Renovated Clark opens up to critical acclaim

The Clark’s visitors’ center and reflecting pool were concieved by architect Tadao Ando as natural spaces of zen harmony. Photo courtesy of Tucker Bair
The Clark’s visitors’ center and reflecting pool were concieved by architect Tadao Ando as natural spaces of zen harmony. Photo courtesy of Tucker Bair

The Clark’s $145 million renovation, which was completed this summer, is a harmonious consolidation of decades of architectural change. The structure, which morphed from its original classical conception by architect Daniel Perry in 1955, to a discordant combination of the more modernist ambitions of Pietro Belluschi and Walter Gropius, has been reinvigorated with the soaring, conciliatory work of Tadao Ando’s renovations.

The zen structure, which opened on July 4, is appropriate to the history of the Clark. Conceived by Robert Sterling Clark, the partial heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune, and his wife Francine Clark, a French actress, the Clark was originally intended to be a Frick-like institution in the jowls of Manhattan. But Clark, a veteran of war and carrier of the paranoia that comes which such a title, began to fear that a nuclear world war was impending and would center itself on New York City. In his fear, he relocated his plans to rural Williamstown, MA., where surely no nuclear war would venture. As such, the minimalist serenity of Ando’s architectural achievement is the most fitting testament to Clark’s peaceful ambitions for the institute.

The renovations have garnered praise on aesthetic, practical and economic fronts. Kathleen Morris, Sylvia and Leonard Marx Director of Collections and Exhibitions and Curator of Decorative Arts, commented, “The new Visitor Center, designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Tadao Ando, creates a new entrance to the Clark’s campus and provides a wonderful new home for our special exhibition galleries. The soaring architecture creates a serene environment that links our built environment with the glorious landscape. A one-acre reflecting pool surrounded by outdoor terraces creates a new focal point that unites the three buildings on our lower campus and encourages visitors to enjoy the distinctive setting.”

Mirroring the collaboration of the three structures, was the cooperation between Ando, New York-based architect Annabelle Selldorf and landscape architect Gary Hilderbrand. Ando is responsible for the new visitors’ center, covering 42,600 feet, and for the general ethos of the renovation, placing the Clark well within the burgeoning legacy of global museum minimalism and prompting director Michael Conforti to honor it with the comparison “Berkshire Bilbao.” Among Ando’s contributions was his decision to implant two thirds of the museum underground, allowing shows of contemporary art that could not be previously accommodated, such as Make it New, the current exhibition of Abstract Expressionism from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The space avoids the claustrophobic darkness so often associated with subterranean structures, instead becoming a meditative opening bouncing with light, rippling water and glistening concrete. The underground echoes the three tiered reflecting pool at the base of the Clark’s trio of buildings. Over an acre in size, the pool was built with green materials and has a 362,845-gallon water level maintained by rainwater. The pool is emblematic of the renovation’s seamless coexistence with all that preceded it and all that will follow it. Part of the responsibility for the harmony of the changes falls on Selldorf, who renovated the Manton Research center and the original 1955 building, allowing both to maintain their integrity while still fitting them into the current context. Michael Lewis, Faison-Pierson-Stoddard Professor of Art History, perhaps best articulated the notable dynamic between context and structure, stating, “The new additions to the Clark Art Institute make a striking contrast with the buildings that Williams College built over the last decade. These have been busy and overwrought, and better suited for an urban than a rural site. Paresky, with its ostentatiously exaggerated gestures of welcome and transparency, is the worst offender. What I very much like about Ando’s Clark, in contrast to much of our recent work, is that increasingly rare quality in architecture: restraint.”

The gains that the College, and more importantly the broader Berkshire community will garner from the most recent addition to our landscape, however, will be anything but restrained. Morris notes the changes to the visitors’ experience at the Clark, saying “The flow through the galleries is improved; we have reclaimed some ‘back of house’ spaces and have increased the amount of space in the galleries. The old loading dock gallery is now a beautiful space dedicated to American art; and the original museum entrance lobby has been transformed into a sculpture conservatory.” Indeed gallery space has been increased by 15 percent. With the promise of improved visitor experience comes an influx of visitors, bringing renown and economic gain to the Williamstown region.

It seems most appropriate to end with Morris’s own message to viewers, both first-time and veterans. “For those who’ve visited the Clark before, we think you’ll find that the galleries feel much as they did before the renovation … only better. The architectural details are more elegant, paint colors are all new, the decorative arts have magnificent new cases, and the lighting is greatly improved. For those who will visit the Clark for the first time, we hope they will find these galleries to be the ideal setting in which to discover one of the greatest private collections in North America.”