Making a Front Porch for the City

Architect Richard Gluckman Talks About Designing the Austin Museum of Art's Downtown Facility

Main façade from northwest corner
Main façade from northwest corner

Just over two years ago, the Austin Museum of Art selected an architect to design the museum's permanent downtown facility. The choice -- Gluckman Mayner Architects, New York City -- generated considerable enthusiasm in the local visual arts community because of Richard Gluckman's international reputation for sensitivity in designing art-related spaces. His work on such high-profile projects as the Dia Cultural Center for the Arts and the permanent collection wing of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, and the Picasso Museum in Malaga, Spain, established Gluckman as an architect who gets out of the art's way, designing galleries in which the architectural detail exists primarily to showcase the work on exhibition and not itself. He has also won considerable attention for his facility at bringing natural light into his buildings, dispelling the antiquated image of the museum as a gloomy, artificially illuminated box and allowing the art and its patrons to bathe in light. That approach seemed terrifically well-suited to a museum in a city that prizes the outdoors as much as Austin does. On October 16, Gluckman proved just how well-suited it was, presenting a final design to the AMOA Board of Trustees in which glass, light, limestone, water, and greenery are used to create an artspace that ends up saying as much about the natural world outside as it does the human-generated work inside. In short, it is a building that captures the character of Austin. The design was approved by a unanimous vote.

People who have worked with Gluckman on the AMOA project -- AMOA executive director Elizabeth Ferrer, Barnes Architects principal Carl Gromatzsky -- describe the architect as "incredibly responsive" and focus much of their praise on his skill at listening. Of course, he speaks, too, and on one of his many whirlwind trips to Austin -- this one as the architect was completing the final design for the AMOA building -- Gluckman took a few minutes to discuss this project, his approach to architecture, and what it means to design buildings for a boomtown.

Austin Chronicle: What was the appeal of designing an art museum in the middle of Texas?

Richard Gluckman: It could have been anywhere, though we're really glad to have begun one in Austin, but I'll get into that. As you probably know, we've been working with artists and curators and directors since 1977. In New York, when you're a young architect, you start out and if you're lucky, you get to do renovations. So, for a long time, we did a lot of what I call interventions into older buildings. That led to some good projects -- Dia, then Warhol -- but I didn't start out wanting to be an architect for renovated spaces. I started out wanting to be an architect for big buildings. Although we have done buildings throughout our entire professional career, we've been trying to do new buildings for a while. And I think what led to this project was the renovation and addition to the O'Keeffe, and then the competition for the Fort Worth [Museum of Art]. That background and the projects that we did helped convince this board that maybe we could design a museum from the ground up. And so here we are. It's every architect's objective to design a building, and I think we've been extraordinarily fortunate because museums are the best kinds of buildings. I hope my career has been building toward this project.

What I know now about the conception of a museum is vastly different from what I knew 20 years ago. And it's great to be here because you have an extremely responsive community, an amazingly young community, and I think that it's well-represented in the administration of this museum, both from the administrative side as well as the board side. It's an amazingly young group of people here in Austin that are participating in this project on every level. It's shocking.

AC: For you personally, what's your experience when you go to a museum? What do you get out of it or want to get out of it?

RG: [Laughs] On the one hand, my eye immediately goes to the joint between the wall and the floor, but on the other hand ... You go to museums for lots of different reasons. Historically, you go to museums to learn about art. And historically, you go to museums to see art that is once displaced. You're looking at art that was painted for a studio or a house or, in the European tradition, painted for a chapel or a church, and for one reason or another, whether it was a conquering army that took the work out of one place and put it back in its national capital, or whether it was a commissioned work that got sold, that art ended up in a museum. But what's interesting is that over the last 20 or 25 years, the nature of the museum has changed. It's not simply this pedagogic experience. It's become much more culturally active and much more interactive, both on a social level as well as on an art level. Every museum, as it's evolving, has to have its coffee bar, its bookstore, its theatre, and, in the last five or eight years, its education departments -- and education departments don't necessarily mean bringing the kids in for drawing classes on Saturday morning. It's the whole spectrum of engaging a new public, whether it's a kid or a college student or an adult, with a realm of our society that they're not necessarily familiar with. Museums all over, both for commercial reasons as well as for their obligatory reasons, are seeking to make themselves less intimidating and more understandable. And in addition to that, purely from the art point of view, museums have gone from being these sort of repositories of art to becoming the places where art is made, where it's conceived. So they also provide opportunities for artists, whether it's a local artist or an international artist.

