BY BRIAN LIBBY
Last week the Portland Art Museum announced a major addition to its campus, one that will transform the visitor experience and change the way we look at its existing historic architecture, including its iconic circa-1932 Pietro Belluschi-designed original building. A new glass-ensconced addition known as the Rothko Pavilion and named for legendary painter Mark Rothko (who spent much of his childhood in Portland and saw his first solo exhibition at PAM) will be constructed between the Belluschi Building and the circa-1924 Mark Building (a former Masonic temple). In a new partnership with Rothko's heirs, the eponymous pavilion will showcase a series of his paintings as part of a 20-year loan. The goal is to complete the $50 million, 30,000-square-foot building project (and raise an additional $25 million for its endowment) by 2020 or 2021.
It has long been a pastime in Portland amongst the visual art and architecture communities to speculate what the museum's next move might be, and when it might happen. Besides its existing two buildings and the plaza in between, where the Rothko Pavilion will now be constructed, PAM also owns a vacant lot immediately to the north. I, like many, had mistakenly looked to that parcel to be where the museum would next build.
And also like many, I had guessed or even assumed that any such commission was likely to go to Brad Cloepfil and his firm, Allied Works, given their experience designing a host of acclaimed museums across the nation, be it the Museum of Arts & Design in New York, the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, the Seattle Art Museum expansion, or the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. Cloepfil has long been seen as the heir to Belluschi as the city's most acclaimed architect of his generation, and a retrospective of Allied Works held at the museum this summer seemed to cement a future partnership.
But I was wrong on both counts. Instead of looking to that vacant lot, the museum is building between its two existing buildings. And instead of Allied Works, the museum has hired Chicago architecture firm Vinci Hamp.
When I heard the news, I was instantly excited. The idea of a glass pavilion between the buildings is an excellent one because of how it will allow better circulation amongst the two buildings and make the Jubitz Center for modern and contemporary art in the Mark building feel less isolated. A glass pavilion will also make the whole museum feel more open and welcoming, because for all the architectural excellence of the Belluschi building it's not exactly full of windows, and the Mark is so windowless it practically screams, "Keep out!"
At the same time, the fact that the commission was not given to Allied Works and apparently not given to a world-class or famous firm seemed curious if not outright disappointing. So it's not Cloepfil, or Renzo Piano, or Norman Foster, or [insert 20 more]? Yet even at that moment I knew the Portland Art Museum's director, Brian Ferriso, deserved the benefit of the doubt. Since taking over from John Buchanan 10 years ago, Ferriso has not only been an excellent leader of the museum — knowledgeable, personable, passionate — but clearly loves, appreciates and understands new architecture.
After a lengthy interview with Ferriso a few days ago, I feel that faith was more than justified. Portland may not be getting a starchitect-designed architectural trophy, but that's not what this commission was ever about, and it's not what our own city's historic best moments of architecture have ever been about anyway. And besides, the design in this case is as much an experiential one as it is a physical one — creating a better pathway or series of pathways between the buildings already there — and it's an act of referential historic preservation. For this assignment, Vinci Hamp seems ideal and Ferriso's judgment seems not only sound but inspired.
"After being here 10 years, I feel so strongly that this is the right solution for this situation, and by ‘this situation’ I mean what’s between the spaces," Ferriso said as our conversation began. "Our facilities have some incredible moments. You look at the 1932 Belluschi original and it is absolutely jaw-dropping. You look at the ’39 wing and I’m in love." The 1970 addition? "It’s clunky but there tries to be some seamlessness. And you move over to the Mark Building and the Jubitz Center and you’re just like, ‘Oh man.’" The Jubitz is too isolated and it neither functions well nor offers a sense of delight.
"I put at the top of my list two things: the Belluschi 1932 and ’39 wings, and art viewing," Ferriso said, "because I think both of those are our very, very special assets. With those two as my drivers, I came to Vinci Hamp pretty quickly. I think they’re one of the foremost firms to deal with those issues. It’s very, very specific: you’re talking about high-end art, art viewing and preservation, and knitting together old structures. I think you’ll find in the art world and various other upper echelons, people will go, ‘Oh, Vinci Hamp—of course.’ John [Vinci] and Phil [Hamp] start from the object and then move the architecture out from there. It’s all in the details."
