Modern Programs in Historic Spaces

The residential liberal arts colleges of the U.S., while not wholly invisible, do not figure highly in media commentary compared to that country’s major public research and private universities. Typically a handful of higher educational institutions receive an inordinate amount of attention, while others operate in relative obscurity.

This is a regrettable oversight, because if people looked closer at these schools, they would find gems like Bowdoin College in Brunswick, on the coast of Maine, offering a splendid little art museum, the Walker Art Building, which re-opened in September after a lengthy restoration and renovation.

Completed in 1894, the Walker Art Building was designed by Charles Follen McKim of the venerable firm McKim, Mead and White. McKim was a man who believed that classicism and the Renaissance were the highest achievements in Western culture, and his buildings reflected this conviction. The Walker’s brick, limestone and granite faade is based on Renaissance prototypes, with a grand stair leading to a dramatically shadowed loggia flanked by lion sculptures modeled on those at the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence, Italy. The original interior consists of a central rotunda capped by a high-coffered dome and surrounded by three skylit galleries on the entrance level (design details and proportions of the Walker lead many to believe that this museum anticipates McKim’s famous Morgan Library in New York City).

Needless to say, considerations of access for the disabled, efficient environmental systems and security measures did not figure prominently on an architect’s mind in those days. One hundred years later, the building had to be reconsidered for the needs and standards of the current day.

The task of bringing the museum into the 21st century fell to Machado and Silvetti Associates of Boston that has developed a reputation for being able to mix new and old, but not one to the exclusion of the other. The solution — a very hard fought solution and not the first off the boards — incorporates some elements that are visible to passersby, such as a new entrance pavilion to the south of the original building, and a glass curtain wall across the western faade, allowing public views of the ground-level galleries, and other elements that are invisible but equally necessary, such as a complete renovation of the entire interior of the building.

This interior renovation includes an underground expansion, which provides 63 per cent more space than the original building, from 19,980 to 32,550-sq.-ft. This includes 2,176 additional square feet of gallery space, which brings the total available gallery space to 9,321-sq.-ft. and the number of galleries from nine to 14, all the while preserving the landmark structure.

Heritage and contemporary architecture

But the most noticeable architectural intervention is the museum’s new 600-sq.-ft. entry pavilion — a dramatic glass, bronze and blackened steel structure, housing a glass elevator and “floating” steel staircase, that leads down to visitor service spaces and the subterranean gallery entrance — providing access to both the town of Brunswick’s main street to the west, and Bowdoin’s campus quad to the east.

Machado and Silvetti struggled with how to intrude surgically into the fabric of the old McKim building, and by extension the college campus, acting at times as forensic architects: needing to solve mind-bending problems of how to make modern programs fit historic spaces while maintaining relationships and creating new spaces, all the time knowing that if this doesn’t work, the historical composition may be damaged and the project will end up costing much more.

The (eventually agreed upon) solution is an emphasis on lightness and transparency that positions the contemporary architecture as a satellite to the historic masonry structure, eliminating any impact of the overall mass on the museum. Plus, by moving the pavilion off the main structure, the architects were able to maintain the quad’s cadence of building-space-building-space.

The new entry pavilion uses contemporary building materials and technologies as an authentic expression of its present era of construction. Yet the emphasis on transparency — in both the entry pavilion and also the new glass curtain wall across the faade exposing the museum’s five large Assyrian reliefs — maximizes access to daylight and views, animates the building with the movement of visitors inside, and presents a new face to the town.

The $20.8 million (U.S.) Walker renovation and expansion is part of an ongoing $250 million Bowdoin Campaign that also includes the college’s new 290-seat Recital Hall, built inside the college’s 1928 McKim, Mead and White-designed Curtis Pool building, which opened in May 2007; the renovation of Pickard Theater inside Memorial Hall; and the construction of Wish Theater in 2000. This arts and culture initiative is one facet in a campus-wide restoration and regeneration project. In fact, it seems as if the college has been protecting its built heritage almost since its founding. Sometimes called maintenance, other times preservation, these actions create needed space while they also protect historic artefacts.

Machado and Silvetti’s solution for the Walker Art Building builds and yet respects historic structures: weaving new and old in a fabulous tapestry that is good urban design, allowing densification of a college campus, and of course providing a beautiful new jewel that adds to campus life.

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