Perched on a hill in Forest Park, with grand Beaux-Arts fountains splashing in terraces below, the Saint Louis Art Museum is a commanding civic presence. Yet this museum has always been a cultural palace for the people. Designed by Cass Gilbert for the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, the phrase “art still has truth, take refuge there” is carved into the building’s pediment. It, along with four other civic and cultural institutions, is free to the public, and serves as a dignified place to view the impressive encyclopedic collection. It also functions as a cool-down spot in the well-loved park.
Adding on to such an imposing classical structure poses challenges. Should a new wing try to rival the original building or replicate it? Or retreat into the background?
Few architects around the world have grappled with, and mastered, these questions more successfully than David Chipperfield. Projects like the Neues Museum in Berlin have established him as a modernist with a uniquely sophisticated approach to history, while his German literature museum demonstrated the attention to proportion—so important in classicism—that is present throughout his work.
His new East Building at the Saint Louis Art Museum (HOK served as the architect of record) is deliberately deferential to the grand Gilbert temple, and it is one of the finest spaces for viewing modern and contemporary art to be completed in the U.S. in recent memory. The East Building is set back from the Main building, but this placement is as much about interior circulation as it is about being discreet on the exterior. The galleries in Gilbert’s building (on the ground floor at least) are arranged in a pinwheel formation, so Chipperfield follows a similar plan tying his building to Gilbert’s at two points directly from the galleries. Visitors move uninterrupted (save for fire code-required glass doors) from one building to the next, and though the architectural language is different, the scale and monumentality of the spaces relate to one another.
Museum curators used the collection to further unite the old and new buildings. On a main axis through the Gilbert building, curators placed a gallery of Greek and Roman antiquities, which then leads into Chipperfield’s building with a small gallery of ancient ceramics, metalwork, and stone carvings. The second transition from Gilbert to Chipperfield leads from European Surrealism in the Gilbert to American Surrealism in the Chipperfield building, and then onto the museum’s spectacular collection of modern and contemporary art. This kind of thoughtful work by an architect and museum curators has been all too rare in the last decade and a half of American museum expansions, as dozens of institutions have built new facilities tarted-up with placeless signature architecture and larded-up with money-making rental halls, gift shops, and cafés.
An obvious point of comparison is Renzo Piano’s Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago, which has many attributes, but feels like a separate museum. With its own entrance and massive rental hall/lobby—an element Chipperfield calls “lobbyitus,” something to be avoided in his view—the Modern Wing does little to relate to the historic museum, leaving its collections and the viewing experience disconnected.
Though the Saint Louis Art Museum East Building has its own entrance, the lobby is similarly scaled to the galleries (there was no need for a rental hall as the Gilbert building contains a monumental sculpture court modeled after the Roman Baths of Caracalla). Chipperfield organized his building around a poured-in-place structural concrete ceiling grid of five-by-10-foot modules with a depth of four feet. Beautifully cast with a smooth almost luminous surface, the human-scaled modules help prevent the weighty ceiling from feeling oppressive. It is as beautiful an expression of concrete as Harry Weese’s vaulted DC Metro stations.
The walls extend the full 16 feet to the ceiling grid. Doorways between galleries are also 16-feet high, creating a rhythm of massive solids and voids that relates to Gilbert’s classicism. Aside from the concrete, Chipperfield’s other strongest design element is light. Set inside the concrete modules is a light box with 3form panels embedded with fabric. Some of the galleries are lit with natural light, while others use only electric light. With the highly changeable Midwestern sky, this can create dramatic shifts in illumination levels, so the designers placed the electric lighting system on a ten-minute delay to keep the light level from constantly shifting as the sky changes. The modulating daylight is an unexpected and enchanting effect.
Alise O'Brien; J.J. Lane; Alise O'Brien
Chipperfield’s building puts the experience of viewing art front and center. Entering the East Building art is clearly visible at the terminal axis, in the ancient art gallery immediately to the right, and in several large pieces in the lobby itself. To the left, an upmarket restaurant is visible through tinted glass. On the right, past the admissions desk, is a small gift and bookshop. Commerce is present, but discreet. In the galleries beyond, the Museum’s collection beckons.
The Saint Louis Art Museum has long collected German art and has the largest collection of work by Max Beckmann in the U.S. (Beckmann gets the biggest gallery in the Gilbert building entirely to himself). The Museum wisely extended that legacy and has actively collected postwar German art, including major works by Joseph Beuys, Gerhard Richter, Anselm Kiefer, the Dusseldorf photographers, and many others. The current temporary exhibition is drawn entirely from the Museum’s holdings, amply demonstrating how postwar German art is the most fertile and challenging national artistic production since American Abstract Expressionism. Chipperfield’s building gives the museum a world-class setting to display its impressive holdings.
It also offers an object lesson for other U.S. museums pondering expansions (are there any left?). A principled but not ego-driven architect, a dedicated director steering a project from conception through fundraising and on to the ribbon cutting, and an engaged curatorial and exhibition design team can reinvigorate the 19th century idea of the encyclopedic museum, making it enlightening and ennobling for the 21st century.