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Toward a new Arkansas Arts Center 

Five architectural firms present ideas on design, connectivity.

click to enlarge BRINGING THE PUBLIC IN: Snohetta's SFMOMA expansion created a glass-walled first floor to draw visitors in.
  • BRINGING THE PUBLIC IN: Snohetta's SFMOMA expansion created a glass-walled first floor to draw visitors in.

The spare budget and the complexity of the project was a common theme sounded last week by architectural firms selected as finalists in the search for designers for the renovated and expanded Arkansas Arts Center.

The Arts Center has estimated the hard construction budget at around $46 million, which includes the renovation of 90,000 square feet, 40,000 square feet of new construction and 35,000 square feet of landscaping. The city will provide around $35 million from a bond issue to be retired with proceeds from a 2-cent tax on hotel rooms; the rest of the money for what is anticipated to be a $60 million project will be raised privately. A capital campaign for private funding is in a quiet phase — no private dollars have yet been pledged.

The firms — Allied Works, Shigeru Ban, Studio Gang, Thomas Phifer and Partners, and Snohetta — did not present schematics but talked about their projects; their strategies for creating sustainable, LEED-certified buildings; how they would connect the new arts center to MacArthur Park; and how they would work with the public to satisfy community desires for the project.

The Arts Center's renovation challenges stem from how its physical plant has grown over the years, with eight additions surrounding the 1937 Museum of Fine Arts. The nature of construction over the years has led to numerous problems, including multiple roof levels, the HVAC system connection, lighting and other issues. The additions and split level design have also made for a confusing facility: The art galleries are separated by a gift shop, atrium and restaurant, and there's no clear indication from the newer part of the building (the atrium, opened in 2000) to the Children's Theatre and virtually invisible museum school. The Arts Center has also outgrown its storage and curatorial space and wants to increase the museum school offerings.

All the finalists praised the Arts Center as a successful model for the future — combining visual arts, theater and the museum school — and said a new design would enhance the public's awareness of the programs.

The winning firm will have to find a way to turn what is now a box with its back turned to Ninth Street into an inviting building that embraces MacArthur Park. Now, with entrances from 10th Street and the south side, the building feels plopped down in a park to which it has no connection.

Each firm sent principal architects to speak for half an hour and take questions from the committee. Here's a rundown on each presentation:

Snohetta is an international firm founded in Oslo, Norway, with offices around the globe, including in Manhattan. Among the firm's numerous projects are the San Francisco MOMA expansion, the Lascaux IV Caves Museum in France, the Alexandria Library in Egypt and the James Beard Public Market in Portland. Snohetta is partnering with the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y., to plan for its expansion.

Founder Craig Dykers focused on the firm's expansion of the SFMOMA, where the glass-walled first floor of the museum welcomes the public into the museum. Dykers suggested it might be a good thing to "loosen up" about where programing is located — for example, moving the Museum School to the Wolfe Gallery and opening the walls with glass so people could see what's going on inside; he noted that SFMOMA has held parties on its loading dock just to shake things up.

Dykers — as did most of the presenters after him — said the new building needs a core from which people could see all the Arts Center has to offer: art instruction, a theater, the art galleries, a notable collection of works on paper. It's also important for museums to have daylight, areas for contemplation — "palate cleansers" — and a holistic feel, Dykers said. He (and the architects who followed) noted that landscaping is cheaper than construction and could be put to good use as connectivity.

Selection committee member Dean Kumpuris, whose focus as a member of the city board has been Riverfront Park and the River Market district, posed the question to all the architects how the new Arts Center could connect the two areas together.

"Design for local, and global will follow," Dykers said.

That was echoed by the other architects: If you build a great place that people want to come to, they will.

click to enlarge BASKETMAKER: Shigeru Ban's design for the Aspen Art Museum created a basket-like cladding around a three-story glass-walled building
  • BASKETMAKER: Shigeru Ban's design for the Aspen Art Museum created a basket-like cladding around a three-story glass-walled building

Shigeru Ban of New York, Paris and Tokyo counts among its projects the Aspen Museum of Art, the Centre Pompidou in Metz, France, and the Oita Prefectural Art Museum in Japan, as well as the Cite Musicale on Ile Seguin, Paris, which is still under construction. The firm's style is distinctive, employing wood in basketry forms, such as the screen that surrounds the Aspen Museum and woven and ribbed arches.

