by John Sullivan III
The building was conceived as having one continuous, flowing surface of board-formed concrete, wrapping from outside to inside without distinction between the two. The lobby is designed as an exterior space—a pavilion, or viewing platform, at the apex of Libe Slope—and the sculpture court above is just another level of the lobby, reached by stairs and bridges. Thus, the clear, polished plate glass, required to provide protection from the elements, was inserted directly into the concrete shell to further the ambiguity. This detail is maintained everywhere except at the lobby skylight and its contiguous vertical glass slots; these are framed in bronze-finished aluminum to handle drainage.
The concrete of the outer walls and core turns inward to frame the entrances of the main galleries, continuing the idea of the galleries as a series of rooms linked by exterior spaces. The interior finishes and their palette were established to provide a neutral, and easily maintained, backdrop for the diverse range of the Museum’s collections. Detailing was kept simple, but precise and refined, to frame the art without intrusion. The galleries were all originally lined with a neutral-colored linen fabric stretched over plywood walls. This warm, textured surface had the advantage of closing its weave after the nails of one exhibit were removed for another. It was a practical move which provided an always-finished space; each new exhibit would not have to consider re-painting the walls of the previous exhibit. After the wear of many years, the linen in several of the galleries was removed, giving the opportunity to vary the “lining” color to specifically complement a particular exhibit.
The floor surfaces are transformed as one moves from lobby through the building, the material changing to complement the space and its use. The lobby is paved in tile with concrete borders; the grand stair and bridge links are the same concrete as the walls but with a hard-trowelled finish; the galleries have oak floors, using boards the same width as the concrete formwork; and the lecture room and the Asian galleries are carpeted for a sense of quiet.
The Museum has a combination of mechanical systems for ventilation, supplying air with humidity to the areas where art is displayed and stored, and providing normally heated or cooled air for the offices and at all the glass surfaces. The building, like an office tower, is fed from fan rooms in the basement and in the penthouse through ductwork rising through the elevator/stair core. The heat generated by lighting and people in the galleries requires those spaces to be supplied with cool air for most of the year. The air is introduced into the galleries through a slotted band at the top of the wall and extracted through a continuous slot just above the oak baseboard. By locating the thermostatic sensors and lines of electrical outlets in this slot, we were able to remove these usual distractions from the walls, leaving an unencumbered display surface.
concludes with The Opening (1973)
Originally published in A Handbook of the Collection (Ithaca: Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, 1998), 29–40.