AC: When it comes to this evolution in what museums are and what they can mean to a community, are there specific qualities that you feel you bring to the table as an architect?

Richard Gluckman
Richard Gluckman

RG: Yes. I think what I bring to the table is this: a lack of ego with regard to the space. Because of my experience over the last twenty-some years with artists and curator types, I know that no matter how hard an architect tries, he cannot anticipate what an artist is going to do. Which is the surprise and the wonder of artists. So early on, I developed this strategy -- and it's not a literal strategy but kind of a sense -- that the space in which the art sits is not completed until the artist finishes work in the space. So we somehow have to anticipate that the space will be completed after we're not involved in it, in a future from which the architect is sometimes excluded.

In some ways, it may sound vague or goofy, but it's not flexibility and it's not designing neutral spaces. I hate it when spaces are called neutral because they're really intended to be interactive with certain types of work. Certain types of work do not demand that the space interact with it; I mean, traditional work exists literally and figuratively within a frame. And so one hopes that the quality of the space in which the work sits is a beautiful space, but it doesn't have any effect on the work itself. It may affect one's perception of it, but it's got nothing to do with what the artist intended. But there's a lot of art these days -- it started probably in the Sixties and Seventies, what's called site-specific or minimalist work, it's gone on to installation work and work that literally takes one outside the gallery, when one thinks of electronic artwork -- there's a lot of work that either interacts with or ignores the space or has nothing to do with it in an electronic way. Knowing that, we're not going to design a building that's static. Parts of it will be allowed to be manipulated by the art in the future. That's what I bring to it.

Also, we've designed millions of square feet of exhibition space. [Laughs] If you added it all up, it's enormous. And we've worked a lot with artists, living and dead. And we've certainly worked a lot with directors and boards and things.

AC: One of the first things that interested me about your selection for the AMOA project was this sense of a progression in your work from the O'Keeffe in Santa Fe to the preparation for the Fort Worth to here. You're doing all this in the Southwest and having to take into account that kind of Southwestern light that maybe doesn't translate to other parts of the country.

RG: You just mentioned one difference between designing a museum in the southwestern United States and designing a museum in the northeastern United States. There are a lot more. It's one parameter. There are many, many other parameters that go into designing an art museum. Light is obviously a critically important one. I mean, there's great light on eastern Long Island and the coast on Maine, and it's different than it is here. But we've been working in the Southwest now for seven or eight years, or in Southern latitudes with high sun for a long time. We've worked in Spain for 10 years now -- it's the same latitude as Texas and New Mexico. And there are some characteristics of light that are the same everywhere: sun and heat, the foot-candle temperature, the Kelvin temperature of the sky, certain reflective things that take place. And of course, all that has to be tempered by conservatorial requirements, so that only a tiny percentage of light that exists outside the building gets inside the building, at least in the spaces where art exists. So light is manipulated quite a lot. To capture that quality literally is difficult.

Now in Santa Fe, at the O'Keeffe, one of our objectives in the building had to do with capturing not just the quality of light that we found in New Mexico but the quality of light that Georgia O'Keeffe was trying to paint in her paintings. Can a painter capture the quality of light in the environment in which they're painting? Well, yes and no. They can certainly ... I wouldn't use the word mimic; I would say they can certainly create a reference to it. But you know it's a painting; it's a painting of something else. A building acts as a filter in the same way. With the O'Keeffe, one objective of ours was to try to create in the space a reference to the quality of light in the paintings. And the way we did it was with the skylights and the scrims and things that we put on the skylights. In other words, we put in asymmetrical skylights; they weren't perfectly uniform the way they might be in a more traditional exhibition gallery, so that it was slightly more directional, and there was more chiarascuro. In a couple of cases, I think it worked. I mean, you sort of see the light falling in the room.

AC: Was it useful to have had that Santa Fe experience before this project?

RG: Well, yes and no. Yes, it was useful. But it was also useful that I got to do Dia in 1987, because the relationship of structure to light to space is something that is very interesting to me, and that relationship we began to explore in the Dia building. Yes, of course, it's valuable working in this latitude. But, as I said, we've been working in Spain for 10 years, in a country that has as many sunny days as New Mexico. It's very similar, and they're sort of similar indigenous structures as well.

