Page C1.2 . 18 June 2008                     
ArchitectureWeek - Culture Department
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Bowdoin College Museum of Art


Furthermore, the original building looked tiny because it was tiny. The museum was unable to accommodate important traveling exhibitions or to fulfill its function as a teaching museum.

Finally, while the Walker building glorifies a pantheon of European master artists of the past — their names are etched across the facade — a prestigious college museum today must accommodate a range of fare well beyond the classics and genteel exhibitions of Impressionism. It must be prepared to host a trendy multimedia exhibition or a five-ton slab of Richard Serra rolled steel.

Out of this tension can come lively and engaging architecture, as exemplified by Machado and Silvetti Associates' $20.8 million museum expansion, which opened in October 2007.

It is an eloquent refutation of one of the most dispiriting tendencies of the past few decades — what I call the "default to white." Faced with the daunting task of expanding a landmark building, many architects, fearful of offending some delicate sensibility, have sought refuge in a sort of Calvin Klein beige-and-white minimalism.

Not so here. Boston-based Argentine architect Jorge Silvetti has crafted a colorful, thoughtful ensemble that, even as it leaves the beloved main facade untouched, engages the visitor and expresses some resolutely Beaux-Arts ideals in a jaunty 2007 voice.

The glass entrance pavilion is the big move. This diaphanous structure is set completely remote from the main building, and takes no discernable geometric cues from anything around it.

And yet when you approach it closely, this cube — so jarring at first — makes perfect sense.

Like Janus, the Roman god of gates and beginnings, it is two-faced. Doors on either side marry the college's sequestered green quadrangle to the adjacent residential neighborhood. The pavilion expresses the idea of symmetry by transparently beckoning both town and gown into the museum, not favoring one over the other.

It is essentially a bronze and blackened-steel structure whose ceiling is an inverted pyramid and whose facade is a delicate veil of mullion-free glass. Inside, it holds an elevator and twin stairway leading down to the main lobby. It is full of unexpected detailing, like keystone-shaped steel panels joined in a playful pattern to match the floor paving.

Silvetti and his colleagues specified a special low-iron glass to reduce the normal green hue and provide almost complete transparency — a technology vastly improved over the past two decades, and originally spurred by I.M. Pei's design for the Louvre pyramid in Paris.

In fact, it is not too much of a stretch to say that the renovated Bowdoin College Museum of Art is conceptually similar to the Louvre pyramid: a bold intervention that solves multiple problems while expressing the spirit of a particular time and place.

The expansion increased the museum's square footage by 63 percent, from 20,000 to 32,600 (1,900 to 3,000 square meters). Most of this was accomplished by carving out large underground voids and replacing a low-ceilinged ground floor with full-height galleries lit from above and state-of-the-art storage and conservation space.

The single above-ground addition runs along the back facade facing the town, and here again the architects offer a gesture of openness with a large glass picture window. As visitors make their way up from the ground-floor lobby through this new gallery, skylights frame a granite frieze carved with the names of the building's original benefactors, the Walker sisters of Waltham, Massachusetts.

As at the Getty Villa in Malibu, California, Silvetti shows his penchant for bold interior colors. Rich reds, yellows, blues, and greens complement the building's extensive site-specific art installations, including carved replicas of classical Greek figures and riotously polychromatic murals in the central rotunda.

In the newly renovated original galleries, exquisite details abound, like carefully installed wood floorboards in a basket-weave pattern to mimic the oval shape of the surrounding space.

However successful this design, there is something to mourn: the grand main entrance now serves basically as a fire escape, its original purpose made obsolete by both practical and programmatic concerns.

On balance, Machado and Silvetti have given new life to a great small museum, one alive with a feeling of learning and civic engagement.   >>>

Discuss this article in the Architecture Forum...

James McCown is a freelance writer based in Boston, Massachusetts.



ArchWeek Image

Converging staircases bring visitors to a basement-level lobby in the Bowdoin College Museum of Art.
Photo: © Facundo de Zuviria Extra Large Image

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A series of more traditionally detailed galleries greets users just beyond the transparent entry and foyer.
Photo: © Facundo de Zuviria Extra Large Image

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Bowdoin College Museum of Art lower-level plan drawing.
Image: © Machado and Silvetti Associates Extra Large Image

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Bowdoin College Museum of Art section drawing looking west.
Image: © Machado and Silvetti Associates Extra Large Image

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The solidity of the Walker Art Building's rotunda contrasts with the transparency of the pavilion that replaces it as the main museum entrance.
Photo: © Facundo de Zuviria Extra Large Image

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Ground-floor galleries at the museum were also updated, though they retain their Beaux-Arts feel.
Photo: © Facundo de Zuviria Extra Large Image

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Connecting the upper and lower gallery spaces at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art is a new cantilevered glass gallery and stair that look out toward Brunswick.
Photo: © Facundo de Zuviria Extra Large Image

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Although clearly set apart, the slightly cantilevered glass gallery enclosure respects the scale and proportions of the original Walker Art Building.
Photo: © Facundo de Zuviria Extra Large Image


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