Admirers of Herzog & de Meuron must find themselves in the same dilemma that Bob Dylan fans did when he decided to plug in his Fender Stratocaster guitar and go electric at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.
The Swiss winners of the Pritzker Prize found early fame with severely minimal buildings, such as the Goetz Collection gallery in Munich and the Ricola factory in Mulhouse, France—work that featured precisely proportioned prismatic volumes clad in taut skins of carefully calibrated translucency. Like all good folk-rock artists, the pair applied vernacular craft traditions, from cabinetry to printmaking, to modernist formal conventions. But over time, fame and fortune appeared to send them in whimsical and willful directions—as in their recent museums for San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Madrid, in which they developed artfully fussy shiny-meets-rough material effects, and jangling geometries that reprised, minus tedious intellectual aspirations, the twisty zig-zag mannerisms of mid-90s Deconstructivists. It's as if Dylan not only went electric, but continued on to full-jumpsuit Elvis as well.
But out in the Hamptons, the tony weekend community at the East End of New York's Long Island—a summer destination not otherwise known for restraint—that excess has been tempered. That's thanks to the financial crisis of 2008. Two years earlier, the Parrish Museum, a distinguished local institution dating to the Gilded Age and renewed by its association with local midcentury masters such as Willem de Kooning and Roy Litchenstein, had acquired a new 14-acre site on the Montauk Highway in the town of Water Mill, and hired Herzog & de Meuron to bring a touch of Bilbao to the local potato fields. The museum sold its previous home, an 18,000-square-foot former library in Southampton, New York, in preparation for the move.
For the new Parrish, the designers proposed a complicated compound of intricately interconnected structures, each as unique as a snowflake and as massive as a McMansion, modeled closely on the local barns and outbuildings typically converted into artists' studios—with a 2008 budget estimated as high as $80 million. Then came the crash. The architects were sent back to the drawing board to find the economies of scale and repetition that would provide at least three-quarters of the planned square footage for approximately one-quarter of the cost.
The result is a very long shed. With a corrugated aluminum roof above cast-concrete perimeter walls, it features a 615-foot-long east–west extrusion of a single cross-section: an M-shape generated by the overlapping of two 32-foot-high pitched-roof profiles, supported by hurricane-ready steel frames at intervals of some 37 feet. The central crossbraces of those frames (ingeniously incorporating drainage from the roof's central valley) distantly recall the patterns perfected by Fay Jones in his Thorncrown Chapel and related projects. Portions of those patterns, somewhat insistently highlighted by various cutaways and frames, also recall the faux-naive triangle-over-square elevation of a symbolic house (memorably commemorated in Herzog & de Meuron’s own Rudin House of 1997).
Those central crossbraces moderate the Sword-of-Damocles effect of the pointy intersections of deep wood beams along the center of the 'M', overhead. Below those points is a grand corridor that runs the building's full length. To the north and south of that corridor are some 12,000 square feet of permanent and temporary galleries. The west end terminates in a lofty cafe, porch, and black-box event space, while the east end features airy curatorial offices and support services, all coming in at 34,400 square feet. The cast-concrete north and south perimeter walls, some 18 feet high and profiled to produce a charming continuous bench at their exterior base, are inset to create deep overhangs over terraces that extend, like the platforms of a small-town train station, the building's full length. The wall of the central bay on the north facade is inset still further, and glazed, to create a sheltered court marking the main entrance.
The building is a great place to look at art. The gallery daylighting (through skylights transparent on the north-facing pitched roof and translucent on the south) makes the collection look good—and, during a recent visit on a partly cloudy morning, impressively required no artificial supplement. The landscaping by Reed Hilderbrand will feature a meadow of four-foot-high local grasses, grounding the simple building to its table-flat site. There's something of John Pawson's much-published Tilty Barn renovation project in the warmly, woodsy pitched ceiling above plastery walls and smooth concrete floors; and a touch of Glenn Murcutt's canonical Marie Short House in the corrugated-aluminum cladding of the roof, in the doubled and extruded pitched profile expressed in a steel frame, and in the finessed exposure of details such as overhead sprinkler pipes and electrical conduits, all beautifully radius-cornered.
And yet the cumulative effect has neither Pawson's relentless reduction to essential surfaces and materials, nor Murcutt's ruthless systematizing of mechanical components and structural modules. Instead, there’s a bit of a muddle. The heavy roof beams and the I-beams of the structural frame all pass with a certain casualness into the interior's white paint, appearing neither to land on those concrete perimeter walls with the kind of visible tectonic commitment famously celebrated in Murcutt’s work by architectural historian Kenneth Frampton, nor to float entirely effortlessly above the intervening partitions. Built-in benches and partitions of handsome salvaged heart pine (the work of industrial designer Konstantin Grcic, who also contributed lighting and a vertebrae-stinging signature “Parrish Chair” in tubular metal) feature moments of elegant caprice that diminish the bare-bones detailing to be found elsewhere in the building.
Minimalism's finest architectural effects, achieved through strategic proportions and exhaustive detailing, establish a sensation of calm—and also of thrill at the compulsive effort to construct that calm. There is at the Parrish, though, the occasional impression that someone, like Dylan in 1965, knows how to keep it simple but doesn't really want to. The rooms are big but not quite spacious, and their sequence is fine, but not comprehensively gracious. There's much that feels not so much artfully spare, as simply bare. It's possible to see in the building both a chastening of early-aughts excesses, and a desire—visible in the slight undercooking of some details and overcooking of others—to get back to those good old days, just as soon as one can. Architects are famously the first to feel the effects of economic peaks and valleys, and the economies of means in their designs can be an index not only of the means available at any given time, but of the meaning to be found in all those ups and downs. The feeling at the Parrish is perhaps one of ambivalence for times that are, as usual, a' changin'.