Crystal Bridges Museum - Safdie in Arkansas
Another inspiration for Safdie was the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark's most visited museum. The Danish museum, a seminal work of modernist grace located north of Copenhagen, strings its galleries along a winding path. It incorporates its natural waterfront setting by punctuating the journey with views of the landscape and the adjacent sound.
Safdie adapted these influences to the particular character of the Bentonville site and created a dynamic progression through the spaces.
After arriving at the top of the ridge, the visitor travels by elevator down into the entry court. The cafe space opens up at the entry with its high vaulted roof supported by curving laminated beams. In each bay there's a continuous strip of skylight filling the space with daylight.
The gallery spaces continue the vocabulary of curving roof forms and strip skylights, but are more restrained in detailing to accommodate the art. Framed views between the pavilions give a pause and a place for rest and reflection, reconnecting the visitor with his or her position in the building and the landscape.
In the lower gallery, which spans the water, the building opens to the landscape — canted glass walls give a panorama of the wooded valley on one side and central pond on the other. Contemporary art is housed in elongated rooms running down the middle of the space.
The curators are finding some surprising opportunities in the building's eccentricities. The curving walls in the late-19th-century gallery, for example, gave the team pause. "I was concerned that the building might conflict with the art at first — there's not a straight line in the space," recalls curator Kevin Murphy.
But when Murphy and his colleagues began placing a series of landscapes on the long wall, they discovered that the curve gave a dynamic quality to the linear presentation. "It really helped tell the story [of the landscapes during that period]," he says. "I could have never hung that series on a flat wall."
Despite the rich experience of the path through the gallery spaces, the circulation is at times somewhat circuitous and ambiguous. The overall progression and chronology works beautifully, starting with more-enclosed spaces for the early-colonial and 19th-century work, then an explosion of contemporary art at the transparent bridge, and ending with the most-voluminous spaces for large-scale recent works.
The idea from there is that one moves up to the vaulted cafe space — the twin bridge of the lower gallery. But little is made of the potential in the transition.
Once through the cafe and across the pond, the visitor is back to the entry lobby. At that point, the circulation is again ambiguous — but those who do find their way to the south wing are rewarded with a gallery that contains works of contemporary realism, perhaps the most evocative and entertaining of the exhibits.
In this wing the building arcs along the east side of the pond and ends at the auditorium, which, instead of forming another bridge, turns perpendicular and faces the cafe bridge broadside. This peninsula, with water on three sides, makes a lovely culmination and place of reflection.
Details and Context
Generally, the architectural details work nicely to reinforce the conceptual design. The high vaulted roofs of the bridges are supported by huge tension cables that are slung across large concrete abutments at either end of the bridge.
The continuous glass walls on these elegant tortoise-shaped bridges not only cant outward at the top, but also curve in both floor plane and wall plane.
The strips of skylights that striate much of the roof and modulate daylight are a bit relentless, especially since the concrete walls are also inlaid with horizontal stripes of wood.
The site serves as much more than a pretty backdrop to the museum. Much of it has been left in its natural state. Paths and bike trails wind through the woods and connect to sculptures and a new installation by artist James Turrell. The landscape architects were careful to use mostly native plants and to maintain the restrained beauty of the Ozarks.
It's a bit of a shame that this project, which uses nature so intimately, doesn't demonstrate more of an effort to sustain the environment through a building that is itself more overtly "green." The design team did use locally sourced pine for the glulam ceiling beams and included a vegetated roof over the gift shop. But the opportunity to embody a sense of environmental stewardship is missing.
The damming of the stream, a tributary of McKissic Creek, also raises questions about potential environmental impacts. According to Brent Massey, a principal at CEI Engineering Associates, Inc., the civil engineering firm on the project, environmental impact studies were conducted prior to construction of the project, and permits for construction were issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies.
"Due to the low flows of this tributary and the species present, it was determined that there was not a need for fish passage for this project," Massey says, adding that the project included "mitigation of riparian plant materials and streambank protection mitigation, as well as flood mitigation measures that were incorporated into the design of the dams using labyrinth weir structures."
A Gracious Effect
There is a generosity in this museum that goes beyond the public art library, the ample educational spaces, and the free admission. Like the Louisiana Museum in Denmark, Crystal Bridges is set up to be a hub of culture, with an emphasis on children's programs and art education.
And the building and the site design embody an openness and a sense that art can reflect who we are, our heritage — from the profound and sacred to the irreverent and raucous, both our struggles and our triumphs. Walton and the design team have given us a sweeping representation of the cacophony of the American experience in a way that's legible and coherent to a broad audience.
This is not an iconic work in the vein of Louis Kahn's Kimball or Wright's Guggenheim — it's a building that evokes more delight than awe. Some buildings are meant to be experienced — and Safdie's work creates a rich and varied journey. But the real gift this design presents is its careful balance of the experience of art, landscape, and structure. The building, for all its dynamic qualities, never overpowers the site or the artwork it houses.
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Michael Cockram is a freelance writer, educator, and design consultant living in Fayetteville, Arkansas. More by Michael Cockram