words Bill Millard
A winged museum extension is Austrian architecture practice Coop Himmelb(l)au’s long-awaited American debut. The John S and James L Knight Building, an addition to the Akron Art Museum in Ohio, is a three-part, 5,880sq m structure that quadruples the museum’s capacity.
The building adds three separate structural elements to the existing museum, a converted 1899 redbrick post office. The gallery section is a windowless aluminium-clad loft that Coop Himmelb(l)au principal Wolf Prix calls “a floating box”. Between the old museum and the new gallery is the “Crystal”, a three-storey entrance piazza providing event space, a cafe and a bookstore, with access to the old gallery spaces and library in the original building. The Roof Cloud, four mesh-clad wings cantilevered above the other sections that glow purple by night, is conceived as a “blurred envelope” unifying the composition, with one wing looming over the old museum.
Prix describes the roof, a nod to Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer, as no longer merely shelter but “a symbol for the non-gravity of this building, because art is against gravity of thinking”. The glass-and-steel planes of the Crystal likewise defy orthogonality (“We hate columns,” Prix says) and contrast dramatically with the gallery, welcoming in the sunlight from which the museum’s photography-heavy collection needs to hide.
Akron is dubbed the “Rubber City” because it used to produce most of America’s tyres. The extended Akron Art Museum aspires to restore civic space to the car-damaged but culturally amibitious city – enthusiasm for the project was such that fundraising exceeded the $35 million cost of the extension.
“A gathering point is very important for this city,” says Prix. “What I could see when I came here the first time was that every second building was a parking garage. An art museum is not only storage for paintings and sculptures, but a building for communication… between art and people, and between people and people.”