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‘Quirky’ new museum architecture

Courtesy Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art

Denny Mecham, executive director of the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art in Biloxi, Miss., admits that the first phase of the museum’s new campus, which opened in November, draws comments as much for its Frank Gehry-designed buildings as its equally distinctive art.

“It’s an interesting campus,” said Mecham. “The word that is used most frequently is ‘quirky.’ It has fascinating architectural details of curves and angles. It is a very interesting design.”

Mecham said that would probably please George Ohr, the self-described “Mad Potter of Biloxi,” whose unusual pottery from the late 19th and early 20th centuries is housed at the museum.

“If Ohr were designing a museum for his work, he would have picked Frank Gehry,” said Mecham “Ohr was controversial, and Gehry is controversial. He would have loved that combination.

“Both are mavericks, thinking outside the box. It’s a great fit; they are so alike in an aesthetic sense.”

The Ohr-O’Keefe is one of several art museums that opened in the past year whose contemporary architecture is part of their allure. Some buildings have been called works of art themselves.

Here’s a look at a handful of new art-museum structures that enhance the visitor experience and, at the same time, defy traditional concepts of a museum building.

Phase 1 of the new museum campus on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico consists of three buildings: the IP Casino Resort Spa Exhibitions Gallery, the Gallery of African-American Art and the Mississippi Sound Welcome Center. The second and third buildings are scheduled to be completed by 2012.

Work had already started on the iconic buildings when Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, completely destroying one building and heavily damaging the others.

“After the storm, the board felt it was wiser to complete three buildings with the money in hand,” said Mecham.

Mecham said Gehry did a good job of making the museum complex compatible with its surroundings.

“This is a small museum, and it was deliberately made into small proportions. These are not giant, tall buildings,” she said. “They have his [Gehry’s] signature stainless steel, but also brick and stucco.”

Eventually, Ohr’s work will be on permanent display in a building consisting of four round stainless-steel-clad structures, called pods, connected by a central, glass-enclosed gallery.

“It’s the most futuristic of the buildings,” said Mecham.

In the meantime, 85 pieces of Ohr’s work are displayed in the brick and stainless steel Gallery of African-American Art in a space with a deep-set recessed skylight.

Also in the African-American gallery is an opening exhibition of bronzes by Richmond Barthé; works by Andy Warhol and Jun Kaneko are in the Exhibitions Gallery, which focuses on contemporary artists who personify the independent and innovative spirit of Ohr.

Dalí Museum
St. Petersburg, Fla.
Another new structure that reflects the artist whose work it houses is the Dalí Museum, which had its grand opening on Jan. 11, in downtown St. Petersburg — about eight blocks from its original building.

The geodesic glass structure, nicknamed the Glass Enigma, reflects Salvador Dalí’s combination of classical and fantastic elements. Its exterior can be considered a work of art itself, with 900 triangular glass panels, none of which is identical. It is the only structure of its kind in North America.

Inside, the Helical Staircase is a spiral resembling a strand of DNA that leads to the third-floor galleries. Dalí recognized the helix as evidence of the divine in nature.

The $36 million building not only doubles the size of the former museum, it was also designed specifically for the museum’s collection of work by the Spanish surrealist. The 20,000 square feet of state-of-the-art gallery spaces allow for the first time the viewing of the complete collection of 96 oil paintings, plus a selection of drawings, fine prints, photographs, videos and surreal objects by Dalí.

The museum’s entrance has a waterfront garden that features subtropical flora of Florida. The museum also has amenities such as a cafe, a theater, a classroom and a student gallery.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
One of the largest and most impressive museum openings last year was the new Art of the Americas Wing at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The 121,307-square-foot wing, which had its grand opening in late November, is an elegant structure composed of a central glass building flanked by pavilions of glass and granite.

The glazing system was specially developed for the museum, and its extensive use of glass allows passersby to see inside and museum visitors to see outside. From the top floors, there are sweeping views of Boston, from Fenway Park to the Back Bay skyline.

The wing’s 53 galleries on four levels enable the museum to show more than 5,000 works from North America, South America and Central America covering three millennia, through the third quarter of the 20th century. The art includes paintings, sculpture, furniture, decorative arts, works on paper, musical instruments, textiles and fashions.

“The new galleries allow us to present our collections in a variety of ways that highlight different periods, cultures, styles, artists and themes,” said Elliot Bostwick Davis, chair of the Art of Americas Department.

The new wing also has nine period rooms from the 17th to the 19th centuries, four behind-the-scenes galleries, a 150-seat theater and rotating galleries for light-sensitive works.

The $345 million project also includes a 63-foot-high enclosed courtyard that links the new wing with the museum’s original beaux arts building, where the visitors center was renovated, and the redesign and renovation of the museum’s two historic entrances.

North Carolina Museum of Art
Raleigh, N.C.
The North Carolina Museum of Art, located in a 164-acre park in Raleigh, is a blend of art, architecture and nature after a major three-year expansion project last spring.

The centerpiece of the expansion is a new 127,000-square-foot building clad in aluminum panels with large areas of glass that subtly reflect the surrounding land and sky. Its distinctive roofline, a series of curves that form a system of vaults and coffers, brings light into the building.

A large sculpture hall, which serves as the main entry and museum lobby, contains more than 30 works by Auguste Rodin. The hall also serves as the spine around which 40 exhibition galleries are organized.

Because of the museum’s large expanses of glass, the architecture seems to blend with the outdoors in many places. Five courtyards, which contain sculpture, rock gardens, reflecting pools and outdoor seating, are visible through the glass walls. Four are accessible from the sculpture hall.

Inside, galleries with white oak floors and white walls exhibit the museum’s collection of antiquities, Renaissance art, European painting and sculpture, 18th- and 19th-century American art, African art, pre-Columbian art, Jewish ceremonial objects, and modern and contemporary art.

New York-based architect Thomas Phifer, whose firm designed the new building, said he wanted to create something that was beautiful but that did not compete with the art.

“All of the building’s elements, from the oculi in the ceiling, designed to bring in controlled natural light, to the expanses of glass that bring the outdoors in, to the views between and among the galleries, have been created with an eye to providing the best possible experience for viewing the diversity of art in the collection,” Phifer said in a statement.

Major works of sculpture and environmental art are located throughout the surrounding park of rolling hills and woods.

The new building, known as the West Building, also has a new restaurant and museum shop. The museum’s 1983 East Building, designed by architect Edward Durell Stone, is now a center for temporary exhibitions and education programs.