Chipperfield’s ‘first glass’ act in St. Louis

Monday 01 Jul 2013

Saint Louis Art Museum opens East Wing

How do you expand a stalwart and much-loved neoclassical museum building that is a seminal building of the American architect Cass Gilbert, designer of the famed Woolworth Building?  One option is to hire an architect who can breathe new life into a worn-out cultural complex that has become jumbled over time and needs updating without spoiling the very characteristics that endear it to the community.

Whilst some cultural institutions have gone down the Bilbao path, expanding their facilities beyond their budgets and their needs in the hope of transforming their art houses into blockbuster cultural destinations, The Saint Louis Art Museum (Missouri, US) has taken a decidedly different path by electing to  ‘tweak’ what it already has; a successful art museum with a deep collection in postwar American and 20th-century German art which, among its many virtues, is one of the few museums in the country that is free to the public.  

It takes a certain temperament to recast a museum to address needs over and above its architect’s own agenda and that is precisely what David Chipperfield has done here. He’s read the situation, the architectural constraints and opportunities of the brief with great aplomb and left his ego but not his deft talent at the door, expanding the museum with a modest, elegant and restrained glass pavilion that whilst an architectural marvel in its own right is first and foremost a building in the service of art. “What we tried to do is make a good space for art,” said Chipperfield. “Museums are moments of architectural privilege.”

Chipperfield’s East Building, which opened this past weekend,  solves the many challenges the museum was facing:  a lack of space for its large and ever growing collection now numbering 33,000 works of art, most of which sit sadly out of public view; a cramped main building that is stuffed to gills and needs proper ‘breathing room’ for visitors to comfortably convene with the art; and a confused visitor experience, no doubt the result of the original building being built for the 1904 World’s Fair and not a purpose built art museum, making the 3-storey structure somewhat confusing to get around.  

Chipperfield’s new wing is deceptively simple, direct and honest.  The building adds 82,452 sq ft of flexible gallery space on a single level with fixed and load-bearing walls running in one direction and flexible movable walls running in the other, making the remarkably customisable to the needs of future exhibitions and more ‘room like’ than ‘loft like’ in character. The new volume pays homage to the Gilbert building in a modern way, echoing its proportions, its axiality and its spatial grandness rather than its stylistic features, thus avoiding any sense of sentimentality and resulting in an addition that is of its time and yet harmoniously in sync with the main building. 

Parking for 300 cars is provided underground, a strategy that keeps surface parking to a minimum and repairs of the landscape in this part of the historic Forest Park, one of the great urban parks in the country. What the St. Louis Art Museum needed was additional space and a little ‘chiropractic’ to put things back in to balance: the buildings, the collection and the grounds.  

The new wing, which is connected to the main building by a grand staircase, clarifies circulation and greatly improves the visitor experience. It avoids a condition that many modern museums fall victim to - what Chipperffield calls ‘lobbyitis’ - by allowing visitors to directly enter  the galleries from the outside and keeping amenity space spare. The building itself is a background building, a second act to the Gilbert building.

Still, it is a noteworthy work of architecture that has its own voice and a delightful Miesian quality to it. It is spare yet substantial, it engages noble materials and few of them, such as dark polished stone panels, floor-to-ceiling windows and wide plank oak floors. And it gets by with a few brilliant details (it’s ‘less is more’ attitude) for example it’s magnificent coffered concrete ceiling, set on a 5ft x 10ft grid with suspended milky white transparent plastic panels set in the middle of each coffer that ingeniously masque the building’s fire protection system and other equipment whilst allowing natural light to generously penetrate the galleries.     

Writing for the Evening Standard, the architecture critic Kieran Long called David Chipperfield the best practicing architect in the U.K. He may be on to something. Chipperfield lets his work do the talking and in my opinion, this is how it should be. 

Sharon McHugh
US Correspondent

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