New at SLAM: Incredible Modern Art, Disappointing Chipperfield Architecture

Hemmed by SLAM grids

Sir David Chipperfield’s New SLAM Modern Wing
Photo by Jarred Gastreich

Now that the city has a new museum wing dedicated to world class modern art, Saint Louis can assume its place as an international art destination.  Finally.  The art in the new wing is pure joy.  On behalf of all Saint Louis art lovers, I bow to the local philanthropic families who donated both the art and the museum wing.

The Board of the Saint Louis Art Museum (SLAM) had the donors’ honor in mind when they paid millions to acclaimed British architect Sir David Chipperfield.  Unfortunately, his building is more insult than inspiration. Sir David and his French landscape architect Michel des Vignes clearly disliked Saint Louis and they built their architectural disdain into every corner of their black sarcophagus and its grotty asphalt landscape.

If the dark exterior feels oddly familiar, it’s because Sir David designed a museum that references the famous 1954 Seagram office building, designed by the late Mies van der Rohe.

SLAM. Photo by Jarred Gastreich

New Modern Wing/SLAM. Photo by Jarred Gastreich

Photo by Wikimapia

Seagram Office in NYC.  Photo by Wikimapia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“It’s a Mies-oleum!” exclaimed local architectural historian, Michael Allen.  Indeed.  Someone should have informed Sir David that Saint Louis has plenty of Mies copycats around town.  The Horner Shifrin building on Oakland Avenue is just one of dozens.

SLAM Twinsie 1969 Horner Shiflin Building on Oakland Avenue

SLAM Twinsie
1969 Horner Shiflin Building on Oakland Avenue

Although the new addition at SLAM mimics the overdone Miesian style, there are stunning examples of Museum-as-Office buildings.  In 1968, Mies van der Rohe imitated his own Seagram motifs in the architecturally sensational New National Gallery in Berlin.

New National Gallery for Modern Art in Berlin designed by Mies van der Rohe 1968

New National Gallery for Modern Art in Berlin
designed by Mies van der Rohe 1968, Photo by Bacardi

As late as 2006, Pritzker Prize architect Renzo Piano mined the concept when he built a beautiful Museum-as-Office for the new wing at the Art Institute of Chicago.  Piano’s halls and courts expand unexpectedly and delightfully away from what first feels like the imprint of ordinary workday architecture.  Inside the new wing in Chicago, visitors are feted with a wonderful viewing experience,  suspended by highly mechanical hanging steel cables that somehow feel hand-crafted.

New Modern Wing at Chicago Art Institute by Renzo Piano

New Modern Wing at Chicago Art Institute by
Renzo Piano, Photo by Stuart Alexander, ‘Stuarto’

Meanwhile, up on Art Hill, a far duller museum building forms a kind of unhappy office park with Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer’s 1976 SLAM addition.  From the new interior, huge picture windows frame the awkward rear courtyard, as though Chipperfield meant to highlight the suburban quality of the new addition.  Unlike Renzo Piano, Sir David does not pull the SLAM design out of ordinariness.  Instead, his architecture emphasizes the deadening blandness of modern work environments.

Through to other suburban office building

SLAM interior with Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer 1976 addition across the rear courtyard.

The Museum-as-Office theme runs through Sir David’s interiors too but without the liveliness of Renzo Piano’s Art Institute.  In Saint Louis, an acre of concrete coffer ceiling dominates the relatively low slung galleries.  ”The ceilings are interesting,” say overly polite Saint Louisans who might not realize that concrete coffer, or ‘waffle slab’ ceilings were invented in 1915.  Sometimes called ‘waffle slabs’, these ceilings usually allow architects to create expansive, column-less spaces.  Pritzker Prize architect I M Pei still designs magnificent concrete coffer ceilings for his museums.  His concrete coffer ceilings for both the 1974 National Gallery East Wing in Washington DC and the 2006 Museum of Islamic Art in Doha are dazzling.

Photo by bsietinsons                        The Solitude of Emptines

IM Pei, 2006, Doha, Photo by                       I M Pei East Wing, 1974, Wash DC, Photo by

Mark Shane Johnson                                       Cesar Lujan

In contrast to Pei’s refined aesthetic, the concrete coffer ceiling at the SLAM is ungainly, with heavy, coffin-shaped proportions.  Sir David’s ceiling compresses the museum experience where Pei’s ceilings uplift the visitor.  Generating grid lines which rigorously regiment the placement of thick walls and disturbing floor patterns, the SLAM concrete coffers do not create a sense of uniqueness in the lobby and gallery spaces.  Nor do the coffers add to a sense of expansive architecture.  Compared to the soaring halls of the Art Institute of Chicago, Chipperfield’s galleries are basically fixed and modest, rendering his coffers somewhat superfluous–and anti-modern.

nevelson

The grid ceiling design by Sir David Chipperfield
Photo by Jarred Gastreich

As if those second-rate design aspects weren’t bad enough, the new wing at SLAM is marred by a truly subversive feature.  Rows and rows of 12″ wide stainless steel air conditioning grilles cut through the white oak floors of all of the galleries.  The floor vents look like metal truck tracks.  Infuriatingly, the rows of grilles are built into the middle of the galleries.

