When the Parrish Art Museum—a fixture on the tony east end of Long Island since 1898—decided to build a new gallery more than twice the size of the original a few years ago, the plan was as ostentatious as the stock market was strong at the time. With a budget of $80 million, Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron envisioned a village of buildings modeled after a selection of the art studios that dot the surrounding area. When the market plunge slashed the budget to a mere $30 million or so, the design morphed into a long, low "horizontal structure nestled discretely in the landscape, consisting of two parallel wings joined by a central circulation spine running the length of the building," as the Parrish Art Museum release describes it in glowing terms. New York Times critic Nicolai Ouroussoff is a bit more dismissive in his characterization: "a major step down in architectural ambition ... It is a creeping conservatism—and aversion to risk—that leaves little room for creative invention." He concludes with an oddly forced induction: "It makes you wonder if the cultural consequences of the financial collapse will be as liberating as some have predicted."
Renderings by Herzog & de Meuron.
Ouroussoff also makes passing reference to the form resembling a Quonset hut (although certainly a Quonset hut suitable for hosting champagne and caviar exhibit openings).
That aside, the client in this case seems to be very pleased with the new design, according to their August 14 press release quoting Museum Director Terrie Sultan: "We could not be more pleased with this design, which enables us to function as a true center for community engagement, serving a broad and diverse audience, including the thousands of school children who visit us each year, by providing access to stellar works of art and ways to explore our special artistic heritage. The new plan will allow us to build a beautiful facility within a sensible budget and a reasonable timeframe. The design will be flexible, sustainable, and economically achievable."
Of course this may be press hyperbole, especially given that Sultan has only been on the job for a year and a half and essentially oversaw the downsizing of the facility plan from the original 64,000-square-foot village to its current 37,300 square feet of (to continue in the words of the press release) " highly efficient space."
In his artful description of the proposed new building and its setting, Ouroussoff does concede that the new design will provide "a perfectly nice place to view art—or host a party ... It's the kind of design, in short, that is difficult to object to."
A client objecting to the design of an art museum. This, on the 50th anniversary of the dedication of the Guggenheim Museum brings to mind one of the bold statements Wright made despite the objection of Newsday founder Harry Guggenheim, who had inherited from his uncle the task of shepherding that museum to completion.
Guggenheim objected that Wright was more concerned with making his own artistic statement than creating a proper setting for the museum collection. The architect responded: "No, it is not to subjugate the paintings to the building that I conceived this plan. On the contrary, it was to make the building and the painting a beautiful symphony such as never existed in the world of Art before."
Parrish will never be the Guggenheim, of course. And, yet, the Guggenheim was built toward the end of one of this country's greatest economic booms. So maybe there is a link between aggressive (and great) architectural expression and current economic conditions.
To use that most trite of phrases, though: Only time will tell on this one point of critical ambivalence: Will the Parrish prove after all to be excellent design because of the talent of the architects and despite its diminished funding? (And isn't that a much bigger issue than any current recession?)