the interior of the cylindrical interrogation chamber seen in filmmaker Terry Gilliam’s cult masterpiece Brazil; however, rather than evoking a dystopian future, the hot shop is all about viewing creativity in action, featuring state-of-the-art facilities for advanced glassmaking techniques. Despite its grand scale, it is also intimate. The audience sits close to the artists at work, the radiated heat from the kilns very much felt. The hot shop melds glassmaking with theater.
Venetian glass art by James Mongrain.
Imaginative glass art designed by kids.
In my opinion, the project epitomizes more than most of Erickson’s other late-career designs his salient and defining interests: site, light, cadence, and space. He was well-known for viewing architecture as an analog for the natural landscape. His buildings were a paean to nature, often revealing a poetic awareness of the land. Typically, his best projects also bared the influence of their cultural context in surprising and remarkably insightful but not always obvious ways.
Other themes common to previous Erickson projects include an emphasis upon movement up, over, and through a building via expansive stairs and ramps, and also contrasting the solidity of carefully crafted exposed concrete with the mutability of water, light, and glass. Erickson liked to use architecture to choreograph how people experienced spaces. At the Museum of Glass, he wove these themes into a narrative about the primary elements of fire, water, earth, and sky—the stuff of which glass is made and brought to life by.
The upper terrace. Note the empty reflecting pool on the left.
If I have any quibbles with the Museum of Glass, they are also characteristic of some of Erickson’s other most well-regarded projects, including the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, and Robson Square in downtown Vancouver. The reflecting pools on the roof of the Museum of Glass were drained at the time of our visit, just as the trademark cascades of water at Robson Square have too often been inoperative over the years. The water elements are essential to these designs, so their absence seriously compromises the original design intent.
I’m happy we finally had our opportunity to see the Museum of Glass. It certainly is worth a stop if you find yourself in the Puget Sound area, to experience its architecture, see glass artists at work, and peruse its galleries.
(1) Erickson’s collaborators on the project were Nick Milkovich Architects of Vancouver and Thomas Cook Reed Reinvald Architects (now TCF Architecture) of Tacoma.
(2) Despite his affection for concrete (once referring to it as “the marble of our times”), Erickson’s work with the medium was much too elegant to be characterized as “Brutalist.”
(3) The Bridge of Glass was designed by Austin, TX architect Arthur Andersson and is decorated with artworks by famed glass artist and Tacoma-native Dale Chihuly. I briefly had the opportunity to work alongside Arthur Andersson during my stint with the Urban Innovations Group (UIG) in Los Angeles back in the mid-1980s. Andersson was a partner of the peripatetic Charles W. Moore (1925-1993), a frequent UIG collaborator.