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ARCHITECTURE

The new, improved Chazen Museum of Art
An addition compensates for the old building's flaws

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Credit:Michael Klinski
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In the land of Frank Lloyd Wright, Brutalism doesn't get a whole lot of love.

The architectural style pioneered in the mid-20th century can seem harsh and unforgiving. Where some see a frank treatment of materials and a purity of form, others see stark, unwelcoming structures.

In fact, some of the UW campus' least-liked buildings have been Brutalist: the old Union South, razed in 2009 to make way for its replacement, and the much-maligned Mosse Humanities Building, which may also meet the wrecking ball someday.

Perhaps the only successful - or at least non-despised - Brutalist building on campus is the Humanities Building's neighbor, the Chazen Museum of Art. While both are Harry Weese buildings, the Chazen has a softer touch. While there's plenty of concrete on its exterior, expanses of limestone elevate it. (Brutalism takes its name from béton brut, or raw concrete.)

And now there's a new kid on the 800 block of University Avenue, the Chazen Museum's sizable expansion, which opens to the public during a gala weekend Oct. 22-23 (see sidebar for event details). Designed by Rodolfo Machado, a principal in the Boston architecture firm of Machado + Silvetti Associates, the Chazen's new wing echoes Weese's design while also making it, in the parlance of our tech-obsessed age, more user-friendly.

The result is an understated, handsome building that seamlessly harmonizes with the existing structure while also making improvements that suit its role as a 21st-century art museum. It may also prompt a new look at Brutalism and the stamp left by the late Harry Weese on the UW campus.

While the Chazen's new wing echoes its predecessor, there are, of course, other valid ways to design an addition. At other museums, such as the University of Michigan's Museum of Art, additions have been designed to stand out, not fit in. In Ann Arbor, a strikingly contemporary design by Allied Works Architecture has been grafted onto the existing Beaux-Arts structure dating to 1946. The 2009 addition more than doubled the museum's space, and the contrasting styles evidence the museum's evolution over time.

At the Milwaukee Art Museum, the now-iconic addition by Santiago Calatrava - known mostly for the "wings" of its brise soleil - has been featured in movies and ad campaigns hawking everything from Victoria's Secret push-up bras to Toyotas and Lipitor.

While some have embraced Calatrava's addition for providing a new visual identity to the Brew City, others aren't so positive. They allege that it overshadows, rather than enhances, the existing building by legendary modern architect Eero Saarinen.

In Madison, Chazen director Russell Panczenko knew from the outset that he wanted the museum's new wing to complement rather than contrast with the Weese building. Says Panczenko, "There's great pride about the original Harry Weese building. I worry that so many things being built today in some ways turn their back [on the past] and...pretend that the existing building is not there. I love the Calatrava building in Milwaukee, but the original Saarinen building has kind of been relegated to the back. You don't think of Saarinen at all. I didn't want that to happen to Harry Weese."

Panczenko found a kindred spirit in Buenos Aires-born Machado, who has taught urban design and architecture at top universities like Yale, Rice, Princeton and Harvard's Graduate School of Design, where he's been on the faculty since 1987.

Machado and Jorge Silvetti's Boston firm has tackled numerous museum projects such as the Getty Villa in Malibu; the Mint Museum in Charlotte, N.C.; and the renovation and expansion of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick, Maine.

In a phone conversation, Machado expressed his admiration for Weese, calling the Chazen's original wing "a canonical work and quintessentially American...it's a good building, and I respect it very much."

Weese, who died in 1998 at the age of 83, is known for designing the Washington, D.C., Metro system, which New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp called "among the greatest public works of [the 20th] century." Despite such triumphs, Weese's reputation was in decline at the time of his death.

"The idea was very clearly stated that they wanted to make a museum, not two museums," says Machado of Chazen organizers. "Experientially, it's one museum."

From the exterior facing University Avenue, the original 1970 structure (now known as the Conrad A. Elvehjem building) fuses gracefully with the new courtesy of a horizontal band of creamy limestone at the top of the building. From left to right, the stone transitions from rough-hewn to smooth and concave.

The main entrance has moved from the old building to the new, where it becomes much more inviting and transparent to passersby. In fact, that's Machado's biggest shift - and his improvement on Weese's building. The original entrance gave no indication of what awaited visitors inside and required them to ascend a half-flight of stairs - with another flight looming overhead - before revealing the payoff: entry into the light, airy, travertine-marble-filled Paige Court.

Now the main entrance sports massive plate-glass walls that reveal a vast lobby featuring a curtain designed by Dutch fiber artist Petra Blaisse. Rolled up (as it should be most of the time), the net-like, geometric curtain functions like a hanging sculpture. Unfurled, it provides partial privacy during special events, so guests won't be subject to a "fishbowl" feel.