Ferriso then paused to address Brad Cloepfil, who suddenly has missed a major local commission and, within a week, seen his only Portland freestanding non-residential, non-renovation project (2281 Glisan) literally blown up (by a gas leak next door).
"I think he is an excellent, excellent architect. I will before I die—knock on wood—work with Brad Cloepfil in some way," Ferriso said. "The relationship that I’m building with him is so good. I think the world of him. The project I did with him was fantastic. And as you alluded to, there’s still a parking lot. But for this assignment, where we are as an institution and where I am and what I’m trying to accomplish, I think John and Phil and Vinci Hamp fit it perfectly." He cited a number of major collectors who have commissioned the firm to design homes to showcase their art collections, and spoke particularly passionately about their work for the Arts Club of Chicago.
Veni, vidi, Vinci
I have to confess that I didn't know Vinci Hamp well before news of the PAM commission. They've been involved with some major museum projects, like the Art Institute of Chicago and the Milwaukee Art Museum (where Ferriso previously worked), but those have usually been interiors projects focused on individual gallery spaces. Vinci Hamp has also been the lead architect for some smaller arts and museum commissions, like the Arts Club of Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Photography (also in Chicago), the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, and New York's Neue Gallerie.
To learn more about the firm, I called the esteemed Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin, who for the most part spoke of Vinci Hamp quite highly. "In general Vinci Hamp have shown great skill and sensitivity in all the work they’ve done, whether it’s working with traditional historic preservation or working with more contemporary projects," Kamin said. "Based on their track record, I would feel comfortable if I lived in Portland with the way they would be treating the PAM." He cautioned that this was based on looking at renderings, however, and also noted that he hadn't been a big fan of the Arts Club project. But Kamin also said, "In looking at the drawings for the Rothko Pavilion, this looks more like…essentially a connection between two existing structures than an entirely new building. So it’s different from the Arts Club project that I reviewed before."
Kamin did write glowingly of Vinci and Hamp as "Chicagoans of the Year in Architecture" at the end of 2014. "Between them, Vinci, 77, and Hamp, 61, have restored such significant works as Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan's majestic Chicago Stock Exchange Trading Room at the Art Institute of Chicago; Frank Lloyd Wright's earth-hugging Glasner House in north suburban Glencoe; and Raymond Hood and John Mead Howells' soaring lobby in the Chicago Tribune Tower. Their new buildings include the Arts Club of Chicago, which incorporates an elegant steel staircase from the club's former, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe-designed home."
"We always work with great dead architects," Hamp joked to Kamin in that article. "We learned a lot of lessons from them." And indeed, in the recently-released renderings their Rothko Pavilion steps back from the Belluschi Building deferentially, and its roof forms also mimic the sawtooth skylights of its conjoined older sibling.
As one looks at the PAM campus, "there’s obviously a lot of disconnected buildings," Ferriso said as our conversation transitioned to defining the architectural challenge. "There were very specific problems to this with regard to moving throughout the spaces." But in a sense Belluschi may have provided an inspiration even beyond the confines of the original building he designed. "One of the things I was really keen on is Belluschi was Italian and he had this axial type of architecture and long sort of vistas," the director explained. "I thought, ‘Can we take our facilities to a chiropractor?’"
Steve Jobs famously opined that design is not how something looks but how it works. In a similar fashion, Ferriso believes the design challenge is to make the Portland Art Museum work better as an experience, in which one is able to walk continuously on any floor between the two existing buildings, thus lifting every boat with respect to the different galleries.
"We have beautiful art-viewing experiences and we have horrendous art-viewing experiences," he explained. "How do we enhance the art-viewing experience and really make it special? I wanted something beautiful, but that would work within the architecture that’s existing. And the other thing is public amenities. I came here as a visitor to Portland after the Jubitz Center opened, and a volunteer said to me, ‘Whatever you do, don’t go over there, because there are no restrooms.’ And it’s true: there are no restrooms, you get lost, and it’s very difficult. You have these horizontal barriers. How then can you then create greater penetration in that axial experience that Belluschi so believed in going across?"
