WILLIAMSTOWN — A world-class art museum tucked among the hills of Western Massachusetts: That’s the ambitious goal of the new Clark Institute.
To give it its full proper name, it’s the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. The Clark has been around since 1955, but you’d have to say it’s being truly reborn in 2014.
The new Clark has been so radically revamped and enlarged that it feels like an entirely new place. It has grown by almost 100,000 square feet of space, and most of its old space has been or is being renovated. Once isolated and inward-looking, the Clark now reaches out like a new guest at the party to become an integral part of the great landscape of the Berkshires. After 14 years of planning, designing, and building, it’s set for its grand reopening on July 4.
This is a column about architecture, not the other arts, and there’s no doubt that the architectural highlight of the new Clark is its Visitor Center. It was designed by one of the world’s most famous architects, Tadao Ando of Japan. Ando’s Visitor Center looks out over a series of three cascading pools and fountains. The whole production looks great and it’s beautifully detailed. But it’s maybe just a little Hollywood, a little reminiscent of an old MGM musical. An art museum needs a triple waterfall? In wintry New England? Where’s the Zamboni?
What’s really exciting about the new Clark isn’t waterfalls. It’s the way the architecture and the surrounding landscape have been choreographed into a single work of art.
The Clark has always had an amazing collection, thanks in part to the fact that its founders were heirs to the Singer sewing machine fortune. But until now it was a jumble of buildings and parking lots that more or less ignored the lovely Berkshire hills that surrounded it.
Ando’s Visitor Center — I’ll just call it the Center — is a long, taut, flat-roofed single-story stretch of pale concrete, glass, and pink granite. It’s exaggeratedly modernist in its abstraction, its lack of enriching ornament and detail. At ground level, it contains a cafe, a gallery, and event space. One level below ground level are galleries for special exhibitions, some 11,000 square feet of space. There’s no particular reason these need to be underground, and despite some ingenious light wells, they don’t enjoy much in the way of natural light or views to the outside. Yet their very gloom is a respite from the surcharged upper world of the ponds, and I suspect they will work well.
The Center has to be understood in relationship to the land. As good architecture usually does, it asks you to perceive it through metaphors. The hills are rolling ocean waves, and the Center is a crisp white ship cutting through them. Or the Center is a Puritan chapel in a green world, an assertion of human presence in the North American wilderness. Or the round hills are female and the angular Center is male. Landscape and architecture need each other to be fully themselves.
Three key players collaborated on the Clark’s dance of architecture and landscape. They’re architect Ando; the Clark’s director, Michael Conforti; and Cambridge landscape architect Gary Hilderbrand. All were dealing with the same issue: how to create an art museum in a rural setting. Most art museums are in cities. Only a few, such as the famous Louisiana in Denmark, are sited in a rural area. The Clark deals with this issue by devoting the same amount of design attention to the landscape as to the architecture.
The land itself has been reshaped into new swales and slopes, not only to create handsomer views but for better storm water management. (The pool cascades, among other purposes, are part of that management effort.) There are now two miles of woodland hiking trails. There’s a campaign to get rid of invasive plant species and return the land more closely to its earlier state. A thousand new trees have been planted. The main arrival drive is rerouted to take you past a lovely restored natural pond. Like the English gardens of the 18th century, the new Clark landscape is a work of artifice that masquerades as a natural world.
The attitude of the Clark to its landscape is the same as its attitude toward its paintings. That attitude is one of stewardship. The land, too, is a collection.
The older Clark buildings have been renovated, too, not by Ando but by New York architect Annabelle Selldorf. She’s pulled off the difficult feat of respecting the character of the past while reshaping gallery spaces, colors, and light levels in a manner that brings out the best of the paintings. The national firm Gensler served as executive architect for all parts of the work at the Clark. Total construction cost was $145 million.
Tadao Ando was a professional boxer while still in high school. When he later turned to architecture, he taught himself, not bothering with schools or degrees. Over time, he’s developed a style of his own that varies little from building to building.
He sticks to a few elemental materials and ideas. He loves concrete, usually pale and conceived as if it were a natural material like wood or textile, beautifully made but retaining the image of the forms into which it was poured. (At Clark, though, he also uses pink granite to relate the new Center to the older Clark, which has a lot of it.) Unlike that of the so-called Brutalists, Ando’s concrete never feels massive or heavy. Often he’ll allow a concrete wall or column to stand free without touching anything around it, as if it were a sculpture.
He loves water too. A 2003 coffee table book on his work is titled “Tadao Ando: Light and Water.” He likes to get you to descend from ground level into below-grade space. Often he creates a monastery-like feeling of hushed reverence. He likes to push an arm of a building out into space to embrace and shake hands, so to speak, with nature or another building. He likes to stage-manage the experience of moving toward his building, creating a kind of anticipatory approach zone where you’re neither here nor there. He likes to hide the entrance, too, so you’ll have to explore the architecture to find your way in.
Every one of these typical Ando motifs is present in the Visitor Center.
Ando, best known for his work in Japan, has done little in the United States, though he has a history with the Clark. In 2008, he designed the Stone Hill Center, an elegant architectural box of glass, wood, and concrete on a hillside setting. It was the first step in the reinvention of the Clark. Besides that, he’s known for the Pulitzer Foundation in St. Louis, a small masterpiece, and the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth, which in my opinion is a clumsy failure.
So Ando isn’t flawless. Even director Conforti notes that Ando is typically more interested in providing the visitor with a memorable architectural experience than he is in solving functional problems. But it’s too soon to judge the ultimate success of the new Clark. At my visit, two weeks before the opening, there was much construction still to be completed. The new galleries had no art in them.
Will the beautiful concrete succumb, eventually, to the severe freeze-thaw cycles of New England, a problem that’s plagued many modernist buildings? Will the Williamstown community treat the Visitor Center, with its pools and restaurant, as a public resource as Conforti hopes? Will winter skaters trip at the edges of the terraced pools, drawing unwanted flocks of lawyers? Will those pools, costly to build and, one assumes, costly to operate, prove to be a financial albatross? Was it wise to tuck so much of the new exhibit space below ground, where it can receive little natural daylight? Time will tell.
I’ve long treasured a line from the poet William Blake, who lived during a time of passionate interest in landscapes and gardens in England. Wrote Blake: “Where man is not, nature is barren.”
Some may find that notion too human-centered. But I think it’s profoundly true. What would Walden Pond be today, were it not for the life and work of Thoreau? Walden exists in an aura of memory and imagination that are an inseparable part of what it is.
The new Clark, in a similar way, makes the Berkshires less barren. The buildings and the hills now seem to look at each other and take each other’s measure.
One more favorite quote, this one by the Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa: “In Paul Cézanne’s view, the landscape thinks through him and he is the consciousness of the landscape.”
I’d like to think of the Ando that way. His Center is the consciousness of a landscape.
Robert Campbell, the Globe’s architecture critic, can be reached at email@example.com.