Disegno No.4

Parrish Art Museum

Water Mill

26 June 2013

Hurricane Sandy swept the entire eastern coast of the United States – from Florida to Maine – four days before the planned opening of the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, Long Island, New York.

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The museum measures 187m long and the architect likens it to an extruded barn (IMAGE Janette Beckman)

But the extraordinarily long and slender building which now sits at a northwards orientation in the landscape is not the project that Herzog & de Meuron first proposed. Instead, the architects suggested a cluster of smaller volumes. “There are four artists in the museum’s collection – Chase, Porter, de Kooning and Lichtenstein – who they call ‘anchors’,” says Mergenthaler. “That triggered something for us, as we have experimented a little with anchors in architecture: do art spaces have to be white cubes or can art spaces be a little bit different? So, as a starting point we decided to go out and visit the artists’ studios on Long Island.”

Following the studio visits, the architect concluded that each gallery should be treated as its own building, modeled on the actual studios of the four anchor artists. “This would really relate to the context out there – it’s about individual houses, it’s about small scale,” says Mergenthaler. “We found that the four anchors that they have chosen are also very interesting for looking at prototypes of artists’ studios. Chase was the last one using the studio as a studio, like a type of storage facility; Porter really used the north light to paint in the studio; de Kooning collaborated with an architect on his studio; and the last prototype, Lichtentstein, adopted an existing space, in this case a garage,” says Mergenthaler. Herzog & de Meuron took these four anchor spaces and recreated them in abstract form, down to their orientation in the landscape and the way they received the light, clustering smaller buildings around them to hold the auxiliary spaces.

It was a sensitive and attractive proposal, intended to be clad in sand-casted concrete. The construction documents were drawn up and the museum director went in search of additional funding. Then, the 2008 financial crisis happened; Bear Sterns folded, the Bernard Madoff investment scandal broke and Lehman Brothers collapsed, shaking the very foundations of wealth in the US. The sobering effects of these events meant that what was once a fertile ground for fundraising became less so, and the Parrish Art Museum realised that it would never be able to acquire the funds to build the original design.

“For some strange reason, I was only disappointed for a very short time when we got the news,” says Mergenthaler of the announcement that the first scheme was to be shelved. “You get prepared for this, you wait for years and you think that it might not fly so it doesn’t come as a total surprise. But rather than throwing away the pencil you try to find solutions, that’s what drives us as architects. We like to work on solutions.”

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The cast-concrete bench runs the length of the building(IMAGE Janette Beckman)

The site of the new museum had already been purchased in 2005 and similarly some money had been raised to fund the project. The epiphany for a less costly proposal came to Mergenthaler at a New York steakhouse, sketching on the proverbial napkin: “I don’t know why but, for some reason, I thought, ‘Why don’t we take this typical gallery and extrude it? Make it very linear and repetitive and get the contractors onboard early’, a bit like with product design [where you work with a manufacturer from the start].” The result of that thought is what visitors now encounter in Water Mill.

Approaching the Parrish Art Museum from Montauk Highway, it’s easy to mistake it for an industrial barn or warehouse. But after more careful consideration you realise that nothing of an industrial nature would be built as long and narrow, nor designed with two overlapping pitched roofs that, before entering the building, seem simply decorative. This double-take is an interesting proposition, because the building is a double-take on so many levels.

Most obviously, it’s a second take on the museum’s design and the use of the site. But many of the elements that make up the building also serve as second takes on a material or process. The cast-concrete exterior walls, for example, are made of cost-effective foundation concrete, that Herzog & de Meuron first encountered in a utility room at a local golf club that was built by the museum contractor. Usually hidden away because of its unsightly marks and rough texture, this concrete serves as the largest visible surface of the building next to the corrugated steel roof. The cedar wood end-walls of the building recall the vernacular building type of the area. Normally, this wood is silvered by age and weather, but the Parrish has blackened its timber through tannen-dying, creating a stark contrast to the light-grey cement.

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The central spine runs the length of the building with galleries flanking it (IMAGE Janette Beckman)

Then, there are the artist studio visits from early in the process. Despite being associated with the first proposal, the concept of archetypes has been carried through into the second version too, albeit in a more subtle fashion. Even the position of the building is a take on the lines created by the site’s original use as a tree nursery. Finally the double-pitched roof is a feature that at first seems preposterous or even comical because of its extreme dimensions in relation to the long and slender building that carries it. As a take on the barn and with its use of standard economical spans it seems it could have been designed around a single pitch spanning the width of the building, but then, as is revealed upon entering, it wouldn’t have created the intriguing spaces that happen underneath it.