I think every architect is asked that question, and I think that these days there's a certain defensiveness about bringing an outside person to a region that they obviously don't know. It is an architect's responsibility to understand local parameters. Sometimes they do tend to get ignored, at their peril. Sometimes they get ignored and it doesn't matter. An architect might come up with a building that has nothing to do with indigenous style and it's still a great building. But I think our society is going in a global direction. Regionalism ... we all want to hang onto it, but we cannot hang onto it for nostalgic reasons. And that means we have to be rigorous about it.

AC: With this increasing globalization or tamping down of regionalism, is there a danger of going generic?

View of Austin Museum of Art toward the southwest
View of Austin Museum of Art toward the southwest

RG: No, there isn't, because let's look at the whole picture. You know, one percent of one percent of all the buildings are designed by architects. What's generic about the southwestern United States is strip malls and strip highways. There's no regional planning, there's no city planning, there's no urban planning that makes sense. So that kind of regionalism I don't think you want me to emulate. That's regionalism. That's the real picture. You're not going to create a 19th-century city anymore. You don't want to. There is a danger, but the danger is far greater than hiring someone to design a museum or a library or a city hall that doesn't come from the neighborhood.

AC: In Austin, we have you designing the museum downtown, just across the river we have Skidmore, Owings & Merrill transforming our municipal auditorium into a performing arts center, and down the street from that, a theatre has hired Steven Holl to design his first-ever theatre. It's a fascinating time to be here, to see that kind of architecture being developed, especially for cultural projects. But I wonder, are those too many strong voices too close together?

RG: No. Sometimes that makes ... well, I'm not going to continue on your music metaphor. Look, it's a very exciting time to be in Austin. It's an extraordinary time to be in Austin, because it's a city with phenomenal growth potential, both in the downtown area as well as in the region, in the metropolitan area. There are three or four projects [by outside architects] ... but there are also a lot of projects going up by local architects. There's an airport, a convention center, a natural history museum, and several other projects going up by local architects. You don't ask the question: Is it too quiet a cacophony if you don't have outside architects? It adds to the mix and makes it a vibrant situation. But what else could I have said? [Laughs]

AC: Well, is it any more difficult designing for this kind of a boomtown? That whole area where the museum is going up is going to change radically in the next few years.

RG: That's an interesting point. When we came here and were being interviewed almost two years ago, we went to look at the site, which at that point was a block south. There's no site there. There is no immediate context there. We have a parking garage on one side, a moontower next to that, and the park. That's it. That's our context. The key topographic or contextual focal point is the park, and we were really, really glad when the site shifted to the park site. We want to help establish the context. We've had meetings with some of the other groups and architects around, talking about city streetscapes and setbacks and shadow lines, things like that, as well as zoning mixes -- conversations, we're not designing any of that -- and there's a real interest, I think, in all these people to do it right, because it's a clean sheet of paper.

In one sense, that makes it easy, not hard. If you're right across the street from the Kimball [Art Museum in Fort Worth], that's another matter. There are certain contextual situations that are really loaded. This one, hopefully, everyone will take it pretty seriously. And I think everyone is taking it pretty seriously. [Architect Antoine] Predock is doing city hall? Well, I guess he's considered a local architect. [Laughs]

AC: What about the character of the community? Is there a similar character to the museum as an institution that you wanted to incorporate into the building?

RG: When we started, we started working directly with artists doing large-scale installations. Then we did a couple of single-artist museums. In some ways, the work with the single-artist museums and a lot of that stuff we did for Dia was very privileged, because we knew the specific artwork or certain type of artwork [that would be shown in the space], so we could tailor the design to a certain degree to that specific condition -- certain installations or certain paintings or certain suites of paintings. Which was really fun to do. This museum does not have a big collection. So we're designing part of it for changing exhibitions or traveling exhibitions, part of it for contemporary work, and part of it for permanent work. So that component is missing to a certain extent. But it's like 90% of all the other museums that get designed. There's not necessarily a strong or large or neat permanent collection that you're designing around, which is challenging.

Now, getting more to the question: From the very beginning the museum produced a set of parameters and standards and objectives that made it seem that the museum intended to become a diverse and inclusive institution. From the first interview committee that I stood in front of to the board meetings I participated in to some of the functions that I've been to, I've gotten the impression that the institution intends to fulfill those goals. So in designing the building, we came up with the metaphor of the entrance to the building being the front porch for the city, so the indoor/outdoor space in the front of the building was not necessarily seamless, but was connected. We think literally and figuratively that the public park is the front lawn for our building -- even though it's out of our responsibility. We want to make the experience of the viewer coming into the building a friendly, non-intimidating, easy one, one in which the building is easily read and there's this sort of relaxed relationship, where it's not separate.

