Art; Museums. Both have the inherent quality to amaze, question, and confuse the observer. Even at its simplest, most bare form, they possess an eerie ability to invoke a complex mix of emotions. Richard Meier’s High Museum of Art is no exception. Typical of the Pritzker winner’s usual line up, the museum is a juxtaposition of geometries, clad in a signature white exterior, in this case, white enamel steel panels.
The main structure comprises four steel and concrete quadrants, with one carved out and replaced by an expansive atrium, flooding the museum with daylight. Rectangular towers help break an otherwise imposing mass of curves and frame the glazed, cylindrical core of the structure. The exterior walls are lined with openings, enabling the museum to channel natural light, ventilation, and vistas, bridging the divide often created between buildings and its outdoor surroundings.
The recurring themes found not only in Meier’s design but also in Renzo Piano’s additions to it, are of light and scale. In the High Museum of Art, light is not just a means of enhancement of function; it is and an important aspect of the building’s substantiality. It is a constant preoccupation, wrought with symbolism. As Meier put it, “Apart from its functional aspect, light is a symbol of the museum’s role as a place of aesthetic illumination and enlightened cultural values.”
Located in Midtown, Atlanta, the museum pulls some serious weight in its surrounding urban landscape. Proposed in a city not known for its architectural prowess, both Meier and his clients intended the structure to be as much a community center as a museum, framing a central node of cultural activity for Atlanta’s art district. Beginning from the extended entry ramp- a symbolic reaching out of the usually site-constrained architecture into the veins of the city, the design maintains a sense of openness and accessibility, while drawing in visitors towards a light-flooded focal point- the atrium. Although now defunct, replaced by Renzo Piano’s new one, this entry played a pivotal role in how people viewed the building.
Much like the ancient Chinese principles of concealment and surprise, often found in their gardens, the museum’s careful use of forms and scale, allows the observer to view the building externally, in segments, slowly building up a sense of curiosity. They see what Meier wants them to see, a building, whole, even as a sum of its parts. While the building shines in the somewhat unspectacular Atlantan context, it respectfully subsides upon entry. Unadorned clean, white interiors break through the rigidity and exclusivity that often follows high art and allows itself to be a blank canvas for its artists.
Similar, in many ways, to the iconic Solomon. R. Guggenheim Museum, and from which it openly gathers inspiration, a characteristic ramp wraps around the atrium, seamlessly integrating levels without the interruptions of stairwells and elevators. However, the ramp here is used purely for circulation and not display, opening up the possibilities of windows in its surrounding walls and allowing the art to remain separate from the architecture.
Circulation and art appreciation don’t interrupt and conflict with each other and both are only heightened by the grandeur of the four-storeyed atrium. While some might consider such obvious influences plagiarism of sorts, the museum’s two architects had a different, albeit provocative, view of the subject.
In 2005, 22 years after Richard Meier’s High Museum of Art was completed, and a few weeks before Renzo Piano’s expansion was due to finish, the New York Times interviewed both, to trade opinions and stories. The following dialogue not only captures the beauty of collaboration but addresses the role of history in amending architectural flaws:
MEIER –“I agree. It’s perfectly appropriate for one architect to add onto another architect’s work. That’s the history of architecture, the way it’s always been.”
LOOS (moderator)— “So architects need to stay humble in the face of that?”
PIANO –”It’s not about humble, it’s not about modest. It’s about being grounded — and maybe even stealing. You’d be surprised how many times we’d be looking at this building and stealing from it. The fact that art is robbery is well known — robbery without masks. In some ways that’s good. It’s robbery where you give back, like Robin Hood.”
It is through such a robbery, a borrowing of base concepts and fixing its inherent flaws, that Meier succeeded not only in creating a beautiful museum but also in setting a higher standard for Atlanta’s architectural scene. What one may see as Piano’s hindsight is precisely what enabled the High Museum to be a rare example of a symbiosis of art and architecture.
F.L.Wright’s iconic design of the Guggenheim Museum is a strong, impressionable one. To many, it may even be the very image appearing at the mention of art museums. Although an imposing, graceful building, its architectural extravagance was its greatest limitation as well. The museum was too majestic; it overwhelmed the senses, leaving its users torn between appreciating the building and the art.
It was this failure that Richard Meier sought to address.
Art and architecture; Can they successfully co-exist or will they always compete against each other? The answer to this question, or at least the physical manifestation of such an answer has always been a tough one. Many have tried and failed; should historical precedence discourage an architect from trying? No, Meier’s design is proof that although absolute results are seldom achieved, one can certainly come close.