• The entrance to the new Thomas Phifer and Partners-designed Glenstone museum expansion in Potomac, Md., which breaks ground this June and is slated for completion in 2016.

    Credit: Peter Guthrie

    The entrance to the new Thomas Phifer and Partners-designed Glenstone museum expansion in Potomac, Md., which breaks ground this June and is slated for completion in 2016.

When a client’s descriptor includes “billionaire,” just about anything is possible, but it can often tend toward the garish (see: Trump) or the hyper-controlled (see: Broad). So, when Mitchell P. Rales, a manufacturing and technology magnate, and his wife, Emily Wei Rales, who are, yes, billionaires, set out to expand Glenstone, a not-for-profit organization they co-founded in 2006 in Potomac, Md., to collect and exhibit contemporary art, they took a striking approach: slow, steady, and site-specific.

Back in 2010, the husband-and-wife team hired New York’s Thomas Phifer and Partners to design what would become an additional 150,000 gross square feet (including 50,000 square feet of new gallery space) on a bucolic 200-acre site. Charles Gwathmey had designed the original 2006 structure.

The nearly three-year design process was remarkable for its deliberativeness. “For six months,” says partner Thomas Phifer, FAIA, “it was just the three of us working out ideas.” Due to the contemporary nature of the collection, the architects were also able to work directly with some of the artists themselves. “We spent an enormous amount of time looking at art museums in Europe, paying close attention to light and material,” he adds. But in June, builders will finally break ground (anticipating a 2016 opening).

In the end, Phifer’s team settled on discrete concrete pavilions that pinwheel around a central, sunken plaza, designed by Berkeley, Calif.-based PWP Landscape Architecture. Rather than using large concrete panels, Phifer designed concrete blocks—about 20,000 in all—each 6 feet long by 1 foot tall and 1 foot wide to be dry-stacked on site to form the load-bearing walls. “We think concrete is very beautiful,” he says. The pavilions are each daylit through roof apertures following extensive lighting studies—digital and analog models, supplemented with site-based studies. Each is tailored for particular artists. “The light works differently with a Brice Marden painting versus a Cy Twombly sculpture,” Phifer explains. “If we don’t get the lighting right,” he adds, “for me, the whole building just falls apart.”

The design team was determined to capitalize on Glenstone’s unique context. To accomplish this, he situated guest services and amenities—parking, admissions, gift shop, café and administrative offices—away from the art itself. After parking, for example, arriving guests take an approximately 8-minute walk through the landscape to arrive at the art. “It’s all very silent,” Phifer says. “We wanted to remove any distractions.”

For more images of the new Glenstone museum, visit ARCHITECT's Project Gallery.