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
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
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
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.
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