Sunday, 17 June 2012

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

When I was a student I was thrilled by images of Moshe Safdie's Habitat '67, built in conjunction with the Montreal World Exposition. I've never seen it, but have always imagined Safdie as a powerfully creative architect with a vision for a better world, and have looked for his work for years. By the time I saw any of it again, the irregularly stacked boxes and affordable housing concept of Habitat had been replaced by huge curved and glassed monuments to art, culture, and money. He has been successful.

Eight months ago we attended our first opera performance at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City. Two weeks ago we visited Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. Everyone around here wants to see both Safdie buildings, major additions to the arts and culture scene in this part of the country. My initial response to the Kauffman Center was exhilaration; with its soaring lobby and extensive glass fa├žade it proclaimed that we weren’t in Kansas anymore.

Kauffman Center lobby
Everyone I've talked to has loved Crystal Bridges, which makes me disappointed that I did not have the same burst of delight there. Instead, I kept seeing reflections of buildings by other architects. The name Crystal Bridges made me expect buildings connected by bridges over sparkling streams, but the only bridge in the structure is the restaurant, and the water feature is two murky manmade ponds. Nonetheless, the works of art in the building are displayed extremely well and the experience of seeing the art is excellent. It’s a collection worth seeing, not necessarily all masterpieces, but objects of great visual and historical interest.

Crystal Bridges is a complex of several buildings made of poured concrete inset with bands of southern pine and roofed with copper-clad pine and glass. The buildings alternate concave and convex roof lines and the facades curve in or out; this variety of profile and emphasis on curves giving the structure a sense of movement and life, appropriate for such an organic natural setting. Moving through the museum and between the galleries one traverses spaces with views into the woods and planted grounds of the complex, a refreshing break from looking at art, reminiscent of the experience of the Getty Museum pavilions in California.
Crystal Bridges Museum from upper entrance

Kauffman Center Lobby

Some critics have already noted that the curved roofs at Crystal Bridges recall Eero Saarinen's TWA Terminal at Kennedy Airport and Ingalls Hockey rink at Yale (nicknamed the Pregnant Oyster when I was an undergraduate). I love these curved, sculptural roofs. The glass walls and curved wooden beams alternating with glass in some of Crystal Bridges' ceilings, with their extensive use of wood, emphasis on natural light and integration in surrounding nature, call to mind Thorncrown, the gorgeous chapel near Eureka Springs by Fay Jones, the Frank Lloyd Wright student after whom the architecture school at the University of Arkansas is named. Speaking of similarities, the interior balconies of the Kauffman Center recall the Wright’s Guggenheim Museum ramp, even though their function as lobby hallways is somewhat different and they appear to be tinted pink and blue, reflecting their bright carpets. One wonders if these are meant as quotations, as opposed to the more general influences Safdie acknowledges.

Our experience of Crystal Bridges may be atypical because we entered through the lower parking lot, took the elevator the wrong way, and ended up in a poured concrete stairwell with visible water pipes. We finally realized that we needed to take the elevator down, and found the small circular courtyard between the museum entrance and the museum shop. The lobby is busy and functional. By this point I hadn’t yet seen an overall view of the museum.

We ascertained later that if you enter from the top parking lot, it is obvious that you need to take the elevator down and you can get an overview of at least part of the complex from above. It is also possible to park at Compton Gardens in downtown Bentonville and take a very pleasant and not difficult walk through the grounds that leads to a modest side entrance of the museum. Our inauspicious beginning, taking the back stairs, was similar to our experience at the Kauffman Center, where the parking lot leads to elevators and escalators in stark, definitely back entrance-feeling passages. Since in this region cars are the only way to get anywhere, it is a real disappointment that Safdie's buildings do not provide more scenic entrances for the majority of visitors. I expected the complex to open up in an architectural welcoming gesture, but that did not happen either. From both the park and above it is possible to get some sense of the museum’s layout and its relationship to water. From parking in the lower lot, it would be more attractive to take the marked “Art Trail” down staircases that can lead to the lower entrance.
Park entrance, Crystal Bridges
The staff and volunteers were exceptionally friendly, a Walmart characteristic, my friends tell me, and we were cheerfully guided through the check-in process. The gallery spaces are lovely. The larger galleries have curving wood beamed ceilings and long softly curved walls; these spaces are subdivided into galleries that are suitable for the domestic-sized works of art. Wall colors are reticent and enhance the objects, for the most part.

Crystal Bridges Late 19th Century Gallery
Crystal Bridges window wall and exterior of two early 20th-century galleries
The most dramatic structure is that displaying the art of the first half of the 20th century. Its angled walls are glass and its ceiling alternates curved bands of wood and glass, so natural light flows into it from everywhere and it seems continuous with nature and the rest of the complex. In order to show painting in this space, two rectangular structures are set into the building. I wondered if Safdie planned it that way or if the staff had to have the structures built in order to show anything besides bronze and marble sculpture.

There really are no bridges in the complex, although a few in the garden cross small bodies of water. Rather than buildings connected by bridges crossing sparkling streams, the structures surround two artificial ponds created by damming the small spring-fed stream that flows through the valley into which the complex is set. Most reviewers saw the building before the ponds had filled and described their imagination of the final result. Perhaps this still is not complete, because the ponds were murky green or brown. Just now I'm wondering if such a large water feature actually makes sense for the complex, which might look just as good with gardens in the center. A pleasant terrace by the pond opens to gardens and education spaces.
Cystal Bridges Restaurant
Crystal Bridges is doing very well, with 350,000 visitors in the first six months, more than double the anticipated attendance. Perhaps because of the unanticipated crowds the museum has posted the rule that visitors must remain 18 inches from the objects; the guards are ever-watchful of viewers. Since the label print is quite small and several of the paintings demand close examination, it is frustrating to be remonstrated for attentively examining the art.

I still find myself struggling to get an overall impression of the place beyond that it’s big and ambitious and somewhat complicated, with many references to the architectural past. The building seems well suited to the art it exhibits (except for that one big sunlit structure), is large enough to accommodate significant crowds of visitors, and integrates the architecture and art with beautifully landscaped natural surroundings.

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