Monday, August 6, 2012

ArtSmart Roundtable: The Architecture of the High Museum of Art

The main entrance of the High Museum of Art moved from the Meier original to the Piano addition.

It’s that time again, the first Monday of the month means ArtSmart!  This also marks one year of the roundtable, and I want to thank my fellow roundtablers for participating this past year.  You guys rock my socks!!

Perk of interning that semester? I got to attend the Director’s Circle Soiree for the opening. Fancy pants.  Ignore the tragic 2005 hair.

This month’s theme is museums and galleries, and I can’t wait to see what everyone chose to cover.  I interned at three different museums as an undergrad at Emory.  The most prestigious of which is Atlanta’s High Museum of Art (or the High as everyone in Atlanta refers to it).  While the internship itself wasn’t very glamorous, hello selling tickets and updating member info, I did intern during one of the most exciting times at the museum.  In November of 2005, a huge three building extension was opened which doubled the size of the exhibition space of the museum.  The architecture of the new and old wings are a really interesting study in the architecture of an exhibition space.  So that’s what I’m going to focus on.  You can read more about the types of art and famous pieces in their collection on their website.

Atlanta may not be a popular spot for travel bloggers to visit (but did you know that The Road Forks and Twenty-Something Travel are fellow Emory alums?), but the High is worth the visit.  The museum started out as the High family home becoming a gallery for the Haverty art collection.  In 1955, a museum was built next to the home to create more space to display the art.  Seven years later, many art patrons from Atlanta went to Paris to visit the Louvre among other art museums.  When leaving Paris to return home, their plane crashed at Orly and killed all 130 people aboard.  To commemorate the huge loss to Atlanta arts community, the Atlanta Memorial Arts Center was built on the site of the old High home and adjoining museum.  Twenty years later, Richard Meier built the High Museum of Art.

The Richard Meier original High Museum of Art building. Via Wikimedia Commons.

His exhibition space is reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York City.  The interior galleries circle around a large atrium, and you walk along a sloping ramp to access each floor.  Only Meier’s galleries shoot off into a cube-shaped extension surrounding the circular center rather than Wright’s entirely round space.  Meier has a few signatures that are evident in the space.  First, he is a huge proponent of “the white box”, meaning that he favors a stark, all white interior for art museums and galleries which is a rather recent philosophy for museum architecture (totally different than the “palaces” of art like the Met).  But he expands that love of white to the exterior of many of his buildings, including the High, so they are easy to spot in urban areas surrounded by gray.  Another trademark is his use of grids.  The exterior of the High features a grid of white enamel paneling, squared “arches” leading to the entrance, and square windows.  The High looks like the love child of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye and Wright’s Getty Museum.

Part of Renzo Piano’s addition. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The downside of his design is that the space is dim (the majority of sunlight shines only into the atrium) and it could only house a small fraction of the museum’s collection.  In 2005, Renzo Piano’s additions opened.  Rather than making a drastically different addition like Libeskind’s Denver Art Museum add-on, Piano took a Postmodern approach.  He echoes the white grid of Meier’s building through vertical aluminum panels.  His design, however, is much lighter.  The Meier original looks like the 8-bit version next to Piano’s addition.  The first floors of both new wings are walls of glass, with the slender panels above stretching up into the light “scoops” on the roof.  These scoops point north and funnel that soft light down into the galleries.  Piano carefully connects all three building with glass corridors to make the connections appear as unobtrusive as possible.

Interior of a Piano wing.  Via Wikimedia Commons.

Showing the lighting in the atrium of the Meier wing.  Via Wikimedia Commons.

The design is light and airy in the interior as well.  You can actually feel a difference walking between the two.  The light-filled open spaces in the Piano wings let the art breathe and give you room to take it all in.  The dimmer, smaller galleries in the Meier wing feel more confined.  The open floor plan of the Piano wings serve as the display space for traveling exhibitions and larger-scale pieces of modern and contemporary art.  The Meier wing holds more of the decorative art and European art collections, both of which feature darker, smaller pieces such as oil paintings or Victorian dining tables.  The wings complement the collections that they house.  Dark pieces are hard to see properly is very bright rooms with the high contrast of white walls.  Extremely large paintings require enough space to stand back and take the entire image in, and saturated colors can take the bright light and high contrast.  Walking through the wings not only gives you a survey of art but of 20th and 21st century architecture.