Chipperfield’s design means that no sculpture or painting sits in the de-materialized modern space that it needs.  Frank Lloyd Wright had the stature to build an the Guggenheim Museum to forever test the tension between modern architecture and modern art but Sir David is no Frank Lloyd Wright.  SLAM is frankly disrespectful to the art it houses.  Mundane floor grilles interfere with almost all views of the art.

tracks and aircon grilles         Rail tracks coffin ceiling

Interior gallery views showing rows of HVAC vents regimenting both Richter and Rothko paintings. Photo by Jarred Gastreich

It’s not as though the obscene floor grilles are practical.  Donald Judd’s and Richard Long’s sculptures sit on the grilles and block the air vents.  Masses of visitors block the air as they are stuck standing on the HVAC floor vents.  Cold or warm air blows up skirts, grilles threaten visitor’s stiletto shoe heels.  Future party tables in the front lobby will choke the vents.

judd

Donald Judd’s ‘Untitled’ marred by Chipperfield’s subversive HVAC floor grilles. Photo by Jarred Gastreich

Floor vent problems abound. I asked SLAM’s curators if Sir David’s floor vents frustrated their efforts to display the collection. They explained that they have two choices in every gallery: align sculptures with the grilles or sit sculptures in between the grilles.  In many cases, the curators built low white platforms over the grille. It’s a Faustian solution because iconic modern sculptors deliberately abandoned the false ‘elevation’ of pedestals.  SLAM’s platforms potentially ruin part of the sculptor’s intent to place the art on the simple wood floor, in an anonymous context. SLAM’s modern curators are made hapless by intrusive HVAC vents, coerced into corrupting the integrity of the art as well as their own expertise.  One of Mark Rothko’s most beautiful paintings is set up on axis, only to be bisected by thick black door frames and unceremoniously outlined by HVAC grilles.

Richard Serra 'Untitled' 1968, on curator's raised platform

Richard Serra ‘Untitled’ 1968, on curator’s raised platform. Photo by Jarred Gastreich.

Kiki Smith's sculpture, on curator's raised platform

Kiki Smith’s sculpture, on curator’s raised platform. Photo by Jarred Gastreich.

How did Saint Louis end up with an ignominious building that cost our kind donors and taxpayers $160 million dollars?  SLAM director Brent R. Benjamin revealed a clue when he spoke to a gathering of international writers before the opening.  “I know that some of  you are from London and New York, but here in Saint Louis, things like restrooms are really important.”

Wait. Restrooms?

It’s disheartening to hear SLAM’s director apologize to international press for the (non-existent) Saint Louis restroom fetish.  Not just a few cosmopolitan journalist’s eyes popped open.  If you live in Saint Louis, you know the look: “Oh! The fly-over, tsk, tsk.”

Un-ironically, Benjamin continued:  “We also needed a proper coat check. And a large garage for the museum.”  In fairness to Mr Benjamin, many architecture clients prefer building maintenance topics to idealogical discussions. But, I wonder. Was it SLAM’s Restroom-Garage-Coatroom agenda that annoyed the Pritzker-Prize-wanna-be, Sir David Chipperfield?  Perhaps he thought that muddled Saint Louis deserved his banal museum design.

Take heart Saint Louis. The art in the new modern wing is phenomenal. There are dozens of breathtaking pieces. In particular, the commissioned sculpture by Andy Goldsworthy is full of potent meaning for the city.

In fact, if it makes you fume to think about Sir David mocking Saint Louis art, run to see Andy Goldsworthy’s commissioned piece. The mischievous Scottish sculptor carved what appears to be a resounding retort to the confining grids of Sir David’s contemptuous architecture.  Goldsworthy flew to Saint Louis to see the building under construction. During his visit, the sculptor rejected the suggested site for his proposed sculpture.  Instead, he demanded that his striding Missouri stone arches sit in a leftover light well, immediately adjacent to Sir David’s long and utterly banal basement corridor. The contrast between the life and spirit of Goldsworthy’s sculpture and the depressed boredom of Chipperfield’s building is wonderfully vivid.

goldsworthy view

Beautiful rough-cut, precision-laid arches of Andy Goldsworthy’s Stone Sea Sculpture. Photo by Jarred Gastreich

Andy Goldsworthy, Stone Arches, 2013.  Photo by Jarred Gastreich

The arches astonish. They seethe with primitive energy. They threaten the thin glass of Sir David’s corridor to nowhere. They suggest a hidden energy in the ground beneath the museum. They hint at hope, the kind embodied by people who enjoy modern art museums.

An inspiring view of Saint Louis via Andy Goldsworthy's Stone Sea sculpture.

An inspiring view of Saint Louis via Andy Goldsworthy’s Stone Sea sculpture.

