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Eye-Opening Designs On The Atheneum

August 21, 2005

What is a museum's role in the city? How does it play a part in the city's lifeblood, in moving the city and itself along to the next generation? How should it grow as the city grows?

These are some of the questions considered by a group of architecture students from the University of Hartford as they explored the idea of expanding the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art by using the nearby Hartford Times building. The design problem was part of the university's new graduate program in architecture, headed by Kendra Schank Smith, who arrived in January as the new chairwoman of the university's architecture department.

Smith did not waste much time finding a way to make a connection between the school and the city. Shortly after her arrival, she approached Wadsworth director Willard Holmes with the idea of using the Atheneum's planned expansion as a studio design problem. The students would study the history of the museum, how its home on Main Street has evolved over the past 160 years, and the current and future needs of the museum for more space. They would explore how the museum can forge a closer physical connection with the city, finding ways to mutually strengthen the two. This last question, Holmes says, was the most important.

"The students needed to think about the expansion of the building not as just more space, in taking over the Hartford Times building," Holmes explained to me, "but as a key part of the city's revitalization." Holmes notes that the design exercise could offer ways to think about the role the museum plays in the life of the city, "to look for solutions outside of our world, the world of the museum."

The Wadsworth holds a 100-year lease on the Hartford Times building, and is in the process of selecting an architect to study options the museum might pursue in its expansion. Holmes is quick to point out that his willingness to collaborate with the students was not motivated by the notion of finding a surefire cure for the Wadsworth's growing pains. Rather, the designs the students came up with, and the conversations that led to those designs, would be a way for Holmes and his staff to think about the issues involved and how they might be addressed - the big picture of the Wadsworth as a vital part of Hartford.

The director met with the students and their professors to talk about the issues that the museum faced internally (more exhibit and administrative space, improving the flow of the museum) and externally (how to make connections with the Times building, how to address the creation of community and place in the city's heart, what opportunities there might be for the museum to help the city, and vice versa). At the end of the term, the student projects were displayed in the Wadsworth's Hartford Courant Room, where museum staff and invited observers and critics (I was one of them) could view and discuss the designs.

Some projects focused on the interior space of the museum - revamping its courtyards and other open areas to improve circulation through it, certainly an issue that needs attention. In one design, Todd Genovese filled the outdoor courtyard with sculptural ramps that could deliver you to key points inside the museum. At the top, he placed a cafe with views of the city.

Other students considered how the museum expresses its identity. For example, Lisa Kirtack wrapped the museum along its periphery with a glass wall, creating space for pocket winter gardens where people could enjoy a sunny day during the colder months. The glass wrapper blurs the line between the museum's inside and outside. Kirtack's all-glass wall offers the exciting prospect of people outside observing museum visitors moving through the building, and provides better visual connections from inside to the city.

Jeffrey Burr's project considered how Burr Mall, between the museum and city hall to the south, might be used as reception and exhibit space. In his design, Jeff uses a large glass structure to cover the mall like a terrarium (a la I.M. Pei at the Louvre), linking the museum, city hall and the Times building.

Kachatorn Tongsri's design places a courtyard entrance on Main Street, making it the heart of the museum. A design by Vinita Girotra includes new courtyards flooded with sunlight, with tall sculptures to help visitors orient themselves as they move through the museum.

An addition designed by Sebastiano Mangiafico contains exhibit space off the back of the museum and connects with the Hartford Times building. But the scheme also allows Prospect Avenue to remain open. Mangiafico's addition raises its skirt above the avenue and allows you to drive your car right under the museum.

The most intriguing design in terms of creating a new place in Hartford, by Casey Nixon, has a modest, incremental feel to it and seems just the right scale for this part of the city. A circulation spine reaches out from where the current loading dock is on Prospect and connects with a new gallery wing. Its scale and size is carefully calibrated to the Times building, directly south, to which it also connects.

But the exciting part of the design is how it creates outdoor space. Nixon closes off Prospect Avenue and inserts a generous elliptical plaza as a focal point for the neighborhood. It faces south, promising lots of sunny places to sit, and connects with Burr Mall. The new green space pushes past the Hartford Times building and ends in an open lot where art vendors can set up kiosks and sell their work. It's a brilliant combination of uses, both public and private, that reinforce each other and spark lively street activity. The design then extends west with sidewalks and open space to entice visitors from the convention center and the future science museum - critical connections between the museum and the city.

According to Willard Holmes, the design projects, each in its own way, address the most critical issue: how to build a new piece of the city that satisfies the Wadsworth's functional needs and feeds the momentum of urban rebirth now unfolding downtown. The Wadsworth is considering a public exhibit of all the design projects. Sounds like a great way to keep the conversation going.

Michael J. Crosbie is an architect and writer who lives in Essex. He is a member of the Place board of contributors.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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