Zachary Moreland, senior architect with Shigeru Ban, first noted problems it discerned at the Arts Center: Its multiple entries, a "disorienting" layout, the difficulty of locating the Museum School (which exists as various classrooms off the open courtyards), the lack of a separate entry for staff, high-ceiling galleries at odds with the permanent collection of works on paper "extremely challenging" to light, poorly placed loading docks and a walled-off feel from the park.

Firm founder Shigeru Ban said it was a shame that the facade of the 1937 WPA-built Museum of Fine Arts was buried in the building instead of being visible from the park.

Unlike the other firms, Shiguru Ban presented conceptual drawings of a future Arts Center, with a timber truss entryway to a new atrium incorporating the 1937 facade, passageways to a central core, a lightweight second story over the museum school, and a tower addition to administrative offices and a rooftop cafe that could remain open when the Arts Center is closed.

Ban also suggested lowering the ceilings in the galleries, advice unlikely to be embraced. The drawings need intimate spaces yes, but the temporary exhibits need the taller walls. Senior architect Moreland assured City Director Dean Kumpuris that "great design," opening the Arts Center to the park and highlighted programming would bring people to the Arts Center from the River Market district.

click to enlarge LIGHT WHITE: Thomas Phifer's design for the expansion of the Corning Glass Museum echoed the transparency of glass.
  • LIGHT WHITE: Thomas Phifer's design for the expansion of the Corning Glass Museum echoed the transparency of glass.

Thomas Phifer and Partners of New York has designed buildings for the Clemson School of Architecture, the North Carolina Museum of Art expansion, the Glenstone Museum in Potomac, Md., a gallery in the Corning Museum of Glass, the Warsaw Art Museum and Theater and the New York City Velodrome, among other projects. Presenters Gabriel Smith, Katie Bennett and Adam Ruffin all grew up in the South — Bennett is a native Arkansan — so they said they felt a connection. They did not bring conceptual drawings because they said it wasn't appropriate; they said they want to meet with the community and "learn your values." They listed known priorities as connectivity, to keep the doors open while work is ongoing, to design "architecture that works" and to the budget, to "bring reality to the project." They said Herman's estimates of $250 to $275 a square foot for renovation and $400 a square foot for new construction was par — "but just barely" — for the region.

Smith said a centralized entry, understandable circulation from space to space (he said the layout is " very difficult for a visitor to understand") and a stand-alone expansion would give the renovated Arts Center a new identity, one to be defined by the community. The Phifer group also advocated for "unearthing" the 1937 building.

To City Director Dean Kumpuris' question about synergy with the River Market district, Smith said perhaps a vertical element could be added, a "beacon." But, like the other firms, Phifer's architects said that "powerful architecture" would provide a "psychological presence" that would be felt elsewhere.

Arts Center Director Todd Herman noted that the designs of the North Carolina Museum and Glenstone are "turned in," with large expanses of windowless walls, and wondered how Phifer would "present a welcoming facade." Smith laughed, and said, yes, some of their projects "have a surprise on the inside." But he cited the Clemson architecture school as an example of an open building and the importance of landscaping to draw people in.

Committee member Bobby Tucker said it was important to him that Ninth Street be the entrance, but, as Smith asked, does that mean you drop people off and then drive around to the parking lots?

click to enlarge INTRIGUING INTERIOR: The Clyfford Still Museum in Denver was designed by finalist Allied Works.
  • INTRIGUING INTERIOR: The Clyfford Still Museum in Denver was designed by finalist Allied Works.

Allied Works, of Portland and New York, designed the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, the National Music Centre of Canada in Calgary, the Museum of Arts and Design in New York and the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, among other buildings. "We don't have a style," founding principal Brad Cloepfil told the audience. "We try to discover the possible ... this one will take some time. ... What this requires is a relationship."

He said it will be necessary to "define the life of this institution" now and in the future through client engagement and meeting with stakeholders and the community. As part of that, Cloepfil said the firm would "embed" itself in Little Rock, sending Mountain Home native and Allied Works architect Chris Brown back home. He added, to laughter from the audience, that he expected he would have to go to a lot of cocktail parties. "I know you want a beautiful piece of architecture. ... Let's get this right."