To see Andy Goldsworthy’s sculpture, visitors must walk down Sir David’s ‘monumental’ stair from the main hall of the original museum space.  It’s easy to find the stair.  With the grace of a standard utility stair, the strange stair cuts a massive hole out of SLAM’s largest exhibition space.  SLAM’s potential ‘Turbine Hall’ space is spoiled and for effect too.  Check out the cafe at the bottom of the stair, aligning with the axis of King Louis.  It’s a horrid green–for ‘greenback’ dollars.

Visitors can also take the elevator to the parking garage basement to get to The Stone Sea sculpture installation.  By either path, Goldsworthy’s arches are worth the search.   Visitors can also take the elevator to the parking garage basement.  By either path, Goldsworthy’s arches are worth the search.  The Press were told that visitors would have the chance to take escorted tours into the belly of the arches.  When I visited again, the security guard nearly fainted when I asked to walk into the light well space.

Since Goldsworthy built the arches to be seen from underneath, it’s worth asking Museum administrators if they could allow visits to the interior of the court to experience the sculpture in its entirety.

Living with Saint Andy’s Stone Sea might someday soften the anguish of enduring Sir David Chipperfield’s design.  Current and future art exhibitions will eventually erase the irritation.  Perhaps some of the floor grilles could be removed one day.  Perhaps the asphalt-loving French landscape architect could be off-loaded from the design of the future sculpture court.

It’s Andy Goldsworthy who managed to see the best of Saint Louis.  Maybe he could be commissioned to build a landform and Stone Sea arch basin at SLAM’s South side.

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About Ann Wimsatt

Ann Wimsatt is a practicing Architect, and co-Founder of Cite Works Architects
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  • T-Leb

    I’m glad people other than architect critics will use and enjoy the building.

  • Big Map Blog

    It’s obvious that people will use it, and I’m sure it will be enjoyed; the article describes the building as uninspired and suboptimal — not as unusable or unenjoyable.

    Past that: you wanna expand on why it is you seem to disagree with the piece? As it stands all you’re doing is dismissing 1,500+ words of detailed critique with a short, passive-aggressive hand wave; the wispiest possible popcorn fart of a response to what was — be it right or wrong — an in-depth review, enumerating several specific criticisms.

  • Sam Lima

    It’s good to know that someone else recognizes this addition for what it is: Modernist Revival. For some reason, this type of anachronism is acceptable to many in architecture and architectural academia when it looks like Mies, but not when it looks like Pope. Personally, I don’t have an issue with creating architecture that many would consider anachronistic, but I absolutely deplore the double standard that says that emulating Corb is fine, but emulating Lutyens is unacceptable. I also personally think that traditional architecture has a higher capacity, if done very well, to reinforce the character, history, climate, and culture of a place, than glass and steel (in whatever shape). But that’s another conversation entirely…

  • T-Leb

    I don’t find this critique particularly compelling. I feel it is written much too colloquial. Maybe that was the intent, but when I read “Pritzker-Prize-wanna-be” and “stupid corridor to nowhere” credibility starts to wane. I find this line/conclusion completely baseless “From the new interior, huge picture windows frame the awkward rear courtyard, as though Chipperfield meant to highlight the suburban quality of the new addition.” Is that something architects would easily conclude?

    Having only visited once since re-opening, I haven’t actually formed much of an opinion, but maybe the author has spent much more time there or studying the design. I too saw the hvac ducts on the floor and thought they were a little in the way (especially the exhibit with loose rocks spread out on the floor over them). I guess I have reserved judgement until I have visited for a year or so to get the whole experience. There is nothing in this review about the restaurant space, for whatever reason.

    I have been reading other reviews, some have criticized the art selected over the design.

    I also find it difficult to discuss the new addition without talking about what it has allowed to be done to the older galleries. But that doesn’t seem to be part of this review.

  • Eddie in NorCal

    Apologies beforehand, I’ve only seen pictures & video of the SLAM expansion, but I’m looking forward to visiting in person. I thought that getting far away from the design of the original Cass Gilbert building was a good idea. A Modernist structure, given the nature of the pieces being displayed, seems to offer a perfect context. Given the depth and quality of MCM buildings still extant in St. Louis, and the fact that such buildings aren’t mothballed but remain in active use, I think the decision to build a modernist addition to SLAM is a good one.

    I don’t think it’s fair to criticize Chipperfield for the fact that a very ordinary suburban office park building (the 1976 addition) is visible from the windows of his creation. Ann and other reviewers have pointed out that the HVAC floor vents are both visually distracting and less-than-practical. I think Ann has hit the bulls eye on the Goldsworthy piece, it will be as big a draw as the Chipperfield addition itself. With Laumeier, the new sculpture garden downtown, and now Stone Sea, is there another city in North America, or anywhere, with a more impressive collection of outdoor art?

  • Big Map Blog

    Even the most charitable reading of your follow-up seems as though you are giving the building a pretty mixed review.

