Architecturally, building delights and disappoints THE NEW WING: INSIDE & OUT THE BALTIMORE MUSEUM OF ART

October 02, 1994|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Staff Writer

Embedded in the white ash floor at the threshold to Baltimore's New Wing for Modern Art, a tombstone-shaped granite slab bears a three-word inscription: "DEAF DUMB BLIND"

More than any other element, that simple steppingstone by artist Bruce Nauman sums up the essence of the zigzagging metal building that has been taking shape for the past two years on the grounds of the Baltimore Museum of Art.

A companion to a well-known Nauman neon sculpture on the opposite side of the museum, "VIOLINS VIOLENCE SILENCE," the marker imparts a powerful message with its almost accusatory tone: Pay attention. Don't be deaf, dumb and blind to your surroundings. Look alive!

That same set of messages is relayed loud and clear by the design of the three-story, $10 million wing that opens October 16 after a week of previews.

From the burnished aluminum skin outside to the large, luminous galleries inside, the building makes a break from the past, physically and intellectually. It does so with mixed results:

Inside, the new wing is a masterpiece of organization and clarity, with spaces that provide an entirely new way to view art. They will be copied from coast to coast.

Outside, it strives to pique visitors' interest about what's going on inside. But mostly it falls flat, very flat -- lacking the weight and dignity of the rest of the museum, or any affinity to it.

That jarring juxtaposition is a major disappointment for a prestigious commission that should have been a tour de force. But it's not unexpected from a creative team that said it would design "from the inside out."

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The 35,000-square-foot new wing occupies the west end of the museum property next to the Cone Wing, the last developable parcel on the museum's grounds. Containing paintings, sculpture and photographs, it is the largest single space in Maryland devoted to art of the 20th century.

The job of designing a building that took advantage of this prime site fell to Bower Lewis Thrower/Architects, a Philadelphia-based firm that has worked on six phases of museum expansion and restoration since 1977.

Among its credits is the 1982 wing on the east side of the complex, a sensitive addition that continued the lines and materials of the original 1929 neoclassical museum, designed by John Russell Pope and others, while still making a contemporary architectural statement. The new wing has been conceived as a bookend of sorts to the 1982 wing -- a building that could complete the symmetry of the museum without being purely symmetrical.

Museum director Arnold Lehman and deputy director Brenda Richardson asked the architects to design "clean, classical" spaces that don't upstage the art.

They also wanted large galleries: modules of 25 feet by 25 feet or multiples thereof, with ceilings up to 25 feet high. And they wanted the new wing to feel different, yet part of the larger museum.

"If people hadn't felt that they entered something new, we would have failed," Ms. Richardson said. "But if people didn't have a sense that there is relationship to the rest of the museum, we would have failed, too."

The architects responded with an addition that is more of a departure from the neoclassical landmark than was their 1982 wing.

Because of the limited site, they were unable to fit the gallery modules on the west end and keep them on the same orthogonal grid as the rest of the museum.

But by cranking the addition at a 30-degree angle and building it up against the western property line, they were able to identify enough land within the museum grounds to construct the galleries in the shape the museum staff wanted.

As with the 1982 wing, the architects designed a glass connector to mark the juncture between old and new. A concrete rotunda behind the glass serves as a "hinge" that helps reorient visitors entering the new wing from the museum's Cone Wing.

In keeping with the idea of making a break from the past, the architects and their clients rethought practically every aspect of the older building to come up with a better way to present works of modern art.

This rethinking led to several interior design breakthroughs, including clustered galleries whose corners are cut away so one space flows into another, and a fluorescent lighting system that turns exhibit areas into veritable light boxes.

The designers' search for just the right materials and finishes further helped create distinctive settings. The white ash floor, for example, is not only handsome but effective in reflecting light from above. The delicate truss work that supports the roof in the tallest galleries has a vaguely industrial feel that recalls the kind of loft spaces where artists may have worked.

Uneasy tension

The exterior breaks from the past as well. Instead of continuing the neoclassical lines and rich Tennessee limestone of the Pope building, the new wing is clad in scored aluminum panels. Like the galleries inside, it's cocked at a 30-degree angle to the rest of the museum.

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