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Respecting and Renewing History: Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art by UN Studio and Fox & Fowle Architects

Changing and re-arranging (and eliminating) decades of architectural additions will give an astonishing collection - and visitors - room to breathe.

by ArchNewsNow
August 5, 2002

It was big news last year when the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut, announced the winning design team of an international competition for the expansion and renovation of the oldest public art museum in the US. A few weeks ago, the schematic design was unveiled by design architect Ben van Berkel of Amsterdam-based UN Studio (the firm’s first major U.S. commission), and Sylvia Smith, AIA, managing principal of Fox & Fowle Architects, the executive architect of the project.


Plans are to break ground in the first quarter of 2004. The museum will be closed for 24-30 months of construction and, nearer to completion, the surrounding grounds will be transformed by a Maya Lin-designed landscape. It promises be an important element in the revitalization of downtown Hartford, situated between the popular Bushnell Park and the retail and residential component of the massive, 33-acre Adriaen’s Landing development (master planned by Brennan Beer Gorman Architects) which is currently underway.


Despite an impressive legacy of commissioning architecture that expressed their time, the Wadsworth Atheneum’s current campus is confusing to navigate. The five contiguous buildings were constructed over 127 years, from 1842 to 1969. Among its deficiencies are too little space for the permanent collections and changing exhibitions; differing floor levels and ceiling heights, which complicate way-finding; and major galleries in the 1969 addition that are obstructed by columns.


The UN Studio/Fox & Fowle plan calls for removing the 1969 Goodwin building, which occupies a 70-foot span between the 1842 Wadsworth building and 1934 Avery building on the museum’s north side, and Gengras Court, an open-air courtyard at the center of the museum campus. A new structure will be introduced that will extend into the Wadsworth and Colt building interiors (which were gutted in the 1965-69 renovation), and cohere to the historic interiors of the Beaux Art style Morgan Memorial (1910-1915) and the 1934 International Style Avery Memorial (the first Bauhaus interior in an American museum).


The museum’s main entrance will move from Main Street to the new building on Atheneum Square North and will be transparent at street level. The new entrance will span the breadth of the old Goodwin façade and lead into a multi-purpose public concourse that gently descends to the museum cafe and an outdoor terrace overlooking Burr Mall to the south. The public concourse and cafe will be admission-free, and serve as lively venues for performances, lectures, group tour orientations, seated dinners for up to 600 persons, and other special events.


Once inside, sight lines visually link the public concourse and the galleries. The visitor will have a glimpse of the art that lies ahead. Rising from the concourse are two gracefully stepped ramp ways that connect the buildings and direct the visitor to each successive level throughout the museum. The architecturally integrated circulation system is supported by a cone-shaped cable system that doubles as a light well, filtering light from above through the tiers of the new structure and onto the concourse below.


“The design responds integrally to a number of different requirements, with the museum, as it were, turned inside out,” said UN Studio’s design architect Ben van Berkel. “Light flooding in through the asymmetrical cone reaches the public entrance on the north façade. Upon entering the museum, visitors will find themselves in a public square, vibrant with light and people, with visual connections to the art in the galleries. The double helix of slowly spiraling ramps will generate a gradual transition from the first-floor public square to the galleries.” van Berkel found inspiration and points of departure for his contemporary design in classical architecture, such as the oculus in the dome of the ancient Pantheon in Rome, and the central courtyard-like floor plans of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and the Altes Museum in Berlin.


Both ramp ways and elevators arrive at the upper levels of the new buildings, which feature an 8,400-square-foot gallery for temporary loan exhibitions, and a 6,300-square-foot gallery for contemporary art. The galleries are column-free and will use flexible wall systems to accommodate changing installations.


The new building will be clad in a perforated metal designed to flow seamlessly from the north façade to an asymmetrical roof. Translucent in part, the new roof is faceted to reflect the skylights and rooftops of the existing historic buildings. Portions of the building will glow from within at night. The façade and flooring of the new building will be light-hued, in harmony with the rough-hewn granite exterior of the Wadsworth building and smooth limestone of the Avery Memorial.


The project will provide more than a 35 percent growth in galleries (as it is, the museum can only show about 2,000 of its 50,000-piece collection), public events space, and education facilities. In addition to improving the visitor experience, the redesign incorporates coherent and effective use of space for museum operations, addresses the immediate needs of the permanent collections and staff, and anticipates future growth. Existing spaces within the museum will be upgraded, rehabilitated, or adapted for new use. New locations for the education center and art studio, museum store, library, curatorial division, museum administration, and secure loading dock are also planned.