    I will ask unambiguously: What is it that you like about the building, and what is it that makes you so…

    “glad people other than architect critics will use and enjoy the building.”?

    Your dislike of the colloquial tone is noted, but is tangential to what the author is tasking herself with critiquing: How good is the building?

    Demonstrate for me your good faith by telling me what you like about it. As I’m reading your words now, it seems as though you are adopting some reactionary contrarian stance for no good reason. I hate listening to architects talk as much as the next guy, but I hate listening to turd-dropping philistine pot-stirrers a tiny bit more.

  • T-Leb

    Are you the author, or related to? You seem to be very emotional about this piece of writing for reasons that are not clear to me.
    Your tone is vulgar, disrespectful and not in line with polite conversation. If you have a personal problem, I suggest you sort it out.

  • http://www.preservationresearch.com Michael R. Allen

    Kudos for daring to append “revival” to Modern; it is so appropriate. After PoMo, the rehash of modernism is definitely a revival — and a bit reactionary too. Yet there is widespread avoidance of historicizing current infatuation with minimalist Modernism. It’s as if no architecture has ever happened before, let alone — oh, say — 50 years of the International Style when it was actually fresh and original.

  • http://www.preservationresearch.com Michael R. Allen

    Agreed that the tone was out of line. Let’s refocus. What DO you like about the building’s design?

  • Ann Wimsatt

    Fair point on some of the colloquialisms. I take the criticism on board– although this is a minor blog post, not The New Yorker. I intentionally mentioned the Pritzker Prize repeatedly. I would not wish a Chipperfield museum on any unsuspecting museum or city. Here is the Pritzker subtext: 1) Boards or clients will rarely go wrong if they hire a Pritzker Prize winner; ie Tadao Ando at the Pulitzer Museum, Piano at Chicago, Pei in Doha. 2) Boards might consider that the extra fees for a Pritzker Prize winner are worthwhile–especially if the Pritzker Prize wanna-bes deliver disappointing goods. 3) Other unsuspecting boards and cities should avoid the disdainful Chipperfield and desVignes 4) Sir David Chipperfield almost certainly aspires to the Pritzker Prize but the poor quality of the SLAM addition should disqualify him. 5) Given that Sir David left a permanent insult that will slight Art Hill, the donors and SLAM curators for the next 30 years at least, I felt it was fair to sting him with a ‘Pritzker-Prize-wanna-be’ label. He’s a famous architect. He will get over it. 6). Sir David and desVignes may have felt that they could short Saint Louis because important observers like the Pritzker committee would not notice their mistakes in the great ‘fly-over’. Perhaps the British and French architects forgot that STL knows how to use the internet?

  • Ann Wimsatt

    Jarred Gastreich should post a picture of the rear of the new Chipperfield addition. If you saw the rear, you would realize that the new addition is as suburban as the 1976 addition, maybe more so.
    The west window placement is curious. It is an enormous heat-gain window that faces onto precisely nothing–in a building that is completely regimented by axis on the interior. It’s only my opinion, but Chipperfield and des Vignes are talented architects. They had other design options–such as orienting the views toward the wooded parkland to the South. The west window serves little purpose.
    Also interesting to note that, at present, there is only one way in and out of the building. It does not currently have any indoor/outdoor access to a sculpture court. Unlike the Renzo Piano building which revolves around a wonderful exterior sculpture ‘hall’, the Chipperfield building is hermetically sealed–again very much like an office building.

  • Ann Wimsatt

    SLAM replied to my post this morning. They are will employ staff to escort small groups of visitors through the Goldsworthy sculpture. Visitors will eventually be able to walk through the sculpture.

  • T-Leb

    I want to apologize to Ann, I never meant to make any negative comments about the writing or your criticisms leveled at the new addition, I guess I felt pressed. In fact, I agree with many of the points made and might agree with them more strongly over time. I see clearer from reading the 1-6 points in the comment above your overall position that I didn’t read clear in the article.

    I obviously do not start off with the same assumptions and expectations as an architect, or someone reviewing architecture, I am neither.
    I give a little charity to Chipperfield since the project scope was a giant underground parking garage with a huge restaurant in front of a park street, creating full accessibility, connecting it to Cass Gilbert’s Palace of Fine Art, and oh yea, also create some modern art gallery space, with a pretty slick bathroom and also a coat check, and our ugly office building is also in the back, also Gold LEED. So let’s call it a Chipper because we didn’t give him an much of an open field to work with. Maybe name the gift shop, The Chipperfield?

    I tend to look at the new addition as a total transformation of The St. Louis Art Museum. I feel the Palace of Fine Art can breath more deeply and modern art has a modern space. I think the experience of the museum overall will be richer in both space for art and architecture. I get a kick out of going through the doors of the Cass Gilbert Palace into Chipper with the Greek/Roman art lining the galleries on both sides. I tend to spend much more time outside of modern art galleries. With that said, I felt this new space was somewhere I would enjoy sitting and experiencing it, maybe more casually, more often, as modern times allow.

