Beyer Blinder Belle embraces imperfection in Washington, D.C.’s newly opened Rubell Museum

Withstanding the Test of Time

Beyer Blinder Belle embraces imperfection in Washington, D.C.’s newly opened Rubell Museum

The only ground-up addition to Beyer Blinder Belle’s design of the Rubell Museum is a glass entry pavilion. (Chi Lam)

The Rubell Museum’s newest location is not the clinically sealed, artificial environment that so often defines the design of contemporary museums. Located in Washington, D.C.’s Southwest neighborhood, the museum’s galleries sit entirely within Randall Junior High School, a historically Black, brick public school building renovated by preservation-minded architecture firm Beyer Blinder Belle (BBB). Visually shaped by exposed heavy timber rafters, bricks—some marked with decades worth of drywall coverage—iron detailings on staircases, and terrazzo flooring that is the strongest visual reminder of a public school, the building has texture and history.

Don and Mera Rubell began collecting art in the 1960s, and had a plethora of connections to the New York art scene as Don’s brother Steve co-owned the city’s famous club, Studio 54. The family opened its first museum in Miami to the public in 1993, showing its amassed private collection of contemporary pieces. In 2010, Don and Mera, alongside a team of developers and the collaboration of their son, Jason, acquired the site that was the former Randall Junior High School. The building had been vacant for a number of years, and although numerous development plans had been tossed around, including a failed acquisition by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, it came into the hands of the Rubells. 

oblique street-level view of a museum
The museum can be seen within its streetscape, including BBBs adjoining residential project, Gallery 64, under construction in the background. (Courtesy Beyer Blinder Belle)

In a city shaped by its public museums, including Gordon Bunshaft’s Hirshhorn Museum and other Smithsonian-managed institutions, the Rubells commissioned BBB to design a private museum—free to city residents—that could provide a home for contemporary art unlike any other in the District. Although located less than a mile from the Capitol and the National Mall, Southwest D.C. is far from a tourist destination. The neighborhood underwent a classic postwar urban renewal process, and has now seen a wave of redevelopment, including significant housing construction and Perkins&Will’s recently completed Southwest Library.

Conveying the school, which had decayed in its years of vacancy, into an art museum was not necessarily intuitive. The building itself, with a brick facade, brick interior walls, oak flooring, and exposed heavy timber ceiling, showed its age; the main core opened in 1906, and expansion wings opened in 1926. Despite its state, as BBB partner Hany Hassan told AN, “the building stood the test of time.” The question was not whether to conceal the old vestiges of the building for a sleek contemporary museum, but how much of the building to show.

facade of an old school
Most of the original brick facade was repointed. (Courtesy Beyer Blinder Belle)

There was no intention for the Rubell to put on the airs of the city’s public museums, and they hoped that the new building would be able to serve the neighborhood, not just tourists. Unlike museums with more institutional mass, design decisions reflected personal requests from the Rubells, alongside, of course, BBB’s own motifs. Hassan told AN that the design team did not want the architecture to overpower the art in the galleries, yet, it felt irresponsible to ignore the building’s history.

At its entry a small glass pavilion was constructed and upon stepping into the museum and passing by the admission desk, visitors enter a main hall, formerly the school’s auditorium, and walk through a doorway that used to mark the auditorium’s proscenium. Formerly home to tiered seating, BBB opted to infill the space with a flat concrete floor that would suit a gallery space. The spacious room—almost cavernous when not crowded—shows the building’s ware to guests from the onset of their visit. Workers left bricks exposed, and re-exposed others hidden by drywall, including a series of Palladian arches that allow natural light in at the street-facing facade. 

gallery in an art museum
Layers of brick can be seen on the street-facing walls of gallery in the former auditorium. (Chi Lam)

Possibly the most unique aspect of the museum is its natural lighting. BBB’s design altered the windows to make them less ornate—to prevent them from drawing attention from the artwork—and left them in their original locations. In lieu of tinting the windows, curtains were installed over each window to subdue sunlight reaching mediums that require specific lighting conditions.

Proceeding through the museum, galleries are arranged across three floors of the former school, including the basement. It is here where it becomes evident BBB does not adopt the polished, surgically-precise look of contemporary museums. Apart from the former auditorium, patchmark interventions on the historic oak floorboards show the building’s fault points from its derelict stage of life. Where new floorboards were installed, there is no attempt to blend them with the old, or to artificially age them. A similar design approach was taken to the ceiling, where the original structure’s heavy timber rafters are left exposed, and where wood had to be added, it is again clear where interventions were made. The newly installed sections of wood stand out in the ceiling, with their stamped logos and product specs left on display.

Components of the building’s mechanical systems are also revealed on the ceiling, leaving it with an industrial feel. White spraypaint bleeds onto the bricks at certain points, and remnants of old drywall were not perfectly cleaned off. While intentional—and irksome to perfectionists—they’re a reminder of the handwork that went into the building, both now and a century ago. While these exposed elements contrast with the white plastered walls behind much of the artwork, they also mitigate its starkness.

art museum gallery
Beyer Blinder Belle make no attempt to hide their interventions in the wood additions to the ceiling, which can be seen on the left. (Chi Lam)

Wandering through the galleries can, at times, feel like you’re walking through a narrow apartment entry. While some wall sections were removed from the building’s original plan, most were left intact, and as a result there is no intuitive path through the space. Central foyers orient visitors at each floor, but circulation within each level is left free-flowing. 

Visitors can orient themselves to the outside world at most points within the galleries. The experience of being in the museum does not force visitors to enamor themselves wholly within the world of the gallery—though this is certainly possible—leaving any sense of direction depending upon a museum guide map. While this aspect is a product of the literal adaptation of former classrooms into galleries, it is also a stance against the often denaturing experience of visiting a gallery.

For a museum whose intent is to continue to house contemporary art that addresses tension points in American society, it was important for it to be rooted in a structure that held the history of its neighborhood. While the art feels safe against bare white walls, walking through imperfect brick archways between gallery spaces is a separate experience from winding through the fluidity of the Guggenheim, or the palatial history of the Louvre. As Jason Rubell said, the “art is the organs… the building is the blood and guts.”