The Parrish Art Museum Finds an Austere New Home

Herzog & de Meuron’s initial concept was modeled after the many famous artists’ studios on Long Island, essentially “a village of individual houses.”

On a right turn off Southampton’s Main Street (where little cafés alternate with impeccably outfitted real estate offices) is the Renaissance revival facade of the old Parrish Art Museum. Until last September, the museum had housed its quite modern and progressive collection in this long building’s small, overflowing galleries. Outside, brick paths meandered among classical statuary. It was, in short, the nineteenth-century idea of a museum, with, as one frequent visitor put it, “a certain frothy charm as a place for sharing and enjoying art.” But it was an increasingly incongruous (and insufficient) setting for a large collection of works created on the East End of Long Island, especially when that came to include artists like Jackson Pollock, Roy Lichtenstein, Chuck Close, and April Gornik.

The journey toward opening the doors of the Parrish’s $26.2 million new home on a 14-acre site in neighboring Water Mill, New York, last November has been tumultuous, to say the least. The museum had three times that budget when it brought together the stellar design team of Herzog & de Meuron as architects, Reed Hilderbrand as the landscape architect, and Konstantin Grcic for the furniture and fittings. Their plans were announced to great fanfare in 2006, and the Architectural League of New York even exhibited the unbuilt designs in 2008. Then the money evaporated, and the Parrish project might well have ended up among the many casualties of the recession. But the architects persevered, and came up with an alternative scheme. To their credit, it is impossible to discern any ghosts of a painful past in the new Parrish Art Museum.

The first sight of the new building is of a resplendent white strip underlining the horizon, where gray sky meets green meadow. The rather austere structure is 615 feet long, topped by a corrugated-steel twin-pitched roof with a profile like a splayed out letter M and held up by gargantuan wooden rafters. Ten galleries run in two rows, below each roof peak. With 12,200 square feet of display space, the new building has three times as much room as the old museum. Between the galleries is a long corridor, lined with art, bookended by the museum’s offices and an auditorium. There are only two touches of whimsy here: First, even the internal doorways have the pitched-roof outline of the archetypal house, which is a Herzog & de Meuron signature. Second, the lobby, which is brought down to human scale by the prodigious use of knotty heart pine reclaimed from an old textile mill in Virginia, and is moodily lit by Grcic’s Calder-esque arrangement of lamps, has the cozy feel of a Swiss sauna. The rest of the building, especially the white-box galleries that soar up to nearly 30 feet under the gables, aspires to monumentality and achieves it.

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Herzog & de Meuron’s initial concept was modeled after the many famous artists’ studios on Long Island. “We organized the museum as a village of individual houses,” Jacques Herzog explained during a 2011 lecture at Harvard University. “And some of these houses would be copies of the studios, with the same orientation as they had in the real location.” That plan had to be scrapped, but it left behind one important legacy: lighting. Unusually for a museum, the artificial illumination is from fluorescent sources. They wash the room in an even, warm white, so the art seems to be suspended in limbo, in a perfectly neutral space. But the primary sources of light are large skylights—to get the quality of sunshine exactly right, the building is oriented so that they face north.

The one big thing that changed in the value engineering was the circulation. The village-of-studios idea would have allowed people to wander, get lost, and stumble upon an unknown artist. This is impossible in the new Parrish, where the long central corridor leads the art lover inexorably onward. For an institution of this size, such a directed experience works well—it’s of a piece with the disciplined architecture. Connections seem to suggest themselves between, say, Malcolm Morley’s sculpture of a biplane and the scraps in Esteban Vicente’s collages. A big museum like the Metropolitan Museum of Art could never hope to have a theme that runs through its collection (it sometimes fails to link the works in a single exhibition), but the Parrish manages quite well to tell a story rooted in Long Island.

The Hamptons have changed since the old Parrish was built, and so has the art world. One is no longer a retreat for avant-garde artists; the other deals in blue-chip commodities. We aren’t comfortable with art objects jostling with each other in irregular galleries, as the architects of the Barnes Museum in Philadelphia discovered during their own torturous design process. So the scaling down of Herzog & de Meuron’s ambitions has, in fact, done its design a great service. The long hall in a grassy meadow inadvertently pays homage to the old museum, which was, after all, once a success in its own right. What the new Parrish Art Museum has gained from its difficult gestation is clarity. What it has irrevocably lost is intimacy—but that has long been missing from our art.

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