  • Ann Wimsatt

    No apology needed. I appreciate the critique–city life is elevated by meaningful discussion.

    I strongly disagree that Chipperfield deserves any charity. Around the globe, there is an acknowledged international standard for high design architecture. Sir David did not meet that standard at SLAM. With fancy offices in London, Milan and Berlin, he hardly needs our pity. He and HOK were probably paid at least 10%—more than $10 million dollars for that design.

    Please know that Sir David absolutely had the talent to produce a beautiful building. He could not have his reputation without that talent. Throughout history, part of the architect’s talent lay in the ability to persuade powerful clients (most architecture clients are powerful) to build beautiful buildings. Think Michelangelo and the popes he served.

    Every high design architect copes with clients who squirm during conceptual conversations. Masters get their acclaim partly through their talent and determination tor lead clients through a difficult artistic process, through thousands and thousands of decisions –artistic decisions, conceptual decisions– as well as parking, cleaning and LEED decisions.

    Where Tadao Ando led Mrs Pulitzer through what must have been a near-perfect design process, Sir David failed SLAM. As a result we do not have a beautiful building to enjoy. All in, there is no excuse for Sir David Chipperfield shorting Saint Louis with a dysfunctional $160 million dollar Mies-oleum.

  • T-Leb

    What better role should SLAM have played/done, other than not hiring Chipper and going for a Pritzker Prize winner?

  • Oatmeal Design Theory

    I am from St. Louis, but i went to school at UMKC from 2000-2004 while they were building the addition to the Nelson Altkins. That was an amazing piece of work to watch and the end result is ridiculous and really pushes the limits beautifully. The same goes for the new Performing Arts Center and the Kansas City Star Buidling. When I saw the proposal in the St. Louis Post for our art museum, my soul cried. Now it is just as boring as I looked like it would be, and I just can’t understand how this turned out so bad? The kelly green paneled concession thing in the basement is so awful, to the point of shame. Maybe we can Steven Hall or Moshe Safdie or Coop Himmelblau to come in and fix it in a few years?

  • Ann Wimsatt

    This advice probably holds true for all of Saint Louis. Insist on the highest international standard. When anyone pays for the highest standard, they should get it.

    And if you feel doubt, speak about it. Publicly.

    Saint Louis had a chance to reject the design when Sir David’s model was put on display. Instead of backing away from an obvious failure of imagination, countless polite Saint Louisans suspended their doubt, even when they suspected that the British architect had no clothes on.

    It’s like this: when an architect builds a model that looks like a black sarcophagus stuck onto the side of a beloved Cass Gilbert museum, he wants to be fired. That’s probably the time to cut bait and hire another architect.

    Of course, unlike the Louvre, SLAM did not offer open, anonymous commentary to the public. I saw hundreds of Parisiens line up to write passionate pros/cons for Pei’s design at the Louvre. Perhaps SLAM would have benefited from a similar review? Hard to say.

  • Ann Wimsatt

    Damn. I wish your soul had been heard because if they heard your longing, Saint Louis might have built a noteworthy piece of architecture.

    So, you outed me. I neglected to mention Steven Holl’s Bloch Addition design at the Nelson because Kansas City’s triumphs never play well in Saint Louis. Even though his construction standards still do not reach Pritzker standards, he’s a brilliant artist.

    I met Holl in the early 80s when he was writing ‘Alphabet City’ and I have so much respect for his work. Starting with a ‘Pei-Pyramid’ solution, Holl designed an extraordinarily modern plaza. The plaza is sculpture in itself as it peels skyward between the old Nelson-Atkins and the new modern wing. George Segal’s ‘Rush Hour’ group moves down the peeling plaza, exactly between the old museum and the new modern wing. Altogether an exquisite art and architecture experience–a wonderful chance to contemplate beauty, life and modernity. Holl is an international master, full stop. Look how he LOVED Kansas City. The Bloch, the Louvre and MIA-Doha–that’s what architect love looks like, folks.

    Sidebar: I’m not sure where I heard this story–or if it’s urban myth– but I once read that the Nelson Board gave sketchbooks to selected architects and asked them to design the addition within a proscribed area. Supposedly, Holl designed an addition within the proscribed area and then drew a big red ‘X’ through his own design. Then he sketched out his far more innovative idea on another sheet. Had he done one without the other, he would have been eliminated but he knew enough about how to persuade powerful people to take a giant artistic ‘leap’–and he swayed them.