According to reports in the Hartford Courant, “…during the expected two-year construction, [the Wadsworth Atheneum] plans to continue being a prime cultural force in the region and on the national scene … marshaling the museum's resources…and sending them on the road.” Items from the collection that aren’t traveling will be moved to an undisclosed off-site storage facility, which will include a photo-digital studio, an object conservation area, an exhibition staging area, a framing and matting area, a costume and textile workshop, crate storage, a maintenance woodshop (for fabricating exhibition cases and the like), and work areas for curators to continue their studies of the collection.


The museum has set a fundraising goal of $120 million: $80 million is designated for construction costs and related expenses; $22 million for endowment; and $18 million for operations. More than $50 million has been raised to date.


“The design of UN Studio, leaders among a young generation of contemporary architects, in collaboration with American award-winners Fox & Fowle Architects, upholds the Wadsworth Atheneum’s tradition of quality and originality,” said museum director Kate M. Sellers. “The architectural team was presented with a formidable challenge—to unify our buildings to make the museum’s great collections easily accessible to the public, and to provide special exhibition space—and they have arrived at an innovative, pragmatic, and elegant solution.”


Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos established their architectural practice in Amsterdam in 1988. Ten years later, they formed a subsidiary, UN Studio, which is a network of specialists in architecture, urban development, and infrastructure. UN Studio creates bold and elegant “digital architecture” for the 21st century by imaginatively blending computer technology with new investigations into structural engineering and construction materials. The firm is best known for the asymmetrical, swan-like Erasmus Bridge, a symbol of Rotterdam just as the Brooklyn Bridge is of New York City; the Möbius House, a residence outside Utrecht that plays with notions of inside and outside, day and night, and work and rest; and the Museum Het Valkhof in Nijmegen. UN Studio designed the winning entry for the new Mercedes Benz Museum in Stuttgart, marking their first major commission in Germany.


Fox & Fowle Architects was formed by Robert F. Fox, Jr. and Bruce S. Fowle in 1978. Last year, the firm was hired to collaborate with Renzo Piano on the new Manhattan headquarters of The New York Times; they are also the architects of the Conde Nast and Reuters Buildings in Times Square. The firm is well known for its expertise in the environmental arena and for its award-winning, program-sensitive renovations. Sylvia Smith, who directs Fox & Fowle Architects' award-winning Educational and Cultural Studio, is the managing principal for the Wadsworth Atheneum project.


Established in 1842, the Wadsworth Atheneum is America’s oldest public art museum, preceding the founding of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston by three decades, and is considered among the dozen greatest art museums in the United States. It was the first American museum to acquire works by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Frederic Church, Salvador Dalí, Joan Miro, Alexander Calder, Piet Mondrian, Joseph Cornell, and Max Ernst. Collections include Hudson River school landscapes, Old Master paintings, modernist masterpieces, 19th-century French and Impressionist paintings, Meissen and Sèvres porcelains, costumes and textiles, American furniture and decorative arts of the Pilgrim Century through the Gilded Age, and cutting-edge contemporary art.

(click on pictures to enlarge)

((c) 2002 UN Studio/van berkel & bos and Fox & Fowle Architects; Courtesy Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art)
Design concept for expanded Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art: new north entrance

((c) 2002 UN Studio/van berkel & bos and Fox & Fowle Architects; Courtesy Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art)
Aerial view

((c) 2002 UN Studio/van berkel & bos and Fox & Fowle Architects; Courtesy Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art)
Ramp system and light well from public concourse

((c) 2002 UN Studio/van berkel & bos and Fox & Fowle Architects; Courtesy Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art)
The public concourse can be used for a variety of activities, including performances and special events.

((c) 2002 UN Studio/van berkel & bos and Fox & Fowle Architects; Courtesy Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art)
Another view of the public concourse

((c) 2002 UN Studio/van berkel & bos and Fox & Fowle Architects; Courtesy Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art)
The Wadsworth Atheneum campus, with historic structures (yellow)

((c) 2002 UN Studio/van berkel & bos and Fox & Fowle Architects; Courtesy Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art)
Cross section

((c) 2002 UN Studio/van berkel & bos and Fox & Fowle Architects; Courtesy Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art)
Ground floor plan highlighting various visitor amenities

((c) 2002 UN Studio/van berkel & bos and Fox & Fowle Architects; Courtesy Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art)
First floor plan

((c) 2002 UN Studio/van berkel & bos and Fox & Fowle Architects; Courtesy Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art)
Second floor plan

((c) 2002 Simon Alexander; Courtesy Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art)
(l-r): Board of Trustees President George David; Design Architect Ben van Berkel, UN Studio; Executive Architect Sylvia Smith, Fox & Fowle Architects; and Director Kate M. Sellers with model for expanded Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art

© 2002