Tadao Ando's new galleries for the Clark Art Institute are a masterclass in the art of negotiation, resolving the site's clash of architectural styles while quietly folding into the New England landscape
They're almost comically mismatched – the gleaming white crematorium of the 1955 Clark Art Institute designed by the deservedly little-known Daniel Perry (who only died in 2002) and the curious minced-meat-coloured sandstone of Pietro Belluschi's 1973 extension.
They are only 18 years apart but they belong to different eras. The original Clark building is a work of the America of the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, the kind of lumpy, serious and very white classicism intended to show that this is something important and dignified. The architecture of dead people. Which is curious because, even though he is now entombed outside it, Robert Sterling Clark was still very much alive when it was built.
Clark (1877-1956), whose collection is housed in these buildings set deep in the rolling Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts, was an extraordinary character and a classical mausoleum seems an inadequate monument. He inherited massive wealth from the Singer sewing machine empire (his grandfather was Isaac Singer's lawyer and business partner) and studied at Yale.
Yet, despite his wealth and having absolutely no need to work, he enrolled in the army and went on to be engaged in action in China (the Boxer Rebellion) and the Philippines and later in the First World War. He owned the Dakota Building in New York (the set for Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby and the backdrop to John Lennon's last years) which his father had built. And, in Paris, he fell in love with an actress (who he met, naturally, at a poetry reading) and went on to become one of the greatest, if least known, of the robber-baron era art collectors – though in his lifetime he was better known as a racing horse breeder than a connoisseur.
His collection, with its impressionists and orientalists, its Winslow Homers and JMW Turners, looks like it belongs in a grand urban mansion, like the Frick or the Wallace, or perhaps just in a massive museum like the Met, but instead, here it is, out in the sticks in a pair of bickering, underpowered buildings.
Things, however, have just got a lot better. And the surprise is that it is Tadao Ando, hardly the kind of neutral mediator you might expect for a job like this, who has achieved the reconciliation.
This is the kind of job that Renzo Piano usually gets, a job for his neutral museum-moderne – diplomatic and uninteresting but endlessly seductive to museum boards and trustees. Stitching together disparate elements through one simplistic gesture. He's done it nearby in Boston at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and is doing it again at the Harvard Art Museums. So Ando, creator of self-sufficient watery worlds of the sub-Zen contemplation of concrete, seems an odd candidate. He has, nevertheless, proved to be a surprisingly good choice.
Ando had already completed a new hilltop gallery and conservation centre for the museum in 2008. Invisible from the main gallery, this is a fine building incorporating exhibition spaces and workshops, as well as expansive terraces to sit and enjoy the landscape. It is also modest and rather lacking in Ando's signature tics. Which isn't a bad thing at all – it manages to sit comfortably in the landscape and fade more or less into the background as a place very much about art and landscape rather than architecture. For the new building, however, he has managed to stitch the disparate parts together and, more skilfully, he has created new gallery and ancillary space below ground so that the museum doesn't impinge further on the landscape.
There are hints here of Ando's other US museums, notably the not-that-well-known Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St Louis (2001) and his excellently watery Museum of Art in Forth Worth. But he has achieved everything at the Clark with more minimal means: low-slung glazed buildings, stone walls set into the landscape (slightly Maya Lin-style) and his characteristic shallow reflecting pools. What is visible of the new single-storey structures above ground is predictably Miesian – an elegant if unsurprising hybrid of David Chipperfield's St Louis Art Museum and an extruded, etiolated Barcelona pavilion.
The Miesness makes a clear attempt to marry the cornice line of Perry's sombre mausoleum with Belluschi's bridge linking the two structures and does it as well as could be expected.
Most of the structures that Ando has built seem to be just walkways, connective tissue between the bits. But they do embed the building in the landscape and in the nature that famously inspired Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. There are terraces and courtyards, glazed corridors and paths, and the pools that shimmer in the summer sun become skating lakes in the freezing winters.
Where Ando's skill manifests itself is in making new gallery and public space below ground – which constitutes some 65 per cent of the structure. Extraordinarily, there is nothing that feels subterranean about these spaces at all. An open, finely detailed and delicate stair leads down to a restaurant to one side and a new gallery to the other, but cuts into the landscape and seems to drag the sky a storey below ground.
It is subtly and quietly impressive. This new gallery allows the Clark to show bigger, contemporary works (it is opening with a big, impressive show of American abstract expressionism from the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC) which counterbalance the domestic scale of the exhibits above.
