The Portland Art Museum has officially revealed renderings for its long-planned infill project between the original 1932 Pietro Belluschi building and the adjacent Mark Building, which was designed by Frederick Fritsch in 1924 and remodelled in 2005 by SERA and Ann Beha Architects. This new three-story connection has been designed by Chicago-based Vinci Hamp Architects, who have done previous work for the Portland Art Museum in the creation of several temporary art exhibition spaces. This addition is a big step up from those infill exhibition partitions for the architects, and the firm’s minimalistic, neo-modernist style appears to have had a difficult time adapting to this larger role. Vinci Hamp are known mostly for historic renovations and not new construction, which could be the reason for this disconnect. Regardless, the new dedicated space looks completely practical and utilitarian for the Museum’s purpose, but there is a definite lack of energy, expression, and contrast; the things that had defined Mark Rothko’s work throughout his life.
Reminiscent of a small city airport terminal or a contemporary high school lobby, the open-glazed structure will be the third most prominent entrance to the complex, despite its newfound role as the supposed primary one. Looking at the elevations, one can clearly see that the architects attempted to continue the cornice lines of the Mark Building with that of the expansion’s, while alternatively using a tall vertical glass element to break the discontinuity of the similar architectural lines of the Belluschi’s building. The released renderings are deceivingly unrealistic however in how the mostly glass facade will actually look, especially in regards to the awkwardness of the proposed vertical circulation box that is incoherently carved out of the solidity of the main building.
Internally, the finalized design is a straightforward answer to the programmatic needs: create a new main lobby, create a new adaptable gallery space, maintain the vacated street accessway, and connect the two museum ‘wings’ at three additional levels above the existing underground one. There is, of course, a fine line between crafting unique and engaging gallery space versus the creation of overpowering and disjointed architecture that distracts from the artwork itself. This proposal retreats a little too far from the allure of great architecture though, and falls deeply into the doldrums of functionalistic over-flexibility and the fear of individual expression. This is greatly disappointing for many reasons, but the most disheartening aspect of this proposal is that it continues the repetitious nature of Portland area institutions ‘playing it safe’ with new architecture despite the city’s artistic culture and overabundance of local creative talent.
Despite the aforementioned flaws, the expansion plans will be a welcome addition to the art museum as far as connectivity is concerned. While the interior and exterior of the infill project look rather banal both design wise and in its materiality, the spatial orientation and end-user experience does appear to be articulate and well thought out. The first floor is to be a ‘community commons,’ a transitory space that is both a welcoming point to the museum as well as a continuation of the city’s public street grid. The second floor is to house the double-height Rothko Pavilion, an adaptable open space for art exhibitions and fundraising galas. The third floor is half open passageway and half outdoor terrace, connecting and orienting the art museum’s multiple buildings and galleries into one contiguous promenade. It is too bad that the end result will have all the charm of a community college lecture hall, and none of the mystery and excitement of the original Pietro Belluschi building or the intrigue and self-discovery found in museums like Allied Works’ Clyfford Still Museum.