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Polishing a Gem
Cranbrook's Saarinen-designed museum gets a new wing.
SmithGroup's addition alongside Saarinen's original museum.
Jim Haefner

The new addition to the Cranbrook Art Museum in Bloomfield Hills, MI does not add new galleries, lobbies, or grand entrances. But to call it simply “storage space” would demean the complicated inner workings of a building that allows the historic museum to operate as Eliel and Eero Saarinen intended when it was completed in 1942. Closed during the last two and a half years of renovations, the original 45,000-square-foot Saarinen structure is now fully restored and reopened to the public. The new space amounts to a very sophisticated warehouse to expertly house the extensive art collection which includes paintings, sculpture, furniture, works on paper, and architectural models.

This isn’t the building’s first add-on (Raphael Moneo designed the Studio Building, completed in 2002) but it is the most substantial at 31,000 square feet. Designed by Detroit-based SmithGroup, the Collections Wing gives the Art Museum a more sophisticated way to store pieces not on view in the gallery so that educational tour groups have better access to the archives. Elements used include glass walls allowing views into the ceramics collection, sliding metal panels for paintings, and a classroom for meeting in the midst of it all. The two buildings connect only underground, below an exterior staircase designed by the Saarinens. A metal, vault-like door slides back to reveal the new wing, a space that mixes the simplicity of concrete block walls and exposed-duct ceilings with grand features like a sliding wood door made of Sapele, a reddish wood very similar to mahogany.

SmithGroup restored older galleries, updating the mechanicals (left), the new entry allows for stricter climate controls (center), and a view inside the new facility (right).

Paul Urbanek, a principal designer, explained that the goal was to renovate the historic gallery in a way that did not signal change. For instance, the firm restored the coffered lighting system that had not been used since the 70s to work the way that the Saarinens intended. Urbanek observed how forward-thinking this element had been in its time. Daylighting became popular in museum design after Saarinen experimented with the diffused light that gives the ambient effect of skylights. SmithGroup also brought the building up to current museum climate standards.

Working within the building taught Urbanek to appreciate the genius of its design in new ways, such as the elegant use of interior volume and of wall framing that protects the art from shifts in temperature and moisture. One room of the gallery features the work of Sol LeWitt, painted onto four walls as a loan to Cranbrook (the museum must agree to paint over it after the loan ends). It took eight workers 21 days to paint the swirling shapes in preparation for the November 11 opening. Also currently on view is a grand model of Eero Saarinen’s design for Dulles airport in Chantilly, VA, outside Washington D.C.

Eliel Saarinen’s lasting contributions to the bucolic Cranbrook campus includes his 1930 home and the Kingswood School for Girls that opened in 1931; the last piece was the museum and adjacent library buildings. As Reed Kroloff, director of the Cranbrook Academy of Art, explains, “Eliel Saarinen’s DNA is here. The campus reveals his brilliance as a planner, how he was able to operate at all scales of design with equal fluidity. That was not so with Eero. There is no other place in the U.S. where you can see one architect working through a campus from the picturesque and heroic to a more modern and modest style.”

As Paul Goldberger wrote in the New York Times in 1984, Cranbrook has long been compared to Germany’s Bauhaus as both were created to encourage 20th-century design while breaking down barriers between disciplines. However, he concluded, “Eliel Saarinen’s campus itself became Cranbrook’s greatest legacy.”

Sarah F. Cox