Arts Agenda - Underwhelming beauty

Woodruff's expansion exercises restraint, reinforces presence

"I've always loved this building," Renzo Piano said of Richard Meier's High Museum. Last week, the Italian architect, along with representatives of the High Museum and Woodruff Arts Center, presented the latest plans for the institution's expansion, which will be complete in spring 2005.

Facing the difficult task of expanding on Meier's signature work, Piano has created a design comprised of a largely insular arrangement of outdoor spaces that retreat from the Peachtree Street corridor toward the rear of the Art Center's site, along Lombardy Way.

The High Museum, completed in 1983, visually identified Meier as the leading American Postmodernist. Exquisitely constructed, Meier's pristine porcelain form identified the museum as not only the house of the collection, but a part of the collection itself.

Piano's scheme however, does not compete with Meier's "object in the field." In fact, it exerts itself less as a building and more as an infill of the site. Extending from the High's posterior, the expansion grips 16th street, and then wraps around the back of the site along Lombardy. This L-configuration (which necessitates demolishing the College of Art's existing dormitory) contains two new exhibition structures, an administrative wing and facilities for the college, all connected by a series of transparent corridors. The hyphenated character of the expansion begins with its connection to the High — a glass bridge projecting from the rear of the current museum's lobby.

"When you want urbanity, you build on the edge, you build on the street," Piano said during his presentation. But in essence, Piano is more concerned with his own sense of urbanity, far different from Midtown's unanimated street scene. Removed from the street are two outdoor spaces, "piazzas" imported from the architect's native Italy and intended to be animated by outdoor sculpture and a new restaurant. The fragmentary-nature of the buildings, whose profiles resemble the contours of a stone quarry, form the thresholds of these large outdoor rooms. From Lombardy Street, a series of alley-like stairs, reminiscent of an Italian hill town, accommodate the 15-foot transition to the piazza level.

So while Meier flaunted the object, Piano's plan celebrates the void, allowing Meier's building to continue its most successful role — attracting attention with its enigmatic form.

The resulting interplay of inside and outside spaces, while well suited for Atlanta's hospitable climate, is most successful for directing pedestrians deeper into Midtown's urban fabric. If you've never wanted to take a stroll on West Peachtree, it's probably because a pleasant walking experience is discouraged by the backside of buildings. Although much of the city's prior development rarely broke ground east or west of Peachtree Street, the compaction of the High's project toward the western edge of its site encourages a density already supported by a recent wave of construction. Presently, the Midtown zone between 10th and 15th streets, with its mix of spaces for live, work and play, demonstrates the most successful widening of Atlanta's urban core.

While his approach to urban place-making may be Italian in character, Piano's sensitivity to the locale of his projects has greatly developed over the nearly four decades of his career. As one compares his early collaboration with Richard Rogers on the Centres Pompidou (completed in 1976) to the celebrated Jean Marie Tjibaou Cultural Center in New Caledonia (completed in 1998), an ideological evolution becomes clear. Piano has distinguished himself from the often-severe designs of the "High Tech" movement and today demonstrates a capacity for unifying technology and design not merely for its own sake, but rather in the service of culture.

If you're looking for eye-candy, wait until they tear down the Memorial Arts Building.

For more information on the High Museum expansion, visit www.buildingthehigh.org.??

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