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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.