Driving around the museum the visitor is treated to an interesting visual play – the 187m-long building narrows to a 29m-wide body and then slowly unfolds again, by the time the carpark is reached. A similar play on scale is presented on the pathway to the museum entrance. While the museum seems squat and low from a distance, it suddenly towers above you. The generous roof overhangs the exterior wall, creating a porch-like space heightened by the cast-concrete bench that runs along the two longest sides of the building. Then, the scale is reduced again and the entrance is almost domestic in size, sitting right next to a glass wall that lets you spy the first glimpse of museum interior.

“If we instead had set the entrance in this standard, inexpensive store-front system, it would have felt like a store-front in New York,” says Philip Schmerbeck, a project architect from Herzog & de Meuron’s New York office, who is here to check on the building post-Sandy. Now, the blackened cedar-wood door creates a moment of intimacy as you enter the museum.

A central spine runs the length of the building, where the two pitched roofs converge. But rather than functioning as a corridor, it’s width and curiously inverted ceiling seems to play on the symbolism of a third extruded barn, squeezed between its larger neighbours. Coming off this central space are a series of 10 skylit galleries with pitched, plywood ceilings measuring nine metres at the highest point, playing on the vernacular of the artist studio. The cast- concrete floor and white walls are given warmth by the yellowing plywood and strip lighting gives the rooms a stark and utilitarian quality, like a barn for art.

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Konstantin Grcic designed the interiors of the museum. Here is the Parrish chair produced by Emeco (IMAGE Janette Beckman)

“In the second proposal everything was economised, making it simple and very straightforward,” says German product designer Konstantin Grcic, who has been involved with the project since its first incarnation when he was asked to design the museum’s interior. Grcic’s original proposal went through a similar transformation to the building itself, starting out as an idea to collate a range of furniture pieces that would be chrome lacquered to render them as one body. The benches executed in reclaimed heart pine that now grace the galleries couldn’t be further from these glossy beginnings.

“It’s something very immediate about the seating, just like setting crates on the floor,” says Schmerbeck. Starting at the entrance with a series of larger crate-like pine structures (reminiscent of Donald Judd’s furniture), making up the reception and the shelves of the small boutique, it continues through a wall-mounted bench in the entrance lobby and the monolithic seating of the same wood scattered throughout the galleries. The age of the reclaimed wood adds comfort to the otherwise sparse arrangement. “It would have been amazing to see the first proposal in reality, but it showed that there were no constraints then and it wasn’t so much about functionality, rationality or economy, which was one of the strong ideas and obvious necessity of the second proposal,” says Grcic, speaking both of the museum’s architecture and its interior design.

Set as a contrast to the solid wooden shapes are the playful lighting structures that Grcic designed for the reception and the staff offices, set at one end of the building – the auditorium bookends the other. They are Calder-esque with their multiple branches suspended at various angles and ending in conical shades that can be directed in a multitude of directions. The Parrish chair that Grcic designed specifically for the museum café has a similar lightness and playfulness.

A tubular metal arm and backrest arches above a wooden seat without any additional support and connects to the tubular metal legs underneath the seat. Produced by the American manufacturer Emeco it sits in flower-like constellations around the circular café tables and on warmer days the doors open onto a vast outdoor function space, shielded by the pitched roof. These opportunities to access the surrounding nature on ground level and the interaction with the sky in the galleries, are crucial to the experience of the museum and its Long Island setting. It’s a reminder of why the museum is here in the first place.

As a result, on 2 November 2012, instead of a gathering of patrons, local artists and the museum’s architects and designers, there was the whirr of an emergency generator, a handful of security guards and a museum director with a worried and tired look in her eyes, wondering when the electricity would start working again.

At least the building remained intact, having withstood the hurricane force winds and the debris it swept along with it. Sandy was the museum’s second hurricane in as many years and the building is subject to a stringent hurricane code. “Scientists have been awaiting the hurricane cycle for a while and now it’s starting, so this was a reminder of why the code is in place,” says Terrie Sultan, the Parrish Art Museum director.

