If You Build It…
After three years, the Saint Louis Art Museum is ready to reveal its shiny new East Building
The Grand Hall, meant to exhibit sculptures, contains not one statue. Meters hang on the walls, constantly measuring light, humidity and temperature. There are bare spaces on the walls awaiting grand paintings. Of the works that are already hung, several remain draped or covered in brown paper. Such is the scene inside the new East Building of the Saint Louis Art Museum as the staff prepares for the much anticipated grand opening of the $162 million expansion on June 29. The new building—expected to garner national attention—features immense galleries that allow the museum to showcase more of its extensive permanent holdings of contemporary and modern art, and host larger traveling exhibits (thanks to the extra space and larger loading dock). Other additions include a new education center, a restaurant and snack bar, and a 300-space underground parking garage.
Designed by world-renowned British architect Sir David Chipperfield, the expansion is notably complex and as finely engineered as a Swiss watch. “We chose an architect who had respect for our collection,” says Tricia Paik, assistant curator of modern and contemporary art for SLAM. “He came and looked at it before designing the building.” Natural light is key to Chipperfield’s design. Floor-to-ceiling windows and a one-of-a-kind grid of skylights set into the coffered ceiling allow artwork to be illuminated naturally, which alters the viewing experience from moment to moment. If there are changes in the natural light, the shades and the lighting system automatically adjust to optimally illuminate the art. The skylights in the special exhibit spaces, on the other hand, are faux, so no natural light is allowed in. This is due in part to the standard agreement when a painting is loaned to a museum—owners fear light damage. The East Building has already earned a LEED gold certification for its environmentally sustainable design, featuring low-flow bathrooms, a green roof, wood from sustainable forests and recycled construction waste.
A lot of thought went into the transitions and flow of the space,as well. “Obviously, you can’t control where people will go,” Paik says. “But we still try to influence how they will walk through the new galleries.” For instance, in the transition from the original Cass Gilbert building to the East Building, visitors walk through a small gallery adorned with Ancient Greek and Near East artifacts—so finding themselves in the new building comes as a surprise.
The grandest transition, though, is the $1.9 million outdoor sculpture that links the two buildings. “Stone Sea” is a series of 25 stone arches about 10 feet tall by world-renowned British sculptor Andy Goldsworthy. The stones were milled to exact specifications in Perryville and arranged snugly atop one another, forming arches held together by gravity alone. The sculpture—which visitors pass when moving between buildings on the lower level—is inspired by St. Louis geology and the city’s underlying base of limestone, formed over 300 million years ago when the Midwest was covered by water. With the arches densely arranged, the piece produces a sense of fluidity and movement like the sea.
Simultaneous with the East Building’s grand opening, SLAM plans to premiere two new exhibits in the space. “Postwar German Art in the Collection” (June 29-Jan. 26, 2014) will draw from the museum’s extensive archives, featuring works by Sigmar Polke, Anselm Kiefer and others—many of which haven’t been seen in more than 10 years. Paik also notes that the museum is planning to make a catalog of its German holdings. “No other museum can boast of such a collection,” Paik says. “German scholars come to study it, particularly Max Beckman.” The opening will also premiere a new permanent exhibit, “A New View: Contemporary Art,” which explores the developments of postwar American art. Here, visitors can marvel at works by Warhol, Rothko, Pollock and other prominent artists of the era.
New East Building at SLAM
New East Building at SLAM
“Stone Sea” by Andy Goldsworthy
Photo credit: Jennifer Silverberg