Jeremy Bittermann The Clyfford Still Museum in Denver

While the process of renovating and expanding this country’s cultural institutions never seems to end, we seem to have crested at least one wave. After a decade that saw major new museums or additions in Los Angeles; San Francisco; Chicago; New York; Louisville, Ky.; Columbus, Ohio; St. Louis, Mo.; Cleveland, Boston, and Miami, we are now awaiting only the supposed raze-and-replace of the L.A. County Museum of Art and the caving expedition that is the underground expansion of the Philadelphia Art Museum. As I embarked on my twice-a-year cross-country migration as the School of Architecture at Taliesin’s dean—this time, from our winter home in Scottsdale, Ariz., to our summer home in Spring Green, Wis.—I revisited two of the most successful structures of this latest boom.

Seeing the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver and the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Mo., for the first time in a few years made me realize how successful such buildings can be if they concentrate on working as machines for bringing people and art together. This is in opposition to the Denver Art Museum, which looms over the Still with Daniel Libeskind, FAIA’s “look-ma-no-hands” angles and barely manages to contain director Christoph Heinrich’s brilliant exhibitions; the new San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which is a vanity structure cramming collections into mazes; the Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ addition, which is a party space; and the Whitney Museum, which is a machine for looking at Manhattan. The spaces inside the Clyfford Still and the Nelson Atkins design the sequence and framework by which art becomes present and effective.

Jeremy Bittermann The Clyfford Still Museum's interior

The Still Museum does all of this in a more refined and compact way. It is a much smaller structure, and one that concentrates on the work of just one artist. As a result, there is not much more to Brad Cloepfil, AIA’s design than a box. With little modulation, the museum sits back from its block, its textured concrete giving away little of what happens inside. You enter into a small, high lobby (the terms of the Still gift precludes a café or the sale of anything but books) before rising up a staircase slotted between two walls to a top floor sequence of galleries.

Jeremy Bittermann The Clyfford Still Museum's galleries

But what galleries they are. Perfect in their proportion, the gallery walls glow even on a rainy day with filtered daylight through Cloepfil’s angled sunscreen and allow glimpses across to where you have been and where you are going. The galleries manage to focus your attention on the paintings without ever once making you feel isolated. The outside world disappears and what is left is your experience in a social setting of art.

I had wondered whether such a focused institution could keep up its attraction, but the day I was there (six years after the opening) it was crowded and the visitors seemed concentrated on the work. Part of this is because of the museum’s clever programming, but it seems to me that the sheer clarity and beauty of both building and paintings keeps visitors coming back.

Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Bloch Building in Kansas City, Missouri by Steven Holl Architects
Courtesy The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art The Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City

By contrast, the Nelson-Atkins is a much bigger machine, and both its circulation and its statement on the landscape is much stronger. The original building, designed by local firm Wight & Wight in 1929 and opened in 1933, lords over a sloping hill that Steven Holl, FAIA, has dotted with “crystals” of Reglit glass that signal the galleries he embedded in the landscape while appearing like the essence of the classical box of the mothership.

FHKE The Nelson-Atkins Museum's parking

The sequence here includes the car that is so central to Midwestern life (if you are willing to pay the $10 for parking, that is). You enter directly on axis with the rows of parking, into the middle of Holl’s 2007 addition. You then find yourself either sucked up ramps towards light that enters through clerestories, towards the original building, or down the new sequence of galleries that the architect created for modern and contemporary art.

Projekt: NAMA
Architekt: Steven Holl
Ort: Kansas City
Roland Halbe The Nelson-Atkins Museum's galleries

When I first visited the addition, I recognized the public spaces as among the most beautiful in any American museum, but I was troubled by some of the swoops and curls the architect introduced into the galleries. They seemed like afterthoughts. Now that the galleries are fully used and well hung, those idiosyncrasies bother me less. They blend into the interweaving of circulation and display on various levels, emphasizing the social aspect of public art viewing over the Still’s concentration on the individual experience.

FHKE The restored older Nelson-Atkins Museum building

The original structure has, in the meantime, been beautifully restored. Now, you can experience the logic and beauty of its classical sequence of galleries without too many interruptions or distractions. The strongest design is that of the galleries for classical antiquities, which frame their artifacts with textured stone and spotlights, while the Impressionist galleries, which are the museum’s most popular, seem overcrowded and without a clear sequence.

I wish all art museums were as clear and simple as these two structures. Neither the Clyfford Still nor the Nelson-Atkins is simplistic in the manner of some of the structures designed by the likes of Renzo Piano, Hon. FAIA, or David Chipperfield, Hon. FAIA, but neither are they overwrought. They just work hard to embed everything it takes to let us get the most out of the art that they house without showing us the effort. Effective architecture such as this is refined and expensive, and worth every dime and every ounce of work it took to get them to be this good.