It’s an overcast autumn day, but despite the cloud coverage the light is painfully bright as I step from the car outside the Museum. The light is one of the reasons why this place, the East End of Long Island, has become such a popular destination for artists since the Long Island Railroad extended its services to Southampton in 1870. The East End is only two hours from Manhattan, and the stream of artists heading there has never stopped, starting with the founder of American Impressionism William Merritt Chase, who established a school for plein-air painting here in 1891, and continuing with Fairfield Porter, Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Willem de Kooning and Roy Lichtenstein.

Even the contemporary art scene pays attention to the East End, with people like Ross Bleckner, Eric Fichl, Chuck Close and Elizabeth Peyton establishing studios in the area. It is this long list of artists and their relationship to the location that has made the new incarnation of the Parrish in Southampton, 10 minutes by car from Water Mill. Parrish’s museum housed a collection of Italian Renaissance paintings, as was a la mode for the wealthy at the time. Although he donated some of the land for the establishment of Chase’s Shinnecock Hills Summer School of Art, he never collected art by his contemporaries.

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The car park is designed to reflect the land's former use as a tree nursery and uses telegraph poles to hold the street lights (IMAGE Janette Beckman)

It wasn’t until the 1950s, with the donation of a collection of American paintings by the then president of the museum’s board Rebecca Bolling Littlejohn, that the museum adopted the focus it has today: modern and contemporary American art from the local area. “We are a regional museum and we are very proud of the region, because who hasn’t worked here?” asks Sultan rhetorically as she walks through the echoing, new museum.
The galleries are not yet completely installed and there is a beauty to the half-unpacked crates – some paintings still under wraps, others leaning against the wall – and the primary-coloured tools that come with hanging an exhibition, all mixed into one installation. “All these artists are incredibly well known and all have a relationship to Long Island and that is the beauty of this area,” says Sultan, gesturing to the art works surrounding us.

If it was the proximity to Manhattan that brought the artists here, it was the very same two-hour drive that brought investment bankers, brokers and Yuppies to settle in second homes in the area known as the Hamptons in the late 20th century. And both the artists and this wealthy following are crucial to the foundations of the new Parrish Art Museum, as a quick look at the party pictures on the museum’s Flickr page reveals. The original museum building in Southampton was designed by the local architect Grosvenor Atterbury in 1897, but a century later it was obvious that it lacked the space and infrastructure needed to show its, by then, rich modern American collection to the public. And so the process to create a new museum on a new site began.

Instead of announcing a competition the museum put together an advisory committee that drew up a short list of what architect Ascan Mergenthaler of Herzog & de Meuron describes as “the usual suspects” for this type of project – a cultural institution that will become sufficiently high profile through association with a well known architect to aid healthy fundraising, while also becoming a tourist pull for the area. None of the firms considered were asked to submit plans.

“Instead the selection was decided on how the team and the architects meshed in philosophy and core values,” says Sultan. “It is perhaps a slightly unconventional way to proceed.” At the end of the selection process Herzog & de Meuron was announced as the museum’s architect in 2006 and Mergenthaler became the partner in charge. “We had to come for several interviews and they came to us in Basel to understand how we work. In the end, they didn’t choose a design of a building, but an architect.”

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The galleries are lit by skylights and strip lighting (IMAGE Janette Beckman)

There is no doubt that the Parrish Art Museum is a product of its time. Literally shaped by the recession, it’s a reminder that the restraint it had to exercise in terms of material choices and construction became a fertile ground for exploring the inherent values of a building type and the services and experiences it provides. Mergenthaler agrees: “Maybe buildings get better with more constraints.”

A week after my visit, the museum opened to the public with both Grcic and Mergenthaler in attendance. Terrie Sultan looked more relaxed and the entrance hall, with the standard store- front system glass walls, was turned into a temporary serving area with folding tables covered in white catering cloths and flower arrangements, partially hiding the design of the space. It was an immediate reminder of the fact that this museum is not only built for displaying art, or telling the story of the area’s art scene, or for containing the ego of an architect. This is going to be a social hub for the local community and the Parrish Art Museum knows very well who it is catering for. When Grcic’s assistant, designer Olivia Herms originally asked how many people they should design the café for, the answer was immediate: “Forty-nine. Fifty people minus the bus driver.”