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Architecture and landscape in harmony: Tadao Ando’s plan for the Clark Art Institute.

Leading Light

Global design star Tadao Ando is renowned for his Japanese-influenced architectural philosophy, one that “integrates edifice with environment by utilizing light and space in dynamic sequences.” The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., the only major art museum in the world not in an urban setting, is beloved for its bucolic Berkshires campus. The combination—Ando is designing the Clark’s expansion project—is an exciting development for art and architecture buffs near and far. Earlier this month, the Clark unveiled its “reconceptualization” with a two-gallery exhibit that illustrates the museum’s plans for the dramatic expansion-renovation-enhancement project. The expansion includes a striking new building, a large-scale water feature, and improved amenities such as a new restaurant and a café with outdoor seating. The project also encompasses plans, by Reed Hilderbrand Associates of Watertown, for improved access to the museum’s scenic walking trails. “It’s really a marriage of architectural vision and landscape vision,” says museum director Michael Conforti. “We wanted to make the landscape as important as the buildings.”

The Ando-designed visitor center will be a two-story structure of glass and granite formed from three rectangles and an outdoor terrace. Replacing a 1965 building, the center will increase gallery space by 50 percent without enlarging the museum’s architectural “footprint”—most of the structure will exist below ground. Greater natural lighting will come from Ando’s signature courtyards and light wells. “It’s unusual that with 140 acres, we’re tearing down a building,” says Conforti. “It shows our commitment to the quality of the landscape experience. That’s the attraction, and we didn’t want to spoil it by adding large-scale architecture to our existing buildings.” The center’s galleries will allow the Clark to exhibit works, such as historical paintings, that were difficult to display before, as well as making space for a rare-book room. A red-granite wall will integrate the structure with the museum’s 1973 red-granite library.

Ando had been selected by the Clark a full year before his design for the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas, made him an architectural supernova in the United States. “I met him some years ago, in Osaka, and he was always in my mind,” says Conforti. After a month-long formal search, the Japanese designer was selected over four other finalists. “Because he works in a subtle fashion, he was the only appropriate architect for our project,” asserts the director. An exhibit on Ando’s celebrated career, which runs through April 27, is on display at the Clark.

Ando also designed a grand glass entranceway for the museum’s famed white-marble building, a “temple of art” designed by Daniel Perry in 1955. “The façade will stay exactly as it is while this major entrance reorients the campus away from the streetside,” explains Conforti. “It relates to the whole reconceptualization. You won’t drive in between two buildings. You’ll drive around back and park, and as you walk in, you’ll see the water and the hill.” A new parking lot will provide additional parking spaces while lessening the appearance of paving. Ando’s design for a 1.5-acre reflecting pool, situated on the old parking lot, will unify the three buildings and connect the 140-acre uplift with the campus below. “It’s probably the most important part of the whole project, and the public has responded to it incredibly positively,” says Conforti. The director describes the pool as being more like a pond. A series of water cascades will “make a sound like a stream running through the woods,” adding to the emphasis on nature. In winter, the pool will be frozen for ice skating.

Unlike most expansions, which address growth first and aesthetics second, for the Clark, it was the other way around. Conforti says the project’s inspiration was a simple one: They wanted to create a garden. “When people come to the Clark, they often come from afar, and they want to stay a longer time. People enjoy the landscape—the views from our hills are spectacular, the best in northern Berkshire county—and the museum wanted to enhance that,” he explains. “We took a bunch of programmatic needs and placed them in this reconceptualization of the landscape.” Conforti adds that Ando and the landscape associates are not only working together, but have taken trips together to Japan. Construction on the first phase, estimated at $15 million, is scheduled to begin next year. “We see this as taking over a decade,” the director says of the multi-phase project, adding cheerfully, “but we’re patient.”

In the meantime, visitors can view the project through the exhibit, which features models, maps, a film, and an eight-minute virtual walkthrough. The project exhibit is on display until early autumn. Tadao Ando: Architect runs through April 27. The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute is located at 225 South St., Williamstown, Mass. Call (413) 458-2303 for more information.

—Ann Morrow

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