There are certain program aspects that we always wanted to have on the perimeter and on the façade of the building. If you look carefully through the sequence of drawings, you'll see that the new works gallery migrated from the façade deeper into the lobby, for a couple of reasons which I'm not going to get into here. However, the art and technology gallery migrated out to the façade, for lots of reasons, not the least of which is that Austin has a technological base to it. That type of gallery, which in some ways is difficult to define because this is a whole new form for work, could exist both in daylight and in totally enclosed situations. So the idea of making the art and technology gallery the literal and figurative sign for the façade of the building is really appealing. And that came out of the desire not just to create a glitzy façade on part of one corner, but that a building wants to bring people in and we want this building to feel this way. That it's easy to just walk in and inviting to walk into.

Centerpiece Gallery looking north
Centerpiece Gallery looking north

AC: Much has been made over the University of Texas seeking architects for the Blanton Museum of Art, and Herzog & de Meuron pulling out of that project over conflicts with some of the regents. It's made me feel that sometimes people have a fear of architecture. Do you ever run into that?

RG: I don't know if it's a fear of architecture. In some cases, it's just a fear of change, whether it's art or architecture. And in some cases, people want a very dramatic statement in architecture, sometimes they want a very quiet contextual response. It's not always possible to predict. I mean, there's the so-called Gehry Effect, in which institutions and cities and countries want to have a building that does for them what the Guggenheim did for Bilbao. That's one approach, and that's having a strong effect on how architects are selected these days. We're also in a period of phenomenal growth and excitement and interest in architecture. There's so much building going on that people who select architects or hire architects can afford to do something different, can afford to take a chance. So if the Victoria and Albert Museum can pick Daniel Libeskind to do a museum in London, one would think the Blanton could pick Herzog & de Meuron. It's not as if they are extreme architects. They are extremely elegant, highly professional, wonderful architects. I'm not sure I want to get into that discussion any further because it's finished, but I was very disappointed, I am disappointed that they're not working on that project. Because I know them personally and I like them and I have enormous respect for them, and I was really looking forward to having a project in the same city as them.

AC: Have there been specific challenges in designing this museum that you had not expected?

RG: Well, I discovered this when we did the Fort Worth competition: Designing a big building is a lot harder than designing a little building. The whole Fort Worth thing didn't necessarily lead to this job because it's in Texas. It led to this job because we proved -- it was demonstrated -- that we might be able to design a building. So that Fort Worth experience is inordinately valuable to us because we didn't spin our wheels when we started working on this project.

But to get to your question: A museum in some ways wants to be opaque, in other ways it wants to be transparent. So achieving a good balance between the two is hard. I think that's what we're trying to do on this building, and it's something we've struggled with. We want to make it more transparent but there are lots of reasons why it has to stay opaque. That's been the toughest thing to resolve.

AC: Are you satisfied with the solutions for making it transparent?

RG: Very. Very. It's interesting. From the very beginning, we knew that the main public celebratory space had to be -- wanted to be -- as transparent as possible, but there was a time in the design process when it became opaque, and fortunately we've had the time and the commitment to make it more transparent again. So I think it's at a really good point right now, because it's something we've been conscious of from day one as to what the front and the main public areas of the building are going to be like. We know how to do arts spaces. We hadn't had a lot of experience doing a large public space, so that's what we paid a lot of attention to.

AC: Granted, the project isn't finished yet, but now that you've made this leap, having designed an entire museum from the ground up, did you get out of it what you hoped you would?

RG: Well, the proof will be in the pudding, and we've got more work to do, but I've been very, very happy, both professionally and internally, in terms of our office, how the project has gone. I think it's going very well. I'm very happy with it.

AC: Not the sort of thing where you want to turn back to doing just the smaller projects?

RG: Oh no, no, not at all. Are you kidding? I don't want to look back. We have a couple of design renovation projects coming up. I want to continue doing that; it's great to have a diversity of projects. And we hope to continue to get free-standing buildings -- museums or whatever. But I think we've been very fortunate here. There's a terrific group of people in Austin, both on the museum side as well as the people that we're working with here. It's a great environment to work in. I sensed that the first time I got off the plane. We may not have as pleasant a situation in the future -- I hope we do -- but there are a lot of reasons why this is a very fortuitous situation for us. end story

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