  • DSJ

    I was going to reply to the article as a whole because I find a lot of your points to be skin deep and extremely under-supported. The most off-putting and perhaps unprofessional moment comes from this constant Pritzker Prize commentary which you throw around. You use it rather smugly and in an insulting fashion almost like you are trying to claim that Chipperfield has (no pun intended) a chip on his shoulder and an air of arrogance as he runs after the Pritzker Prize. First of all, what exactly makes a “Pritzker-Prize-Wanna-Be”??? What is it about Chipperfield that makes you say, not only that, but in the way that you say it? Second of all, let’s say he, or any other architect does aspire to one day achieve the Pritzker Prize… let’s examine what that means. According to the official Pritzker page the award is “to honor a living architect/s whose built work demonstrates a combination of those qualities of talent, vision, and commitment, which has produced consistent and significant contributions to humanity and the built environment through the art of architecture.” That sounds like a worthy cause to base ones career off of. So if being a Priztker-Prize-Wanna-Be means doing great work, then we should all aspire to that. It is simply rather trite to throw out commentary like that, among other shallow critiques made in your article. You certainly make some valid points but I was shocked and saddened to see how overtly negative you were without offering any positive insight or more in-depth intellectual commentary, but I suppose you just were so disgusted by Chipperfield’s insult to St. Louis that those positives just went over your head and thus we were left with this disreputable review.

  • Ann Wimsatt

    It’s a fair point to chide me about my use of the ‘Pritzker’ label. There is an insider subtext to those comments that probably has more meaning for other architects, critics, art collectors or other insiders.

    That said, with respect, I’m not sure it’s possible to understand the meaning of the Pritzker by reading the web page. I’ve worked for one Pritzker Prize winner and met three other Pritzker Prize winners. One served on one of my student juries. I’ve visited the work of many other winners. There is usually, not always but usually an amazing quality of art and craft in a Pritzker Prize winner’s architecture.

    It is the rarest of architecture prizes. Few international architects even make it to the threshold of consideration. As an acclaimed international architect, Sir David Chipperfield is probably in the Pritzker realm. It is the highest prize for architecture, and I’ve never met a famous architect who didn’t hope for a Pritzker Prize honor.

    Bottom line–talking and writing about the Pritzker winners is a thing for architects. And critics. I wrote about Wang Shu earlier this year. Architects and architecture critics like to talk about the Pritzker with familiarity. We like to read about it.

    Here is a good example of ‘churlish’ Pritzker commentary from my friend Paul Goldberger: http://www.nytimes.com/1988/05/29/arts/architecture-view-what-pritzker-winners-tell-us-about-the-prize.html?src=pm

    After this exchange, you may find it interesting to visit Pritzker works and compare them to works like the new addition at SLAM.

  • PhilS

    I agree the strong lines of the coffered ceiling and the floor vents are a detriment. The ceiling would be great in almost any other building other than one meant for a quiet environment to showcase art on its own merits.

    It would be helpful – well, it would be at least of interest to me – if I had more understanding of the thought process which led them to the final result. I’m pretty sure I heard very early in the planning that the addition was not meant to be a visual rival to Cass Gilbert’s hall. It was meant to be low and register little visually. To achieve even, diffused light in a gallery with mostly skylights in a low ceiling how many options are there other than a coffered ceiling? Agree the heavy lines of the ceiling are too strong.

    So, the decision being made for a monolithic design for the entire ceiling – air ducts then have nowhere to go but the floor. Would it have been better not to align the vents with the pattern of the ceiling? Perpendicular? Cattywampus? It would have been even more disturbing. So it ends up with a gird above and below, trapping.

    Over all I’d have to say it is a too severe a building to be unobtrusive. From Art Hill it is like a shadow which falls the wrong way into the Sun for a time. Hopefully something is done with the west landscape to make the windows work other than another parking lot. The 1976 addition is in a style of which there will be no nostalgia and hopefully no revival. I wish it could be made invisible. By the way, I love the Horner Shiflin Building too, so don’t be hate’n! “Mies-oleum” is an awesome description, but maybe more that it is a building dressed in mourning. After all what’s the average age of the “modern” art in the wing?

    I love Holl’s addition at the Nelson-Atkins, but really its greatest feature is that you can’t see most of it because it is covered by turf. What is visible is elegantly playful – at least the light wells on the lawn. The great new facility for the staff has the charm of a big loading dock door. The big fail for me is that the gallery space is an appendix, a
    cul-de-sac which forces the visitor to retrace and revisit not on the visitors own terms. SLAM was limited by the space available and I do applaud the decision to keep the trees to the south.

    Asphalt loving Frenchman? Remember when the museum replaced all those newly installed tiles/pavers on Fine Arts Drive to the east of the building because the buses kept tearing them up? They replaced them with that weird, spotted asphalt. Perhaps he’s just mirroring the environment.

    The most appropriate way for Goldsworthy to fix the western landscape is an installation of leaves, carefully placed according to a color gradient over – wait for it – an asphalt parking lot. Then the limos of all the VIPs invited to the dedication can drive over them, tearing, shredding and blowing them away, uncovering the parking spaces beneath.

    I will say I really like Goldsworthy’s work (for anyone who hasn’t seen it, the documentary Rivers and Tides is a good overview of his approach.) However on first seeing the Stone Sea I had the totally opposite feeling than the author of this post.

    At the moment – and I might change my feeling and emotional response and then my rational for my thinking at a latter point – but for now I am saddened and disturbed by the Goldsworthy piece.

