Last week, the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute announced that Japanese architect Tadao Ando will design its new building. Ando’s selection is the first concrete step of the Clark’s expansion plan, which was unveiled last winter. A highly celebrated figure in architecture, Ando was awarded the 1995 Pritzker Prize, the world’s most prestigious architectural award. The Cambridge lanscaping firm, Reed Hilderbrand Associates will work with Ando on redesigning the natural surroundings to complement the new facility.
The Clark has charged Ando with the mission of designing a third building that will house some of the Clark’s permanent collection, exhibition spaces and educational and conference facilities. The Clark’s architectural search committee, which included Jim Wood ’63, Director of the Art Institute of Chicago, artist Hank Miller and Bill Rahn, the designer of the College’s new performing arts center, wants to ensure that the new building will not clash with the Institute’s two existing structures and the local Williamstown landscape.
“We want to build something that unifies the [Clark] campus and embraces its 140-acre landscape,” said Michael Conforti, director of the Clark. “Ando is an architect who can do this for us. He was chosen for the subtlety of expression and spirituality of his buildings and for the way he can create mass without building very much above ground.”
Indeed, Ando’s work is noted for a quiet articulation of architectural form that respects its context. According to E.J. Johnson ’59, professor of art history and scholar of modern architecture, Ando is “a master of light and of the relationship between buildings and landscape.”
The Clark did not want a third, separate element in addition to the original 1955 neo-classical building and 1973 modernist wing. Instead, the Clark seeks a third structure that will blend in with the Institute’s campus and landscape ? a building that is neither theatrical nor overtly conspicuous. “It is our hope that Ando will design a building that blends in with our bucolic setting,” said Conforti.
Widely published and a winner of many awards including both the Pritzker and a Chubb Fellowship, Ando is a known quantity within the architectural community. Interestingly, Ando has no formal architectural education and is largely self-taught. “He is a living treasure in Japan,” said Conforti.
However, Ando has built very little in America. The Clark project is only his third American commission. Ando’s first American work, the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, is set to open in mid-October in St. Louis; his second, the Modern Museum in Fort Worth, will open in the fall of 2002. Ando has had several key commissions in Europe, including the Vitra Seminar House in Weil am Rhein, Germany; but the bulk of his work can be found in his native Japan.
The architectural search committee was very impressed with Ando’s design for the Naoshima Museum, which is more of an art “retreat” than a museum. “Through his design for the Naoshima retreat, Ando shows an ability to embrace a site’s landscape,” said Conforti, who was particularly impressed with Ando’s ability to design a wing of the building that is literally inside a hill, limiting the structure’s visual imprint on its country setting.
Williams’ resident architectural experts were quick to chime in on the Clark’s selection. “Ando is an architect who has the usually contradictory traits of being both bold and sensitive, and he is a logical choice for this commission,” Michael Lewis, professor of art history and a noted and widely-published architectural critic, said. “He might use a little more concrete than I like, but that’s perhaps due to the commissions he receives in Tokyo. He is clearly now one of the world’s leading architects, as prominent and celebrated as can be.”
Lewis, though, warned about being intoxicated by the glamour of having a big name architect, “I don’t necessarily think that just because an architect is prominent and celebrated, that he’s the man for every job that comes his way, from a henhouse to a hockey rink,” said Lewis, “you have to consider his specific strengths. And I am not sure that an awareness of the poetry of landscape is one of his strengths. This is my principle concern, for this is an exquisite site that can be easily ruined by things too large or ill-scaled.”
Johnson also voiced a similar concern; “I find his most recent work somewhat overwrought. His sensibility once seemed like a continuation of the sensibility of Lou Kahn ? an ability to create monumental serenity of the most compelling sort. Now, I think he has perhaps been looking too much at Borromini, whose superbly complex baroque work seems antithetical to the severity, the minimalist aesthetic, that made Ando’s earlier buildings so magical,” he said.
Johnson, though, was quick to note that for the Clark’s most important goal ? that the new building must not only respect its Williamstown landscape but obstruct it as little as possible ? Ando was a superb selection. “Given the program the Clark has in mind, Ando was an excellent choice,” Johnson said, “Fine designers are always full of surprises, and I think we can look forward to something remarkable from [Ando].”
Addressing concerns that the Clark was looking for an intensely dramatic building like Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao, Conforti insisted that Ando’s building would be respectful of the Clark’s rural setting. “We want to maintain the notion of experiencing art in a rural setting,” said Conforti, who hopes to work very closely with Ando as he develops his design for the new Clark building.
Ando has already visited the site and will be visiting later this fall; he will also participate in a panel discussion in New York with John Walsh ’59, former director of the Getty Trust, and Tom Krenz ’73, president of the Guggenheim Foundation, for a group of Clark donors and supporters. Via translator, Ando will deliver a public lecture on his initial designs at the Clark on Nov. 16.
The Clark and Ando hope to have a schematic design in six to seven months, which will be revealed at an exhibition of Ando’s work in MASS MoCA. “He already has an idea of what he wants to do and he already changed last year’s master plan accordingly, shaping it to his vision and vocabulary,” said Conforti. Professor Johnson looked forward to Ando’s impact on the master plan, under which Ando’s commission was granted. “I would hope that he might be able creatively to rethink the master plan and make some gesture toward South Street,” Johnson said. The master plan also calls for increased parking space, the reworking of existing facilities ? including a yet-to-be-designed extension of the original 1955 structure ? and some restrained landscape alterations.
The Clark’s decision to choose one of the world’s most distinguished architects will certainly have effects beyond the purple valley. The selection of such a big-name architect will be widely publicized in the architectural press and should certainly raise the profile of the Clark, the College and the Berkshires. For example, both Vanity Fair and The New York Times recently profiled Ando and his recent architectural contributions to the world of fashion, namely a ?fashion factory’ he designed for Giorgio Armani and the Benetton world headquarters outside of Milan.
“Ando’s work will surely attract architectural pilgrims, since he has built very little in this country,” said Johnson, who was also happy to note, “The new structure should provide the art department with a very interesting example of contemporary architecture to use for teaching purposes. I’m always eager to have real buildings to take students to.”
Current Williams students, though, will probably never get to take advantage of the new facility’s educational resources as construction for the new building is planned to begin in early 2004.
Despite recent gloomy economic forecasts, the Clark is still going forward with its master plan as scheduled. “We’re doing the planning during the hard economic times,” noted Conforti, who stressed that this is just the beginning of a broader long-term process of expansion for the Clark, and expected economic fortunes will be rosier by the time groundbreaking comes around. “We’re in this for the long haul, “said Conforti.
Ando, who comes from a pantheon of living architects with names such as Frank Gehry, Richard Meier, I.M. Pei, Rem Koolhaas, Sir Norman Foster, Renzo Piano and Zaha Hadid, has his work cutout for him as he navigates his own celebrity with the Clark’s unique needs. Confident that he can deliver on their wishes, the Clark hopes Ando is the best choice to create a world-class facility for the preservation and education of fine art that can be both bold in its expression and exercise a respectful deference towards its natural surroundings. It will require “a great architect [who] can make a good building, but to get a great building you need a great client,” noted Lewis, “Ando will need constant, intelligent, aggressive, uninhibited, specific, bullying, badgering criticism if we are to get something better than an architect’s generic ego-performance.”