The vase spent years holding flowers in the reception area of Thomas Phifer and Partners’ New York office before it had its moment in the sun. “We’ve had it for as long as I can remember,” recalls director Thomas Phifer, FAIA. “It’s the bigger one by Alvar Aalto, with the subtle curves. We were trying to learn about glass, so we took it downstairs onto the sidewalk, right onto Varick Street.”
The sidewalk experiment was prompted by the commission to add a 100,000-square-foot, $64 million wing for contemporary art and design to the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, N.Y., a company town where the eponymous glassmaker has been headquartered since 1868. The addition features a 26,000-square-foot, single-level gallery over lower-level offices and adjoins an industrial shed from the former Steuben Glass Factory that has been converted to a 500-seat glassblowing demonstration theater. The administrative campus is already a timeline of the architectural applications of glass, as is the museum building: the 1951 glass-block and curtainwall International Style original by Harrison & Abramovitz; Gunnar Birkerts’ 1976–1980 addition, all mirrored angles and tinted curves; and Smith-Miller + Hawkinson’s 2001 galleries and admissions lobby, a study in cable-stayed structures and fractured-seeming geometries.
Down on Varick Street, Phifer was especially interested in sunlight. “It was really bright that day,” he remembers, and once they took that vase outside, “this thing that we hadn’t ever totally paid attention to just came to life.”
Because, unlike most artwork, the glass objects in Corning’s collection would sparkle unharmed in sunlit display, and because they were to be shown primarily in the round rather than against walls, the conventions of museum enclosures could be rethought. “Usually you’re deflecting light to the walls,” Phifer says, “but here we wanted to push the light straight down. So we started looking at beams as a way to channel light to the floor.”
Working closely with structural engineers Guy Nordenson and Associates, Phifer topped the gallery volume with slender precast concrete beams, each 3½ inches wide and 4 feet tall, running north–south on 3½-foot centers below a pixelated array of variously transparent, translucent, and opaque roof panels. Here, Phifer’s signature big roof has transformed from a filter, as at his North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh (2010), to an amplifier. “Usually, in galleries, we’re trying to get to 30 footcandles of brightness, and as low as 10 for works on paper,” Phifer says. “Here we have a range of 400 to 500. The more the better.”
Below that orthogonal array of beams and skylights is a striking counterpoint: a sculptural enclosure of sinuously curved 20-foot-tall by 2-foot-wide cast-in-place concrete walls. The white-plastered gallery walls (which also handle air, with outlets along their tops and returns through doorway soffits), create a building-within-a-building of galleries for the permanent collection and rotating exhibitions.
“The shape of the vase never occurred to me here, at least consciously,” Phifer reflects, despite the seeming formal resemblance. “It was an intuition about these very soft rooms, about the softness of glass when it’s made, about walking into a cloud.”
The curves produce an edgeless cyclorama effect within each gallery, suspending displays of often brightly colored glass objects in lightness and whiteness. Where the doorjambs in the curving walls between galleries face sightlines from the primary entrance and perimeter circulation, they gradually taper to a near-knife-edge, further dematerializing the massive structure.
“I love Brice Marden’s work,” Phifer says. “I began to look at his paintings very closely—he takes these ribbons of color, he connects them and directs them. I love the interactions with the edge of the painting, that wonderful tension there.”
Entry from the existing lobby is positioned at just such a point of tension: the southeast corner of the new wing, where the addition’s rectangular plan slots into the existing structures along its southern edge, accommodating service spaces in a deep boundary between old and new. “The addition had to weave itself in there in a careful and seamless way, to get everything knitted together,” Phifer says.
“So you turn right from the lobby and go through a 20-foot-deep tapering portal. It’s an experiential thing. We wanted to protect the integrity of the existing spaces, so there’s this metaphorical gasket in between, this moment of pause.” That moment of pause addresses the widest of what Phifer calls the addition’s “porches,” or the perimeter circumambulation between the rectilinear exterior walls and the undulating gallery enclosure, which overlooks a newly landscaped garden and directs the eye to the entrance of the glassblowing theater beyond.
Just as the new wing’s curvaceous central structure is withheld from the perimeter, the seating and stage in the theater are set back some 6 feet within the historic structure’s existing walls, reinforcing the experience of suspension and lightness established in the galleries. Phifer retained the distinctive bunny-eared roof-ventilator profile of the existing building, recladding the entire structure in dark corrugated aluminum, creating a counterpoint in the landscape to the sleek and pale new wing—a sooty lump of coal next to a milky block of ice.
The seeming simplicity of the gallery block’s icy façades relies on considerable technical complexity. Because the deep interior walls “provide lateral stability like the core of an office tower,” Phifer says, the exterior walls can be lightweight—exceptionally so in a window wall of 1-inch-thick low-iron panes of laminated glass, each about 20 feet tall by 10 feet wide, which runs without mullions some 144 feet along the new wing’s north side.
“There’s a heroic scale to the panes and the smallest possible joints between them,” Phifer says. The addition’s 140 façade panels, prefabricated in Germany, serve equally as window and wall, differing only in the transition of their PVB laminar interlayer, from clear within the sections of vision glass to opaque for the rest of the wall structure—which is, as Phifer puts it, “as white as white is white.”
“That same glass goes from being rainscreen to being weatherproofing,” the architect adds, “so all the solutions happen behind the glass around the head, jamb, and sill of those windows, to create that moment of expanse without a frame. That detail is really the whole building right there.”
That gods, and devils, are to be found in such details is a truism attributed to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the early modernist and proto-minimalist master of glass architecture. In Phifer’s recent work, such as his recently completed United States Courthouse in Salt Lake City, he establishes a new kind of minimalism—not of refusal and removal, but of strategic synthesis in which fewer forms perform greater functions. Here in Corning—in those concrete beams whose vanishing narrowness directs both loads and light, in those internal walls whose curving depth accommodates both structure and air-handling—less does more.
Although Phifer’s work, with its zest for components and arrays and alloys and polymers, visibly falls within a high-tech tradition, it resists the mannered hyperformalism into which many of the genre’s founders have now lapsed. The result at Corning is an intricate simplicity and an expansive restraint, serving neither a Puritan abstemiousness nor a polemical economy, but supporting a maximal sensory experience of literally visual and figuratively physical lightness. One in which the curated artifacts and landscapes provide the essential spectacles and illuminations. It’s a vase that makes you see the flowers.
Cost: $64 million