Thomas Phifer Gives the Corning Museum of Glass Its Best Asset

An effulgent new addition to the Corning Museum of Glass revels in the light.

Thomas Phifer and Partners’ 100,000-square-foot building is the newest addition to the Corning Museum of Glass’s upstate New York campus. The building adjoins the old Steuben Glass Factory, which was newly renovated by Phifer’s office and converted into a small theater for glassblowing demonstrations.

All photographs courtesy Corning Museum of Glass

You have to have a real reason for coming to Corning, New York, and the Corning Museum of Glass is it. Approximately 440,000 people make the trek annually to Corning Inc.’s upstate campus; most by car, many by bus—the necessary carrier of the thousands of Chinese tourists that stop by en route to or from Niagara Falls.

The main events are the live glassblowing demonstrations, which pack a theme-park punch, complete with sportscaster, play-by-play narration—That’s about as long as you’ll see a piece of glass out of the glory hole—and excited applause. Then there’s the immense gift shop offering all kinds of baubles and curios that wouldn’t be out of place at an outlet-mall crystal emporium. All around lie the permanent and temporary exhibits, ranging drastically in tone and spanning over three millennia of glassmaking from the Egyptians to the Venetians and, much, much later, the freewheeling Americans collectively huddled under the midcentury label “Studio Glass.”

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Lastly, there’s the architecture, a motley mix of vitreous structures dating back to Wallace K. Harrison’s 1951 museum building. (Only a vestigial corner of that building, featuring original glass-brick infill, is left, swallowed whole by subsequent additions.) Gunnar Birkerts’s 1976 building contains the museum’s ancient glass holdings: dark and cavernous, it’s very much of its heterogenous time, with a cloverleaf-like floor plate appreciable only in plan and a periscopic daylighting scheme so convoluted there’s no wonder it never really worked.

Smith-Miller + Hawkinson’s 2001 extension, which revamped the museum’s main entryway, is similarly frozen in time, an ode to clunky turn-of-the-millennium engineering and its idolatry of oversize steel brackets and taut cables. After taking sustenance in the below-grade cafeteria, and providing there’s a bit of time, the visitor might wish to walk the grounds and take in these eclectic architectural creatures.

This tiny Finger Lakes town, nearly half of whose 11,000 inhabitants are employed by its metonymic manufacturer, should be proud of them, warts and all. They should be prouder still of the museum campus’s newest addition, an effulgent 100,000-square-foot box designed by the New York architect Thomas Phifer and containing the 26,000-square-foot Contemporary Art + Design Wing. Previously dubbed the North Wing by curators, the cardinally derived moniker isn’t merely descriptive—Phifer’s $64-million building anchors the museum, clarifies its mission, and calms the discordant notes sounded by its neighboring galleries.

An exhibition space in the wing’s 26,000-square-foot gallery, the largest such space devoted to glass art in the world.

The wing is first glimpsed at the corners, as visitors make their way from the parking lot to the ticket counter housed in the Smith-Miller + Hawkinson glass wedge. The exterior of Phifer’s volume, which also packs in nearly 46,000 square feet of ground-floor office and storage space, is clad in huge glass panels fitted together to minimize joints. They give the impression of a seamless glass envelope whose interlayer composition is nonetheless complex, answering to weatherproofing and shading functions. The incomers turn to encounter head-on the new single-level galleries; the floor slopes up gently, easing into a remarkably well-lit space, unlike what you find in most art museums.

The two-tone gray-and-white purism of the hall is accentuated by both the languorously curving walls and the sensibly sparse distribution of large-scale glass works. (Unlike traditional artworks, glass doesn’t wither under light.) Pieces such as Fred Wilson’s To Die Upon a Kiss (2011), a highly crafted objet d’art masquerading as kitsch chandelier, are strung up from concrete beams hovering overhead, dozens spanning the ceiling from north to south. Unnervingly thin at just three and a half inches wide, these joists transfer the ceiling loads to the tops of the structural and mechanical inner walls to which they are mounted. The design’s structural parti, realized with engineer-architect Guy Nordenson, liberates the perimeter walls for more poetic feats, in particular the 140- foot-long glass “viewfinder”—“window” is too inadequate a term—that looks out onto a notional lawn that won’t fully come into itself until summer next year.

Though light penetrates the volume from the sides, it’s subdued and softened into an even glow. The heavy lifting, so to speak, is done by the four-foot-deep precast ceiling beams, which “literally push down light toward the gallery,” says Phifer, whose architecture has always delighted in the interplay of glass and light. They rest evenly spaced beneath rows of roof skylights and subtly modulate the sun’s rays as they fall downward. The daylight can vary wildly in this clime, and the slightest variance is legible on the exquisitely rendered central concrete walls. Cast in place, the results are “dead perfect,” Phifer enthuses. “It shouldn’t have happened,” he adds, explaining how components of the concrete work, from the floor slab and walls to the beams, were executed by different contractors.

The 140- foot-long glass “viewfinder” exploits the liberties afforded by the gallery’s structural inner walls, which shore up the four-foot-deep precast ceiling beams overhead.

The keen evenness and deadpan texture of the plaster surfacing equals the concrete in its virtual lack of imperfection. If the gallery is an oversize vitrine for displaying art, as its architect suggests, it’s also a gigantic lightbox, or prism, with which to study shifting patterns of daylight. Where pricklier, aesthetically uneven architectural surfaces can very reliably produce striking chiaroscuro effects, Phifer’s immaculate walls chase after something more evasive, less easily attainable.

In plan, the curved walls assume splined figures in which one can read the faux-naif linework of any dozen modern artists, or if you prefer, the artful strokes of Chinese calligraphy. The thickness of the poche tapers to a needlepoint before the lines are allowed to intersect. The walls bow in places to create pockets of space to install a group of artworks or a single, site-specific piece. The spaciousness of these galleries means that the 117 works on display are allowed to breathe. Katherine Gray’s Forest Glass (2009) relishes its well-deserved coverage, while Roni Horn’s Untitled (2013) gains immensely from its isolated niche facing out toward the circulation corridor. They are protected by custom casements made from Gorilla glass, the very same as embedded in your smartphone, and the most ubiquitous of Corning’s product innovations. Sturdy and incredibly fine to the touch, the glass’s potential spatial applications are indeed promising, and it yearns to be used in a more substantially architectural manner.

After all, Pyrex, another Corning product, played a memorable cameo role at Frank Lloyd Wright’s SC Johnson Research Tower (1950), where it was installed as glass tubing in the arched bridge leading to the laboratories. Across the way at the Corning campus, inside the Rakow Research Library’s entry hall, the all-glass staircase risers by architects Bohlin Cywinski Jackson prefigure their eminently duplicable design for Apple and its retail empire. A couple of hundred paces to the northeast stands the “C” Building, built by Harrison in 1955 and clad all over with black-tinted Corning Vitrolite panels that were already démodé by the following decade. In the lobby, one finds in reverse an example of this synergy between architectural design and Corning’s glass innovation—a humble display the visitor will be surprised to learn was designed by Massimo Vignelli and features an extraordinarily strong adhesive subsequently repurposed as a patented bonding element in Corning’s fiber-optic connectors. Vignelli’s glue is a reminder of how architectural thinking can be used in widespread applications at scales that utterly dwarf the comparatively fussy act of object building.

Yet, more than any other building on campus, the new wing makes an excellent case for the art of building. It elevates the artworks within while exerting a force all its own. Rarely do museum buildings project this kind of coherence or flex this kind of confidence. The Contemporary Art + Design Wing isn’t simply an addition to the Corning complex, it’s now its best asset.

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