C.R. architecture draws high praise
CEDAR RAPIDS, IA. - J. Carter Brown does not appear to be a man who impresses easily.
The director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, Brown cruises in the world of the very wealthy and the very powerful.
A scion of one of America's oldest moneyed families, he achieved distinction after the most elite of educations, has been knighted by the governments of France, Norway and Spain, and hobnobs with the likes of oil magnate Armand Hammer and philanthropist Paul Mellon.
Yet here he was, in a rare appearance for a museum other than his own, praising the new $10-million Cedar Rapids Museum of Art in his carefully cultivated voice.
"It does seem to do the two important jobs that are so often mutually contradictory in museums and brings them both off well," Brown said of the work of architect Charles W. Moore in an interview after the opening of the museum Dec. 9.
"It creates an exciting public architectural space for the sense of entrance and for the sense of this being an experience that is not an everyday experience. It gets people 'on the step,' which is a phrase from aviation," Brown said. "Then there's a tremendous change in mood.
"And the other job, which is to make the art look good, he again does superbly, with those wonderfully muted colors after all the bright color of the linking space and with very sensitive proportions."
Moore, an internationally acclaimed architect, and Centerbrook Architects and Planners of Essex, Conn., designed a Winter Garden atrium to link the new gallery space on the west side with a 1905 Carnegie Library building.
Brown, whose love of architecture ended up taking second place to an MBA and the study of art history, is now a member of the Commission of Fine Arts, a federal agency that reviews architectural designs for areas in Washington, D.C. He said Moore found solutions to challenging problems.
Grandeur and dignity
The first hurdle is "to have a gallery feel spacious enough and a ceiling tall enough so it gives a grandeur and dignity to the experience but at the same time, keeping the wall defined as a plane that is low enough so that the work of art is not dwarfed by it," said Brown.
"With this ceiling form, the big sloping cove, he has given us a wall where pictures just feel right and they're very happy and yet the ceiling plane doesn't come across at the top of the wall.
"The other problem he's solved brilliantly is that of introducing daylight. That's the trickiest thing. Art museums are all about light. That's how you see the pictures and it's the most important single thing to solve. But light is destructive to works of art and you can't bring in too much."
Moore's answer, setting windows in deeply recessed areas, allows light but doesn't interfere with the art works.
The galleries "have the fun of a house museum," Brown said. "It's just the right scale."
The exterior, which has been somewhat controversial, also won raves from Brown.
"People will have to try to adjust," he said. "But that's what contemporary architecture should do it should challenge us. What it does is complement this nifty original building which has so much strength and juice to it and picks up from it but it doesn't slavishly try to clone it or try . . . to contrast totally to it and go off on its own."
Building with the same kind of brick that is used in the old building was "a very gutsy thing to do," Brown said, "because people don't build in that brick these days very much. But it works, because it immediately brings the two buildings together and you read them as one institution."
"He solved the ramp question, I think, with wit," said Brown. The building "has the courage of its convictions. It's here, it's not subservient to the other building, but it's highly aware of having to be a sibling."
Rothko show in September
Getting a new building presented one challenge. Now, museum director Joseph Czestochowski now faces another, bigger one.
"He will learn that once you have this beautiful lion, and you've got him groomed and in his cage, he's very hungry," said Brown, who faced a similar problem on a larger scale when the East Wing of the National Gallery was added in the 1970s.
"It takes a lot of steaks to keep him from roaring.
"Joe will have his work cut out for him keeping the gallery filled in a lively way. But I think the kind of civic pride there is here not only from the city but the whole state is going o be enormously helpful to him.
"There's nothing like a new building to turn people on and give new momentum. That tends to attract gifts, makes it easier to get loans and projects a sense of professionalism."
Recognizing the new capabilities of the museum, Brown announced that the National Ga1lery will lend an exhibition of 22 Mark Rothko paintings next September.
Touring the Mauricio Lasansky gallery with the Iowa City printmaker added a new dimension to Brown's appreciation for Lasansky's work. "I've been an admirer of Lasansky's for a long time," he said. "He is someone who has enormous talent, great innovative creativity, great technical virtuosity. He has been legendary in the print world for his use of color, three dimensions, a sense of being on the cutting edge and also great human dimensions."
Brown said he has a "soft spot in my heart for Iowa," after spending a summer in his youth a relative's farms in western Iowa and eastern Nebraska.
The add-on factor
But the real attraction was the chance to see how Moore had accomplished the addition.
"I am fascinated by the whole concept of how one adds on to an existing building. I had to do it in Washington," said Brown. "As a matter of fact, perhaps the greatest single influence on what we ended up doing was Des Moines."
In choosing an architect for the East Wing, "We flew in on Paul Mellon's plane one day just to take a look at the art museum. We were considering [I.M.] Pei, but we were considering others.
"I wanted particularly to see Des Moines because I wanted to see how Pei would handle adding on to a previous building that had a lot of architectural merit in its own right but in a vey different style. And of course the original building is just a love it's a wonderful museum building.
"And I was so struck by the way Pei subordinated his structure from the street so that you didn't feel he was upstaging [Eero] Saarinen he was very sensitively aware of the significance of Saarinen at the time but then, taking advantage of the full grade, created that wonderful sculpture area and a really great muscular facade from the park side.
"That and maybe the Everson Museum [in Syracuse, N.Y.] really convinced us he was our man, and I've been an admirer of that institution ever since."
Reprinted from The Des Moines Register,
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