What’s your favorite museum?  Does the architecture of the space play a role in your appreciation of the collection?

What is ArtSmart?  A couple fellow travel bloggers with an interest in art and I decided to do a roundtable series focused on making our readers “art smart”, e.g. understanding why certain works of art are famous and worth the visit while traveling.  At the end of this post are links to the other ArtSmart posts by participating bloggers.  Interested in joining the Roundtable?  Check out our Facebook page or email me.

Photo credits: First two are my own, photo 3: By Josh Hallett from Winter Haven, FL, USA (High Museum of Art – Atlanta, GA) via Wikimedia Commons, photo 4: By Josh Hallett from Winter Haven, FL, USA (High Museum of Art – Atlanta, GA) via Wikimedia Commons, photo 5: By Brooke Novak via Wikimedia Commons, photo 6: Kyle Pind. Deanna Sirlin via Wikimedia Commons

This Month’s Fellow ArtSmart Roundtable Articles:

Jeff of EuroTravelogue: A Visit to the Mauritshuis Royal Picture Gallery in The Hague

Ashley of No Onions, Extra Pickles: coming soon

Kelly of Travelious: The Menil Collection in Houston, Texas

Leslie of Career Girl Travels: The Meaning of Maori at Te Papa Tongarewa

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11 Responses to “ArtSmart Roundtable: The Architecture of the High Museum of Art”

  1. 1

    Jenna — August 6, 2012 @ 2:17 pm

    I’m so glad you wrote about this because I have never heard of it, it is an amazing space inside and out, and when I make it to Atlanta (possibly as a long lay-over en route to Brazil), I will go there!

    • ehalvey replied: — August 6th, 2012 @ 5:34 pm

      It’s directly on the MARTA line from the airport. Woodruff Arts Center stop, I think. There’s a fun Lichenstein house sculpture for the kiddos, too.

  2. 2

    Jeff Titelius — August 6, 2012 @ 7:25 pm

    What a tragic beginning to a very happy and inspiring ending! I would love to visit this museum one day just to see the architecture!! Great post in this month’s ArtSmart Roundtable my friend!

    • ehalvey replied: — August 7th, 2012 @ 7:06 pm

      Thanks, Jeff! It’s definitely a story that history forgot. It’s such a great museum to check out. Thy had a 5 year partnership with the Louvre to show some of their art, and I think they were only able to clinch it because of its history at Orly.

  3. 3

    ArtSmart Roundtable: The Meaning of Maori at Te Papa Tongarewa | CGTravelsBlog — August 7, 2012 @ 1:41 am

    [...] Open daily, 365 days a year, 10am-6pm Entry is free! Other August ArtSmart Feature Articles: The Architecture of the High Museum by Erin at A Sense of Place A Visit to the Mauritshuis Royal Picture Gallery in the Hague by Jeff [...]

  4. 4

    Leslie — August 7, 2012 @ 7:15 pm

    Who knew!? I have never heard of this museum before and it looks amazing. Between the Renzo Piano and Richard Meier portions, it reminds me of a mash-up of LA’s two best museums, LACMA and the Getty. BUT in one place! So cool. I think we forget how much the actual BUILDING impacts the art inside. Great reminder : )

    • ehalvey replied: — August 8th, 2012 @ 11:44 am

      It IS like LACMA’s and Getty’s love child. The collection is fantastic.

  5. 5

    Lesley Peterson — August 7, 2012 @ 9:20 pm

    Great post, Erin. It looks as though the Piano addition was a great improvement. Would like to visit and see the collection someday!

    • ehalvey replied: — August 8th, 2012 @ 11:45 am

      I think it was, but I have a soft spot for Piano :)

  6. 6

    Kelly — August 8, 2012 @ 12:26 pm

    The High has been on my list of museums to visit for awhile, need to find an excuse to get to Atlanta! You can see a lot of similarities in Piano’s lighting approach from twenty years earlier at the Menil.

    • ehalvey replied: — August 9th, 2012 @ 10:11 am

      I love his approach to lighting, and the Menil has been on my list of museums to visit. There’s just something so calming about his buildings.

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