The other main draws in the lobby are a grand staircase leading up into the galleries and a playful, decidedly contemporary-looking walkway of golden yellow glass. The walkway adds a whimsical touch that punctuates the otherwise sober lobby.

In fact, the entire Machado-designed building exudes a kind of restrained elegance, even conservatism. Attractive yet straightforward materials like stone, glass, wood and metal serve as a backdrop to art - not the main event.

And that's exactly what Machado wanted. "The building is appropriate and functions well in the context," he says. While it doesn't have the "wow factor" of Milwaukee's dramatic brise soleil, the wackiness of Frank Gehry's Weisman Museum at the University of Minnesota or even an iconic feature like the glass prow of the Cesar Pelli-designed Madison Museum of Contemporary Art - to name a few of its Midwestern brethren - it radiates a certain dignity.

It's a building of pleasingly subtle details, not in-your-face gimmicks. For example, visitors will note how the large "fishnet" pattern embedded into the ceiling of the lobby extends into the outdoor space as well; it's one continuous expanse thanks to the transparent exterior glass wall. Similarly, bronze-finished panels within the lobby also continue directly to the outdoors, minimizing the barrier between museum-goer and passerby.

Despite his admiration for Weese, it's clear Machado feels the fortress-like quality of the old building - which revealed very little - was a shortcoming he wanted to fix. "The word 'friendly' is such a cliché, but it's not a very friendly building," he says of the old structure. "With the new one, you see everything. If you don't feel tempted to go in, I'd be very surprised." (And, for the record, Machado's not wild about Weese's Humanities Building: "It's a very unkind piece of architecture," he concedes.)

The two-story glass lobby faces another critical element of the project: the Chazen's section of the East Campus Mall, which has been on the UW's wish list since the early 1900s. The mall will eventually stretch from Lake Mendota to the Park and Regent area. A transition in the paving stone visually marks the section of the mall belonging to the Chazen, as do modern, minimalist light fixtures that diverge from the old-fashioned ones along the rest of the pedestrian thoroughfare. The goal is to create a pleasant gathering space between the Chazen's two halves. The only downside to the outdoor space is a massive concrete support for the bridge that creates a viaduct-like feel and lacks the polish of the rest of Machado's building.

Inside the museum, gallery spaces are similar to those in the existing building, but with greater capabilities for showing different kinds of art. The large temporary exhibition space in the new building, just to the right of the entrance, has small windows that provide a view to the outside (when it's not necessary to cover them to protect delicate artwork).

The third-floor galleries admit ample, diffused natural light through light monitors clad in copper that will eventually patinate and echo the copper on the existing wing.

At the risk of sounding flippant or, worse, Trump-esque, I'd say that the new Chazen is a classy addition to the heart of campus. Planted on a stretch of University Avenue that has seen enormous change in the last decade or so - the demolition of the ugly, single-story University Square for its semi-ugly, 12-story replacement, the construction of the Fluno Center and addition to Grainger Hall - the new Chazen gives off the rather odd feeling that it's always been there. That sense of inevitability is a testament to its lead architect's ability to harmonize with, yet also improve upon, his predecessor's work.

Opening weekend

While the UW community will be invited to a special open house that begins at noon on Thursday, Oct. 20, the general-public festivities begin at noon on Saturday, Oct. 22. Mayor Paul Soglin, UW Chancellor David Ward and lead donors Simona and Jerome Chazen will participate in a door-opening ceremony, followed by a dance performance by Mark Denning. At 2:30 p.m., Latino Arts Strings performs.

On Sunday, there will be bagpipers at noon, followed by the Pro Arte Quartet performing on the "Sunday Afternoon Live from the Chazen" radio show at 12:30 p.m. At 1:30 p.m., the Mount Zion Choir performs.

There will be several film screenings during the weekend, and docent-led tours are available. For full details, see chazen.wisc.edu. As always, admission to the museum is free.

Fast facts

  • No state funds were used to construct the new building. The $43 million project was financed entirely through private donations and grants, including a $25 million lead gift from Simona and Jerome Chazen, for whom the erstwhile Elvehjem Museum was renamed.
  • The new building nearly doubles the Chazen's exhibition space. It is 86,000 square feet, compared to the original's 90,000. It is built on the site of the former Peterson Administration Building.
  • Since 1970, the museum's collection has grown from 1,500 to more than 20,000 artworks.
  • Construction has lasted two and a half years. Ground was broken on May 1, 2009.
  • The enclosed bridge that connects the two buildings on the third floor offers stunning views of Lake Mendota.
  • New galleries are devoted to African art, Midwestern surrealism, modernist sculpture, and 21st-century international art.

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