Rhapsody in Sage

Rhapsody in Sage

With a low-key palette of sandstone and sage-colored stucco, the museum is a subdued addition to its north Phoenix neighborhood.
Courtesy MIM

Ten eyck landscape architects have included a range of desert-appropriate plants.
gallery spaces group instruments by geographic region.

In recent years, museums have tended to grab attention with exuberant architecture rather than what’s housed within their galleries. But in Phoenix, Arizona, a new two-story building boasts a truly unusual collection: some 12,000 musical instruments gathered from every country in the world. The privately funded Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) was the idea of former Target CEO Bob Ulrich, an art collector himself who was intrigued by the idea of celebrating the sounds and cultures of global musical traditions.

To contain this compendium of gourds, shakers, saxophones, fretless zithers, ukuleles, and myriad other instruments, Ulrich turned to Rich Varda, Target’s senior vice president of store design. However, Ulrich did not want an “abstract sculpture,” and encouraged Varda and Minneapolis-based RSP Architects to create a building that fit into the Southwestern geology and didn’t upstage the collection.

The result is a 190,000-square-foot, low-key composition in Indian sandstone, unfolding in an irregular series of blocks that are massed to emulate eroded bluffs in the desert landscape. Sage green infills in synthetic stucco, crafted in several layers for a leather-like look, evoke the barren vegetation and distant blue-green mountains. Entering the museum, visitors are greeted by a serene garden, designed by Phoenix- and Austin-based Ten Eyck Landscape Architects. A large portal leads to a bright, spacious atrium with a 30-foot ceiling. Here, the $250 million project, which opened on April 24, departs from its desert vocabulary and embraces the language of music.

The railings of a long, S-shaped balcony evoke the strings of a harp, and vertically accented windows are placed to recall piano keys. “We wanted the space to reflect the flow in musical compositions,” Varda said. By using unexpected patterns, he could create a design that was “less about architecture and more about variety and rhythm,” an approach that recurs in the handsome, 299-seat theater with irregularly placed panels in stone, stained cherry and maple.

The courtyard is framed by rhythmically composed facade units.

The museum’s ten galleries––with exhibition design by Target’s commercial interiors team and studio Gallagher & Associates––remain focused on the instruments themselves, from 1820s French pedal harps to 1980s Argentinean goatskin drums, as well as the 1969 Steinway piano on which John Lennon composed “Imagine.” The gallery spaces require strict humidity and temperature control, and due to Phoenix’s hot and dry climate, it was therefore impossible to achieve a LEED rating, according to Varda. Nonetheless, to minimize energy demand, the museum makes use of local materials, recycled water, and rooftop solar cells.