Adding (and Adding) to the Seattle Art Museum

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Last January, when I went out to see the new Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle, I also got an early look at what was then the nearly completed new addition to it’s parent institution, the Seattle Art Museum, which is actually a few blocks away. At the time I wrote mostly about the fascinating sculpture park, but with the addition having its official opening this Saturday let’s come back back to the building.

It’s by the Portland-based Brad Cloepfil, of Allied Works Architecture, who is also the architect behind the much contended transformation of an Edward Durrell Stone building in Manhattan into the American Craft Museum. For Seattle Cloepfil has provided some very handsomely proportioned and detailed galleries, some of the warmest I’ve seen since the ones Rafael Moneo designed for his addition to the Houston Museum of Fine Arts — though without the advantage of Moneo’s ceiling light wells, chimney-style shafts of diffused light that are possible in Houston because that’s a low rise addition in which most of the galleries are just under the roof. (On the other hand, the Seattle addition has a wall to wall brise soleil — vertical steel panels on the avenue side — that can slide open across the double height ground floor public space to admit views of water and mountain that Houston can only dream of.) Interestingly, both additions also share a similar and somewhat awkward platform space that emerges when the ground floor escalators reach the third floor. where the galleries begin. They have always struggled a bit to decide how best to fill it in Houston and Seattle may have the same problem.

But the really interesting thing about the new Seattle Art Museum is its business plan. The SAM, as it’s called, moved into a new Robert Venturi-designed museum in 1991, then quickly decided its new home wasn’t big enough. But though it owned the entire block that the Venturi building occupied just one corner of, the museum’s leadership opted not to build a free standing expansion. Instead, it accepted the offer of a local bank to build a skyscraper headquarters on most of the remaining site. Then SAM hired Cloepfil to design a 16-story museum addition that runs up the side of the larger tower and connects to the Venturi addition. The museum currently occupies just four of those floors and rents the next eight to the bank, but with the option to move into those in stages over the years as its own needs to expand even further require. (The bank owns the four uppermost floors outright.) It’s an ingenious business plan — built in expansion room.

Meanwhile, is it strange for a museum to occupy an office buidling? Hey, what do you think the Uffizi used to be?