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Serene sense of space: The Clark’s new Stone Hill Center.

Stone Sublime

The Clark Art Institute’s new conservation center is an aesthetic—and practical—beauty

By Nadine Wasserman

Growing up in Chicago amid the work of such great architects as Daniel Burnham, Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, I was keenly aware of how architecture influences a locale. Little did I know that later in life I would be living in the shadow of the Empire State Plaza. (Yikes!) But fortunately, the “Bilbao effect” has reached within 50 miles of Capital Region. Not only do we have Frank Gehry’s Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College, but now we also have Tadao Ando’s Stone Hill Center on the campus of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, which I visited on June 20 for its grand opening preview.

Ando, who was at the preview, has designed buildings all over Japan, but only two others in the United States. He is well known for taking advantage of both natural light and the landscape. Given the beauty of the Berkshires, he was a great choice.

Built into a hill south of the main building, the Stone Hill Center can be reached either by road or by landscaped paths that wind through the woods. Upon first approach, Ando’s virtuosic orchestration of cedar, concrete, glass and steel is readily apparent. Ando is often compared to Louis Kahn and here, as with many of Ando’s projects, the modernist influence is quite evident. Ando explained that he uses materials that give a sense of unity and balance. He is meticulous about details and is keenly aware of such elements as the thinness of a door, the way a grey wash blends with the green outdoors, and the way that natural light affects space.

Clark director Michael Conforti explained that the building is primarily a space for the Williamstown Art Conservation Center, and that it will set the standard for what a conservation space should be. While the conservation areas are physically closed to the public, they are visually exposed by a great expanse of windows along the northern side of the building. Not only does the northern light help conservators with their work, but the windows reveal the intensive behind-the-scenes work that goes on in a conservation lab. There are labs for painting and paper on the top floor, and on the lower level are labs for furniture, objects, and analysis. The lower-level labs, a meeting room, and an office surround a courtyard that has a dramatic rectangular aperture cut out of it for light and for views. The courtyard is triangular and adds an accent to a terrace on the entry level that also affords a mountain view. Besides the terrace and courtyard, there are other public spaces including two galleries, a cafe, and a classroom.

Currently on display in the Stone Hill Center galleries is Homer and Sargent from the Clark. These gallery spaces are intended to give the viewer a more pure experience of the art, but I had a hard time concentrating on the paintings. I was distracted by the amazing architectural spaces. Each gallery has a window that looks out onto a roofed patio. While one window faces west into the woods, the other faces north and affords a perfect view of the contemplative space that is this particular patio. If you veer off the path when approaching the building, you can stand or sit on this terrace. But if you continue along the designated path, you will approach the building from the side and will notice a wall impeding your view of the entrance. According to Ando, this wall functions as a space of serenity. It allows you, once inside of it, to be more aware of the natural space beyond.

The Stone Hill Center is only the first phase of the Clark’s campus enhancement and building expansion program. The plan includes a renovation of the current main building, a visitor center, a reflecting pool, and a space at MASS MoCA. On its own, the Stone Hill Center is a meditation of form, light, simplicity, and harmony, so don’t wait until the rest of the project is complete to see it.

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