    Knowing his history of building arches, having seen many, having emotional pangs when thinking of his Striding Arches in Scotland, my reaction of Stone Sea is of horror. Thinking of the wild, Aurochs-like dignity of his Striding ones I feel the sadness, desperation of the confinement of these. It’s a stockyard, a cattlecar. The visual energy is reminiscent of a box of worms.

    If we can think Sir David dissed St. Louis with his work, can I say Goldsworthy is calling St. Louis a cow-town?

    And seriously, the arches again, we have an Arch, do we need to be reminded of it over and over? “So, they want Arches, eh?” He’s given us Arches. Ponderously like all the others he’s done. Here’s an incestuous heap of them. Goldsworthy has plenty of other motifs to draw on, or how about something original?

    Just about everything I’ve ever seen of Goldsworthy’s work is often bemusing, sometimes sad, which still usually catches some primitive response in us as human and naturalistic as it is to sometimes fall in love with moss growing on a wall. Often thoughtful, provocative and subliminal all at once. Stone Sea is a strong piece, but, I feel, half-thought out and repetitive.

    The Mies-oleum has a vaulted crypt ripped open to the sky – at best it too is a parody of what came before.

    Perhaps I can learn to love it as the fossil remains of squirming nematodes or of fleshing-eating limestone worms lurking just below our feet in the crypt of the Mies-oleum waiting for a break in their humping to leap up through the floor vents and bite off our stiletto heels!

    But seen as the penned Arches, I cannot come to love it. What was that Jim Morrison line? “in mute nostril agony”

    I might change my mind, especially if I can get up close on a guided tour. Look, but don’t touch! Lest my life end like a Monty Python skit.

  • GMichaud

    Okay, I have not been in the building yet, although I have been by the outside many times during construction. But a few points of view, the St. Louis leadership is arrogant and self serving, we have seen that in the decline of the City and so many other proofs beyond calculation. (Archibald, the McKee juggernaut on the North side and so on)

    An underlying question is how much of this architecture is the result of the holier than thou perspective of the ruling class?

    Architecture ultimately reflects the culture it is born in, there is no difference here.

    That being said it is also clear from the descriptions that the suburban mentality is also alive and well. Anyone can see that in the governance failure by the City.

    Ultimately the architectural failing is also the failing of leadership of St. Louis. They are so inbreed they cannot even muster the courage or knowledge to call out the mechanical grates running down the middle of art galleries.

    If in fact mechanical grates disturb the use of gallery space then it is a complete abandonment of architectural duties as well as extreme neglect by St. Louis officials.

    But beyond that, the museums’ suburban relationship to it’s surroundings is the exact policy of today’s political establishment. How is anyone surprised? I don’t know about anyone else but I see the same or similar results everywhere I look in the City. It is the suburbanization of the City. McKee is the next chapter on the North Side.

    I too meet Steven Holl when he came through St. Louis in the early eighties. In fact I have a mention in his Pamphlet No 9 called Rural and Urban House Types.
    The Pamphlet architecture series ranged from wildly creative to serious studies of architecture. He also proposed saving the Issac Taylor Building next to the Wainwright Building and constructing the state office in the rear.
    So yes, he would have likely been a far better architect. At least he would have attempted to move architecture and urban planning forward, rather relying than the uninspired leadership of St. Louis.

  • joy grdnic

    What is the problem with Forest Park and the St Louis Art Museum throwing away LARGE sums of money on out-of-town designers with no CLUE to the basic respect we deserve here in ST Louis? It was the same with the awful “Landscaping” around Pagoda Circle –every time I drive by and can’t see the Pagoda, because the idiot from New York they hired, called for ornamental grass to be used as a groundcover -because he wanted it to have the feel of a “prairie” -no doubt assuming we are just sittin around out here, picking our teeth with wheat shafs, while he’s busy flying over us on the way to the bank, I am angered we’ve been made suckers.

  • GMichaud

    An entertaining post, I have to disagree about the arches though. You can never have too many. Old St. Louis is full of them, dating back to ancient times the arch eliminated the need for a huge stone or timber to span an opening.

    Many people don’t realize that the Serra Sculpture in downtown St. Louis is in the shape (artistically) of the foundation of one of the legs of the Arch. It springs from his sculpture and the arch he envisions is imaginary. Serra created a monumental sculpture that speaks to the Gateway Arch. It is why his sculpture is great.

    In the same way Goldsworthy has put arches into a holding pen, a corral, like cattle to be slaughtered. (Please refer to Michael s post on the demolition of the Cupples Bldg.) Something the City of St. Louis has done to many arches as it wantonly demolishes old buildings.

    In addition Goldsworthy is also speaking to the lack of organic integration of the SLAM addition to not only the Cass Gilbert building, but to the city and architectural tradition itself. I think you are seriously underestimating Goldsworthy. He is not merely repeating arch, arch, arch because St. Louis has a Gateway Arch. The arch is the currency of architecture.