Cloepfil recommended the renovation should reflect the scale of the city, saying its space should feel like a "living room" as a metaphor for Little Rock's intimate feel. The design should also "be the amplifier of" the Arts Center's three main areas of focus and programming. Another addition, he said, would "add to the chaos," and added that there would be "no easy answer" to solving the Arts Center's many design drawbacks and "do it in a way you can afford. ... If you had $130 million, you could totally redo it," but that's not the budget. Instead, he said, you could create the feel of a new building through landscaping.

City Director Dean Kumpuris told Cloepfil the city has an "identity problem," and wanted the Arts Center and the River Market district to help resolve that by creating a connection between them. "Are you up to that task?" he asked. "Oh, of course," Cleopfil said. He said iconic architecture alone is not the answer — he called the Daniel Liebeskind's angular expansion of the Denver Art Museum a failure — but what goes inside. The Clyfford Still Museum is a "box hidden by trees," he said, but the experience of the museum is the draw. Still, he said, the Arts Center is "introverted," and a landscaping bridge to the street would soften its edges. "You should feel like you've entered the museum when you step into the park."

Cloepfil said the firm would create a "digital interface," which he defined as "beyond a website," to engage and communicate with the community and offer transparency about the process.

click to enlarge MOVING ART BEYOND THE BUILDING: Studio Gang's design of the Writers Theater in Glencoe, Ill., created multiple use spaces for performance and events.
  • MOVING ART BEYOND THE BUILDING: Studio Gang's design of the Writers Theater in Glencoe, Ill., created multiple use spaces for performance and events.

Studio Gang of Chicago and New York, founded by Jeanne Gang, has among other projects in its portfolio the Writers Theater in Glencoe, Ill., the Gaudi-like Aqua Tower in Chicago. The firm also won a design competition to create the new Gilder Center at the American Museum of Natural History. Gang, a MacArthur Fellow, praised the multifaceted programming of the Arts Center and said the challenges of renovation it presents are exciting.

Gang showed the design of the Gilder Center, which she said the firm added to a museum that had not eight additions, as the Arts Center has, but 25. Their design both created a twisting canyon-like passageway along the mid-museum axis of W. 79th St. that was like "a destination in and of itself"; iconic design features that would make the Arts Center a destination for purely aesthetic purposes is a goal.

Gang said the research-oriented firm was hired by the European Union to assess visitor experience and the economic contribution of six cultural institutions. "We learned so much doing this and I want to bring that experience to bear on your project," she said.

Challenges here: "Everything we see is very closed," Gang said, with a perimeter that is 95 percent wall. "The design starts inside out." She pointed to the open design of the Writers Theater, which features a glass-walled performance space and cladding of wooden ribbing on the second floor.

Gang's PowerPoint presentation included preliminary sketches that gave the Arts Center an entrance off the semi-circular drive that runs in the front of the Arts Center and the MacArthur Museum of Military History, a main inner passage on a north-south axis, a place for "outdoor art-making" and a sculpture garden south of the building leading to a re-landscaped pond. She showed images of her firm's renovation of the South Pond and its surroundings at the Lincoln Park Zoo, which she said created a natural space "where animals come voluntarily." The firm used recycled plastic milk bottles for the walkway and prefabricated woven wood for an open-air pavilion.

It wouldn't make sense, given the budget, to reclad the entire building, Gang said, but that does matter because of the Arts Center's location in MacArthur Park. "You have all the landscaping you could ever want ... that's a good way to stretch the budget," Gang said. The park also offers a way for Arts Center programming to "spill outward" and make the mission more visible.

"Museums are also community centers" rather than places for the elite, Gang said. "The only thing wrong [here] is the facility is getting in the way."

The next step in the selection process will be visits to buildings, so the selection committee can "confirm what they heard in the presentation" and get a feel for the how the spaces work, Arts Center Director Todd Herman said. The committee won't visit all buildings by all five finalists but will go to those designed by its top two choices. Herman said the Arts Center will not announce which architects have been selected for the site visits. He expects a firm to be chosen by early December.

Along with Kumpuris, committee members include Herman; Truman Tolefree, city Parks and Recreation director; Mary Ellen Irons, Arts Center Board of Directors chairwoman; directors Isabel Anthony, Van Tilbury and Chucki Bradbury; Bobby Tucker, Arkansas Arts Center Foundation chair; Chauncey Holloman, small business development coordinator for Little Rock; and Bobby Roberts, former Central Arkansas Library System director.

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