Anderson Collection at Stanford University

Anderson Collection at Stanford University

The building is part of a growing arts campus.
Tim Griffith

It looks nothing like a ranch house, but the newly opened Anderson Collection at Stanford University was inspired by the casual open plan and natural views of that classic California architecture. The museum’s collection of post-1945 American art originally hung in the California ranch home of Harry and Mary Margaret Anderson, who donated the art to Stanford. Diebenkorns and Pollocks hung over the breakfast room table, on living room walls, and in the bedrooms. The house’s open spaces allowed the Andersons to see surprising juxtapositions of paintings as they went about their day. Northern California oaks were always visible through windows nearby, establishing a strong California atmosphere.

Ennead Architects recreated something of that openness and fresh discovery in the new museum nestled in the Stanford arboretum along Palm Drive, the long formal approach to the main campus. The galleries are on the second floor, whose plan is that of an irregular bow tie. Gently splayed walls allow asymmetrical arrangements of galleries and corridors, with a variety of ceiling heights and lighting conditions. Partition walls do not rise to the ceiling, and their corners are cut open to allow views of other galleries and their paintings across the building, which is relatively small at 30,000 square feet. As the visitor strolls the oak floors, they can glimpse other paintings across the way, or the handsome oak groves seen through the few vision windows, just as at the Anderson’s home. The ground floor is devoted to the entry lobby, administrative offices, services, a library, and a small rotating gallery, as well as the broad flight of wide stairs leading up to the second floor galleries.

Voluminous spaces create a variety of viewing experiences (left). Natural light enters through clerestories (right).

Uniting the space is the natural light from a translucent clerestory ringing the open galleries. A computer-controlled system measures changing daylight and adjusts louvers built into the clerestory to maintain a predetermined range of foot-candles. The soft, rolling curve of the suspended ceiling drapes like the canvas of a circus tent. The curve diffuses the natural light from the clerestory windows. This system creates an even, atmospheric illumination similar to Renzo Piano’s 1995 Cy Twombly Gallery at the Menil in Houston.

Echoing the classic Modernist prototype of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, the two-story Anderson Collection presents a cleanly defined box floating above a shadowed, inset base. The few gallery windows are gathered into a single rectangular frame on each side. The rest of the exterior walls are covered in various-sized GFRC panels placed akimbo to create their own random pattern changing in the sunlight. The design’s butterfly roof, bow tie plan, and abstract surface patterns borrow from midcentury design motifs. There is some justification for this, as those forms took root historically in this region, from Palo Alto to San Jose.

Irregular panels clad much of the structure (left). The collection floats above a glass-clad entry (right).

The Anderson Collection adds to Stanford’s growing arts district around the 1891 Stanford University Museum of Art (an early and daring use of structural concrete) and the Cantor Center (designed by Ennead’s predecessor firm, Polshek Partnership.) Completing the courtyard formed by the Cantor and the Anderson will be the McMurtry Building by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, now under construction. Across Palm Drive is the Bing Concert Hall, also by Ennead. In this complex, the Anderson is a background building, largely screened by the oak grove and deferring to the classically columned Stanford Museum.

Yet this new arts compound does not have the unified urban flow of landscape and structure first established by the colonnades and landscaped courtyards of the original 1887 Stanford Quad by Shepley, Rutan, and Coolidge, or even the 1959 arcades and walkways of the student store by John Carl Warnecke. The Anderson’s cantilevered second story creates a covered walkway along its sides, but lacks the strongly integrated linkages that Stanford’s older buildings boast.

Without a doubt the Anderson Collection will offer Stanford students—and the community—an extraordinary opportunity to study some of the great works of twentieth century American art. While it lacks the casual domesticity of the Anderson’s home, where a visitor relaxing on the couch could enjoy the Rothkos, Motherwells, and Thiebauds, Ennead has created a spacious and informal setting for art.