Perry's original white temple was also remodelled as part of the works. This has been done by Annabelle Selldorf, an architect who has quietly begun to dominate the art world without making much of a fuss. Practical and skilful, Selldorf has done what she can.
It is no criticism of her work to say that she started with a dodo and has ended up with a slightly improved dodo, which nevertheless remains determinedly a dodo. What was presumably Perry's original aim – to create a domestic-scaled gallery referring to Clark's Paris apartment stuffed with art – was a failure and instead the effect is of a provincial, second-tier municipal art gallery.
Images: James Ewing/Otto
Glazed screens allow natural light deep into the new building
|There are some moments of relief, including a fine top-lit room and a couple of corner galleries which constitute slightly eccentric dead-ends but which do allow you to concentrate on their few, carefully placed artworks. There are other improvements: knocking some rooms through to create an enfilade sequence, and reorientating the museum so that what was once the underscaled foyer becomes a gallery at the centre of a transversal run of spaces. The custom vitrines are elegant and unobtrusive, the colour palette is a little sickly, but that suits the odd pallor of the impressionist faces just fine.
It's worth noting that probably the museum's best existing space, Belluschi's restrained art history library, has been left untouched. With its simple, dark timber carrels, freestanding like boxes within the bigger box, its full-height windows to the landscape and long drapes, this is one of those late modernist interiors which are all too easily lost yet which constitute a finely wrought, considered and thoughtful sub-genre.
The Clark now constitutes a series of architectural period pieces. It has become a strange barometer of architectural fashion, with each element slightly behind its time – dated in a wealthy but provincial way.
I don't mean that to sound as patronising as it probably does but the result is a classical building long after classicism had ceased to be a living art, a brutalist Belluschi building which has been softened by being clad in stone rather than left as concrete and by being modest in scale and subtle in detail, and finally, a building by an architect whose time in the fashion spotlight has come and gone.
But perhaps it's better that they waited. Ando appears to have mellowed into a kind of maturity that has allowed him to subsume some of that famous architectural ego and to consider more carefully the context. The motifs are still there, the Zen-like respect for sky and landscape, the water, the distinctive impeccable concrete with its attendant shadows.
But there is a sense of accommodation here, of incorporating the architecture in a bigger picture. The Clark is an institution, but it is also an institution. For a place this far from anything, its influence is impressive. Clark had intended to set up his museum in New York but the devastation of the Second World War had shaken him. His Normandy house had been destroyed during Allied bombardment in 1944 and he had fled the Paris apartment for the safety of New York.
By the 1950s he had become fearful that another war was inevitable (nuclear this time) and convinced that Manhattan would be its epicentre. So rather than open up a grand house on the Museum Mile, he allowed himself to be convinced by the elite Williams College (where his grandfather had already endowed some institutions) that tiny Williamstown would be the ideal location. With a healthy endowment, the Clark became a centre for research and education with alumni setting up in influential positions across the world.
The real and surprising influence of this corner of New England in the art world has been reinforced by the establishment of the wonderful Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MassMoca) a couple of miles down the road in the depressing post-industrial Americana of North Adams. Sited in a rundown former electrical works, MassMoca's buildings are everything the Clark's are not.
Kunsthalle as opposed to collection, coarsely industrial as opposed to finely finished, set firmly in the post-industrial city as opposed to the picturesque, MassMoca is an ultra-urban complex in a city that has otherwise lost its urbanity. The Clark is a rural complex in a suburban setting – the only way to get here is by car and thence by the little golf carts that ferry the rather elderly crowds between the buildings.
Both represent, in their own ways, notions of the picturesque – the manicured faux-natural landscape at the Clark and the layered, rusted, preciously preserved industrial archaeology of MassMoca. But they work as a pair. They tell us what we need to know about art today as experience, the minimal and the industrial, landscape and the city, the icon and the anti-icon, the pretence at the personal and the domestic and the reaction to it in the grand redundancy of the industrial.
And ultimately, both buildings are very fine places to be. In paying attention at least as much to the landscape, the terraces, the walkways and the pools as he has to the (sometimes rather lacklustre) galleries, Ando has found what is unique to the site – this curious escape into an Emersonian landscape, safety from the fear of war, a kind of vision of the American pastoral – and he has exploited it. This museum could not have been founded anywhere else, and it could not be anywhere else. Ando's oddly deracinated architecture somehow suits it perfectly and has made, paradoxically, an architecture absolutely of its place.