BMA to break ground-and harmony-with 'shed' for 20th century art

ARCHITECTURE REVIEW

April 19, 1992|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

Housing the arts is an art in itself, and in tough economic times it can take a feat of magic, too. So when Mayor Kurt Schmoke flatly rejected a recommendation that Baltimore cut off all funding for the arts as a cost-saving measure, the action sent a vote of confidence to arts organizations throughout the city.

But none has more reason to celebrate than the Baltimore Museum of Art, which is poised to break ground within a month for a $7 million wing for 20th century art. Its staff and directors have been working for six years to raise enough money to build the addition, now scheduled for completion within two years on the last developable parcel on the museum's grounds, and they received the final $250,000 they needed in the General Assembly session that ended this month. The mayor's decision provides a measure of assurance that the city will help fund its operations long after construction is complete.

While that funding hurdle has been removed, monetary constraints continue to affect the design. As conceived by Bower Lewis Thrower, architects of Philadelphia, the firm responsible for the east wing that opened in 1982, this addition will be strikingly different from the neoclassical edifice of 1929 by John Russell Pope and others, in large part due to cost considerations.

Architect John Bower Jr. describes it as "a great new shed for art," and that says it all. Features include an aluminum skin rather than the limestone cladding visible elsewhere on the complex, a zigzagging south wall, and an exposed concrete rotunda with stairs leading to the new galleries. In addition, the entire building will be cocked at an angle to the rest of the museum, rather than lining up with it.

The modernist expression stems from a conscious decision by the architects to create a building that reflects the tenor of the times and the nature of the art that will be displayed inside, including paintings, sculpture and photographs. Yet because the building is an addition to a larger complex with a different look and feel -- and one of Baltimore's cultural icons at that -- Mr. Bower's "shed" characterization provides the starting point for a debate that is likely to continue long after the addition is complete: Is it the provocative, cutting-edge building museum officials are seeking to help attract new donations? Or an appalling appendage that will desecrate the work of John Russell Pope?

Since the building will occupy land on the west end of the museum that corresponds to the site of Bower Lewis Thrower's 1982 east wing, the architects conceived of it as the other bookend that completes the symmetry of the composition. But instead of making it precisely symmetrical, Mr. Bower said, they wanted it to have a distinctive enough appearance to "telegraph the fact that something very strong is going on at this end of the building."

The 20th century wing will be adjacent to the museum's famous Cone Wing -- the home, fittingly, of works by Henri Matisse and others from the late 19th century and the early 20th century. Its flat roof will be at the same height as or lower than the rest of the museum, and it will be separated from the Cone Wing by a glass connector leading to the new galleries. Unlike the glass connector on the east side, it will not have a public entrance, although it will have a staff entrance.

The first level will be reserved for administrative offices, a loading dock and other areas that will be off limits to the public. Above the offices will be the main level of galleries and a mezzanine level, accessible from the second level of the Cone Wing. In all, the west wing will provide 36,000 square feet of space, including 17,000 square feet of gallery space. Another 12,000 square feet of back-of-the-house space in the current building will be renovated for new uses, including 2,000 square feet of gallery space.

According to the design team (with Mr. Bower as principal-in-charge and James Dart as project architect), the grid shift was a response to the limited site. The directors wanted galleries to be 25-foot-by-25-foot modules or multiples thereof. But the museum did not own enough property due west of the Cone Wing to provide the "footprint" they desired, and negotiations with the neighboring Johns Hopkins University indicated the museum would be unable to buy more. But by set

ting the wing at an angle and putting it up against the western property line, they were able to identify enough land within the museum grounds to configure the galleries the way the staff wanted. "We have tried to build these additions to the museum from the inside out," explained museum director Arnold Lehman. "We are nothing if not practical."

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