The best way into David Chipperfield's new addition to the St. Louis Museum of Art—with due deference to the cascade of steps leading down from Cass Gilbert's 1904 Beaux Arts original next door—is through the underground parking garage. There you'll find 300 much-needed spaces for this car-centric city as well as ample daylight, supergraphics, and the finest detailing in concrete and conduits this side of Basel. And on each level, a sleek array of floor-to-ceiling doors, fixtures, furnishings, and features all rendered in chemically-blackened stainless steel—a detail used throughout the building in functional and ceremonial spaces alike. It's an economy of thought (solve once and apply everywhere) that speaks to the building's extraordinary approach even—and especially—to its ordinary tasks.
Many of those tasks are performed by a monumental cast-concrete roof, a long-spanning super-waffle, into the depth of which are placed skylights, daylight-diffusers, and what would otherwise be the usual fuss of exit signs, sprinklers, speakers, lights and cameras—those last two housed in identical cylinders. Some 200,000 square feet of galleries below are sometimes aligned enfilade but also feature full-height corner openings that enable oblique glimpses and drifts—a sly synthesis of traditional and contemporary planning.
The building is tectonically and spatially robust: structural and mechanical systems are embedded only in the North-South walls, so that those running East-West can be reconfigured. Dimensions are in pleasing Anglo-Saxon wholes: those walls are exactly one foot deep in plan, just like the in-floor ventilation grilles and the beams that form the deeply coffered ceiling above—each module of which is 5 feet by 10 feet on-center, most with a 4-by-9 skylight. Underfoot, the quarter-sawn white oak boards are an even six inches wide. The feeling for sizing extends to a sense of scale: at an even 16 feet to the underside of the coffers, the galleries (which elegantly accommodate biggish Richters and Kiefers and smallish Pollocks and Kleins), feel both spacious and intimate.
The detailing throughout is so good that one wants less of it: to dispense with the semi-pinwheel extensions at the plan's perimeter and with the minor rooftop parapet and its willful extrusion overhanging the addition's pedestrian entry (indeed to dispense with any entry other than garage and Gilbert); and to more fully realize the sublime minimalism that is here so closely approached.
"We can ask, ‘What's the position of modern architecture when it's no longer radical, when it's not trying to cut?’" said Chipperfield, Hon. FAIA, during a recent tour of the project. "I think we're at a different moment in Modernism where the idea of continuity applies. The Neues Museum"—the celebrated 2011 rehabilitation of a damaged 19th-century complex in Berlin that may remain Chipperfield's essential masterwork—"put us at the coal face of this question of Modernism and continuity." Chipperfield will mine the same seam in his upcoming restoration of Mies Van der Rohe's Neue Nationalgalerie, another delicate museum under a hardworking roof.
In St. Louis, this super-historical modernism; this received-yet-refined formalism of modules and datums; this material mastery of cast-in-place concrete, polished aggregate, and sleek glass; this rare excellence in the essentials of daylight and circulation, plus all thInose Brno chairs in the cafe—all might support the argument that Chipperfield has created the very best new American building of, say, 1966. But those same qualities may yet earn it, stealthily yet extraordinarily, the very same laurel for 2013.