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Architecture

An art center worth the climb

Clark Institute gallery interacts with landscape

Floor-to-ceiling windows at the new Stone Hill Center (above) at the Clark Art Institute transform the Berkshires landscape into a mural. Floor-to-ceiling windows at the new Stone Hill Center (above) at the Clark Art Institute transform the Berkshires landscape into a mural. (Richard pare)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Robert Campbell
Globe Correspondent / June 22, 2008

WILLIAMSTOWN - Perched on a wooded slope above this town, the new Stone Hill Center of the Clark Art Institute is like a white temple in a green forest.

You get to it, assuming your knees hold out, by climbing a long, curving graveled path, which twists up the hillside from the main Clark buildings below. You see the new building, at first, as a kind of white mist looming beyond a green scrim of trees. As you get closer, Stone Hill takes on a firmer shape. You perceive that it's formed of crisply folded planes, as if an enormous origami crane had touched down in Williamstown.

The Clark is one of the country's best small art museums, and in Stone Hill Center, which opens today, it has added a wonderful piece of architecture. My only complaint is that climb. The path is lovely, sometimes crossing wetlands on bridges, sometimes morphing into shallow steps. But art lovers come in all ages, and some won't wish to navigate it.

Of course there's a roadway too, in another location, but driving deprives you of the sense of procession, discovery, and arrival, qualities that are trademarks of Stone Hill's architect.

The architect is Japan's Tadao Ando, the 1995 winner of the Pritzker Prize, architecture's equivalent of the Nobel. Stone Hill houses a mix of uses. The biggest chunk, which isn't open to the public, is a conservation lab for the restoration of artworks. The lab occupies the lower of the building's two levels, where it isn't disturbed by unwanted direct sunlight.

The upper level is for the public. You enter the building at this level, coming off the hillside. As you enter you're drawn forward - that sense of procession again - by the fact that you see through the building to a triangular terrace at the other side, a terrace that seems to float above the landscape.

On this level are the new galleries, 2,400 square feet of them. They'll be used for special exhibitions. They're superb. As in some other much-loved museums, such as the Louisiana in Denmark and the Beyeler in Switzerland, the galleries here interact with the outdoors. Floor-to-ceiling windows, with dark rectangular frames, transform the Berkshires landscape itself into a work of art, a natural mural on the gallery wall.

Ando is known for a kind of architecture that's called "minimalism," meaning more or less that everything is pure white, details are spare and chaste, and layouts are crisp and geometric. The architect goes a little further this time in the direction of sensuality. There's lots of his usual nearly white concrete, formed with great precision. But some of the walls, both inside and out, are faced with flush cedar siding in a marvelous variety of delicate pinks and off-whites. The cedar provides a welcome intimacy and a hint of New England building traditions. It's framed in black steel, with an elegance of detail that would have impressed the great modernist Mies van der Rohe.

It's important to understand that Stone Hill is only the first step in an ambitious master plan for the Clark. When it's complete - the target date is 2013 - there will be another and larger Ando building, a "Visitor, Exhibition and Conference Center," which will be most people's point of arrival. This building will provide more gallery space, a small auditorium for conferences, a café, and various visitor services. It will overlook (and be reflected in) a dramatic new pond. The pond will boast four levels of water divided by 18-inch waterfalls.

As part of the plan, the Clark's two existing buildings are to be totally renovated. The original building of 1955, which looks like a Greek temple and which Clark people call the "Museum Building," will be redone by New York architect Annabelle Seldorf as the principle home of the Clark's permanent collection. A later building, now known as the Manton Research Center, will become a site for the Clark's academic programs, with an enlarged art library and reading room.

To imagine the Clark of 2013, imagine a cluster of low buildings, none of them quite like any of the others, gathered around a pond. It will perhaps look not unlike a New England farm cluster.

Museum director Michael Conforti makes some interesting points. He believes that as his museum becomes bigger, it shouldn't become imposing. "People in Williamstown have chosen to live in a village among the mountains, and they don't want it disrupted," he says. As a result, both the Ando buildings are kept low, with some of the space cut into sloping land.

When I complain about the climb, Conforti points out that Williamstowners, not only students, are already in the habit of climbing Stone Hill for the view in summer and the cross-country ski trails in winter. He envisions tobogganing and other increased activities. "People will park and hike to the view," he says.

I ask why there is no skylighting, despite the fact that galleries in both Ando buildings are on the top floor. Was this a cost issue? No, says Conforti. He speaks of the "vertical light" from the glass window-walls, and prefers it to light from above. "We wanted to link the aesthetics of objects to the experience of the landscape," he says.

The museum chose Ando over other famous architects, he says, "because I didn't want an architect with a strong signature style, like a Gehry or Libeskind or Calatrava." He chose Ando for his success with small buildings. "This is a small town in a small county with a private college," he explains.

Collaborating with Ando from the start was the Boston firm of Reed Hilderbrand, landscape architects. Their work is an essential foil for the architecture. Besides planning the paths and roads, they terraced a slope above Stone Hill into a green parking lot and planted some 300 new trees. Especially successful is the meadow below Stone Hill Center, where the grass is left wild and unmowed. It waves in the wind like an ocean, and the building's triangular terrace pushes into it like the prow of a ship.

The future pond was Ando's idea, with Reed Hilderbrand shaping the waterfalls. Other players were involved too. The project began with a master plan by New York urban designers Cooper, Robertson. And the national architecture firm Gensler collaborated on the architecture, with Ando as the designer. Stone Hill Center's 32,000 square feet cost some $20 million, or about $625 per square foot.

The beat goes on: The Clark recently rented a chunk of the vast MASS MoCA museum in nearby North Adams. It will be used for art storage. "We didn't want to pay Ando prices for storage space," says Conforti.

Taken as a whole, what the Clark is doing is daring and, at least for the United States, it's original. In a sometimes difficult climate, the museum is trying to create a museum that will be as much about the land as about the art. Hence the desire for visitors to get outside and climb. At a moment when other cultural institutions have long been consolidating activities into big clusters, like Harvard's Science Center and Barker Humanities Center, Clark is deliberately scattering itself more widely across its 140 acres of hills, trees, and meadows.

The opening show in the Stone Hill Center is a group of works by Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent. Planned for next year is a major exhibit of the work of Ellsworth Kelly, another minimalist whose work should marry well with Ando's architecture.

Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell can be reached at camglobe@aol.com.

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