    As far the grates go, forget coffered ceilings or anything else, if the design is so poor that it hampers the use of the gallery space due to grates then it is an architectural failure of immense proportions, in addition whoever the overseeing parties are for the Museum, curators, board members and so on, who should have recognized the failure and demanded improvements are also at fault.

    No need to examine the thought process. There clearly is none.

  • Ann Wimsatt

    In fairness, we were only sucker punched by Chipperfield.

    It’s a major collection of wonderful modern art and it’s on view for everyone. That alone is a major enhancement for the city.

  • Ann Wimsatt

    Even leadership gets snookered sometimes.

    I doubt the Board clearly understood the subversive nature of Chipperfield’s design. I cannot imagine they approved a ‘greenback’ cafe as the focal point of the major axis of the original exhibition hall.

    Managing famous architects is tougher than it sounds?

  • Ann Wimsatt

    Saint Louis has always had an ambivalent relationship to intense urbanization. The suburban developments are an expression of that ambivalence but they are also uninformed. Millennials grew up in the suburbs and left them.

    Millennial PhDs prefer distinctly urban environments which is why they flock to Manhattan, Brooklyn, SF, Chicago, London, Sydney, Melbourne, Boston, Washington DC.

  • dempster holland

    As a life long St Louisan, I have always admired the view of the
    Art Museum from the bottom of Art Hill. It is a well-balenced
    well proportioned example of the City beautiful movement and
    one of the finest vistas in St Louis.
    Imagine my suprise when I saw the proposed addition in
    the paper. A squat little piece of dark glass, stretching out from
    one side of the buiilding. No more balence. No proportion. No
    beauty.
    When the building was finally finished, I drove by, on the
    upper road and on the road at the base of Art Hill. Fortunately
    some trees blocked part of the abomination, but enough could
    still be seen to be disappointing. Why do modern architects
    feel they have to be so different? For that matter, why do
    painters feel that abstract art trumps the Old Masters?
    After seeing the building, I waited for whoever the local art
    power structure is to object. None did. These are the same people (whoever they are) that let the Serra so-called
    sculpture in, who marveled at the pulitizer and contemporary
    art museums, even though they look like they belong in a
    north county warehouse district. The herd mentality.
    St Louis has some striking architecture–the main libarary,
    many of the early 20th cent schools, brookings hall, etc. All
    have the classicial balence and proportions that up until the
    last 70 years or so have been the hallmarks of good taste
    I have not yet seen the iside of the new museum. I hope
    it presents better than the outside.

  • Ann Wimsatt

    We disagree about the merits of modern design and modern architecture. It’s 2013. Millions of us are living in our Iphones. Life has never been so modern and I firmly believe there is great importance in documenting and exploring the meaning of cultural changes through modern art and modern architecture. What’s more, more than 50% of new buildings in Saint Louis are themed falsely ‘historic’ architecture. Visit the WUSTL hilltop campus and every chain restaurant for examples of what I call the ‘Disneyfication’ of America.

    The donors put up $160 million. Modern architecture was their prerogative. Any number of modern architects could have produced a great modern companion to SLAM but the Board chose the wrong famous modern architect. He snookered them.

    It worked out well for Chipperfield though. After practicing his Miesien design on unsuspecting Saint Louis, he was selected to renovate Mies’ Neue National Gallery in Berlin.

    Berlin is a big deal for London architects.

    Saint Louis, not so much. http://www.archdaily.com/222042/chipperfield-selected-to-renovate-the-neue-national-gallery-in-berlin/

  • Ann Wimsatt

    Well, well. The WSJ critic ‘borrowed’ most of my unique analysis without acknowledging his source.
    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323610704578629860312530782.html

  • dempster holland

    I agree that the donors had the right to choose their architect.
    But I would say that whover financed the original art museum
    had much better taste than the donors of the addition. I would
    further add that I assume the names of the donors are available
    somewhere, since in my judgement they have done serious harm
    to a venerable and beautiful St Louis vista. Perhaps a plaque
    listing their names would be in order

  • dempster holland

    Note the comment posted to the wsj article:
    “St Louis did it better in 1904″
    Could not be better said. New and “modern” is not necessarily
    better.

  • Ann Wimsatt

    Again, we disagree. Far from doing harm, the donors provided all of Saint Louis with a dozen new modern art galleries, each full of extraordinary contemporary art. They brought Saint Louis up to an international standard for modern art exhibition. I will not have to go to Chicago, London and New York–as much.

    Working with a famous architect is a tricky endeavor. There are thousands of key decisions. Few clients read plans well enough to fully understand the reality of a constructed design. Sometimes models help. Sometimes not.

    I assume the donors did their best to build a great new wing. In my opinion, Chipperfield thwarted their ambition–intentionally. He could have given us a wonderful piece of architecture. He honed his Mies skills instead.

    The donors are listed on the entry wall and in the basement corridor next to ‘The Stone Sea’. Quite a number gave more than $10 million dollars; an astonishing act of generosity.