"I think we’ve got something really special on our campus," Ferriso added. "The question becomes, ‘Can we put two and two together to make four?’ Can we put something together to make such high levels of elegance and beauty that it makes all of this work? Because I’m not blowing up the Masonic temple. The Belluschi [Building] is a celebrated, important structure. So how do you really emphasize and take advantage of the assets that you have?"
"This is not an architect saying, ‘Look at me,’ although it is a space that will draw attention because of the huge panes of glass and the transparency. But it is about the art and the people."
Growing the Jubitz
The biggest winner in this PAM renovation and expansion may be the Jubitz Center for Modern and Contemporary Art, which since 2005 has occupied the southern edge of the Mark Building on several floors. It created a large amount of square footage in which the museum could display its 20th century holdings, but it felt like a series of long hallways, and getting there made the famously labyrinthine Steadicam shot through the Copacabana's kitchen in Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas look like a few hopscotch moves: one had to go underground to get there, and when you reached the top, you had to go all the way back underground and through the Belluschi Building to exit, all the while passing by a series of much closer Jubitz Center ground-floor doors that weren't accessible.
Now, visitors will be connected via the Rothko Pavilion from one building to another, making the Jubitz Center like a lonely granny flat that's now been attached to the house. But there's more: the library, which had been located just beyond the Jubitz in the Mark Building, will now be relocated in order to make room for a new, large-volume contemporary art space.
"You don’t think, ‘I’m heading over to this tall sliver of stacked spaces at arm’s length from the rest of the museum,’" Ferriso said. "You think, ‘I’m headed over to the north wing of the museum.’"
"The other thing is, they [Vinci Hamp] said to me, ‘Brian, when you go to the Jubitz Center, you basically come to a dead end, and the dead end is not a very fulfilling, enriching experience.’ You come across and you hit this sidewall and that’s it. So how can we breathe life into the center? Obviously it’s the library. That can become a contemporary center for art, with restrooms attached there. Suddenly the entire Jubitz Center becomes more fulfilled."
Stairway to Rothko
Another major aspect of the new design is a stairway tower rising from where the Rothko Pavilion meets the Belluschi Building. Ferriso explained that the tower is both a practical and a symbolic expression of one's ability to make easy connections.
"Some people say that stairwell looks so big. When you’re actually looking at it from the ground level, like in that rendering, it may look big," he said, "but it’s a visual indicator, being very deliberate: ‘I walk into the museum. How do I get around? Oh, that way. There’s an elevator there and an elevator there.’ Immediately your orientation is enhanced with this grand staircase. And this idea that I believe in so strongly is accessibility. You’ve connected everything in the Jubitz Center with the main building in a really clear way."
"We worked with some Nike executives on our messaging," Ferriso continued. "They basically said, ‘This is about connecting two buildings, connecting people with art, connecting the museum with the community, and connecting people with people.’ That’s the campaign."
The Rothko Pavilion will be important not just as a connection between the two buildings (with the entrance moved here from the Belluschi Building), but will also serve as a much more open and transparent window (figuratively and literally) into and out of the museum. And while both the existing buildings have their merits, neither has a lot of transparency, especially the Mark, which was designed to be standoffish as a Masonic temple. "If you look at the Masonic temple, it says, ‘Stay out.’ It’s a castle. It’s a fortress," Ferriso said. "It’s like, ‘Watch out for the bow and arrows coming at you.’"
The Rothko Pavilion will make the north exterior wall of the Belluschi and the southern exterior wall of the Mark into interior walls within the new glass structure. It's a way of marrying old and new, traditional and contemporary. "I think in many ways modernism and contemporary architecture can work well with historic architecture," Ferriso explained. "You see in Italy or France: old architecture with glass. It’s layers of history. The transparency counteracts the heavy masonry elements. It gives an invitation."
