The Design of the Johnson Museum of Art:
A Recollection

by John Sullivan III

In the spring of 1968, I. M. Pei & Partners (now Pei Cobb Freed & Partners) received the commission from the Trustees of Cornell University to design the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art. It was to be the third museum building created by the ten-year-old firm, and the largest, most complex one to that date. It is singular as a building type: a museum and teaching facility, one that would function for the University and contribute to the cultural life of the surrounding community.

The program compiled by the University Planning Office for the 60,000 square foot building was a 35-page booklet encompassing the Museum’s background and goals; the uses and their space needs; technical considerations; site description, plans, and photographs; project standards, schedule, and budget. A two-dimensional diagram defined desired relationships without prejudice to architectural disposition. It was a well-devised document produced jointly by the Museum directorship and the University administration, communicating ideas and fundamentals while leaving open the design concept and its resolution. A brief section devoted to the University’s philosophy toward the introduction of new buildings into the harmonious fabric of campus structures and spaces paralleled the analytical approach we pursue in the development of all our projects: an overview of the larger picture, studying the impact of the new upon the existing, while evaluating possibilities in design direction through ideas prompted by the context.

This complete listing of museum spaces, with their areas and explicit individual requirements, provided us with a valuable guide we would rely on during the two-year design documentation process. Among the physical considerations that would influence the design concept were the need for latitude in the display arrangement of the diverse scope of existing collections, the provision for a variety of gallery ceiling heights, and the restriction of direct natural light from most, if not all, of the galleries. The massing would also be affected by the large amount of space required for support facilities: the storage and work rooms; the mechanical system; the offices and meeting room; and those auxiliary spaces required for its teaching role. Tucked in was the request to consider future expansion.

continues with Site and Context

Originally published in A Handbook of the Collection (Ithaca: Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, 1998), 29–40.