As a result of its transparency, the Rothko Pavilion "becomes a community gathering place, and it’s about what museums have become: the cathedrals and piazzas of the day," the director added. The design is in part about expressing openness and accessibility. "It's asking, 'How can you connect all the way across from the Overlook gallery on the far left of the site all the way to the Photography gallery in the Jubitz on the far right?' And then how do you communicate those connections? Accessibility is making feel comfortable. And if they’re comfortable and have orientation, you’ve taken the first step in making people feel good about your museum."
Some have expressed disappointment that the public passage through the plaza between the buildings will now be lost, requiring one to walk all the way around this super-block to get from point A to point B if you live or work in the area. But Ferriso emphasized that the Rothko Pavilion "is a public space you can walk through for free. I keep telling people this."
Although our conversation touched upon a variety of ideas relating to historic and modern architecture and the great designers behind them, and while it's also true that the Rothko Pavilion takes some of its formal cues from the Belluschi Building it's attached to, Ferriso and I agreed that there is something else, more commercial, that the new design resembles: an Apple store. The idea is really to be as transparent as possible, with very little but large panes of glass with minimally visible fasteners. "Apple is really the one who pushed this forward," Ferriso said. " Now you can manufacture glass in these huge panes. Apple helped push this technology." Perhaps it seems backwards for a computer store to influence a major art museum, but retail design has long been influential, and not just Apple. I remember going to Japan a decade ago and finding its fashion boutiques to be the most memorable design in the city.
Down to the details...and the art
Ultimately the renderings can not communicate or fully represent whether the Rothko Pavilion will be successful as architecture. To be successful, it will have to, at least in a certain sense, disappear, not unlike Yoshio Taniguchi once told the Museum of Modern Art was his architectural goal with a major renovation. ("If you raise a lot of money, I will give you great, great architecture. But if you raise really a lot of money, I will make the architecture disappear.") In that sense, the Rothko Pavilion seems to want to be an anti-statement. For that reason, maybe Ferriso is right that a nuanced yet experienced firm like Vinci Hamp, one that views the design from the perspective of displaying art first and one that focuses on the details, is the right one for the job. Ultimately we won't know for a few years, until the building is built. But it's arguable that a first-rate but under-the-radar firm is more appropriate for Portland than, say, a Renzo Piano or a Michael Graves.
And of course no design is a given until the money is raised. Like any number of announced projects of the past, from the Oregon Sustainability Center to the James Beard Public Market, the Rothko Pavilion still risks being relegated to remaining for eternity just a rendering. There are still scores of millions to be raised, and Portland is not a city with tremendous wealth. Still, just as it is/was the right call to trust Ferriso on the architecture commission, so too must there be faith that the money for the Rothko Pavilion can be raised.
And its name also denotes its secret weapon: with the long-term loan of works by their father (one at a time), Mark Rothko's children have given this pavilion between PAM's two existing buildings a wondrous reason to be. Portland has never had many favorite sons and daughters go on to historical fame, but while it's true Rothko wasn't born here, it seems reasonable to suggest the city shaped him as a teen and early adult becoming an artist. I've even heard it argued that in Rothko's glorious abstract color fields one can see the influence or impression of Oregon's ever-changing skies.
And even if the pavilion bearing his name was hastily constructed with shoddy glass by an architect trained at ITT Technical Institute, it would still be a light-filled place to go on your way to enter the museum and see works by one of the great geniuses of the 20th century. I remember taking a skeptical Portland State University class of 19-year-olds to a Rothko retrospective at PAM a few years ago and watching a series of epiphanies take place in their eyes as they took the time to become absorbed in the endless gaze his paintings invite.
But this project is also going to be a first-rate work of architecture, I think. Besides the Rothko aspect, what gets me most excited is the idea that the Pavilion will act as a kind of winter garden: a glass-ensconced piece of architecture in a rainy climate, a civic space where people can gather year-round. For all the importance of places like Waterfront Park or Pioneer Courthouse Square, we need grand places to gather indoors. The Portland Art Museum isn't officially a public place; it's privately owned. But it's a place that belongs to all of us, and the Rothko Pavilion may come to feel like its own kind of institution: a place you want to spend time in or pass through even if you haven't reserved the afternoon for looking at art. After all, what better tribute is there to Mark Rothko than creating a place to stop and linger, and to stare not just at paintings but out at the city and the sky?