- The Washington Times - Friday, April 7, 2006

The quiet new Sant Building at the Phillips Collection, which opens to the public next Saturday, does not look the way a museum is supposed to look these days. Instead, it’s a refreshing exception to the trend to expand cultural institutions with self-important, assertive architecture, preferably designed by a superstar.

In Washington, this “star-chitecture” has been manifested by the ill-fated Frank Gehry wing at the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Norman Foster-designed canopy at the Smithsonian’s newly named Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture.

Compared to those projects, the Phillips expansion is the architectural equivalent of a shrinking violet.

The 30,000-square-foot addition, designed by the District firm Cox Graae and Spack Architects, is tucked behind and below the 1910 facade of an apartment building to the north of the museum so as to be almost invisible. Its reticence is an appropriate response to the Phillips Collection’s tradition of accretive building.

Rather than set a new direction, the addition bows to its predecessors: Hornblower and Marshall’s 1897 brick mansion, which founder Duncan Phillips opened to the public as a museum, and Wyeth and King’s 1960 modernist addition, the Goh Annex, which local architect Arthur Cotton Moore recast in a classical guise during the 1980s.

Those buildings are beloved not so much for their architecture as for the residential and quirky character of their interiors, allowing close-up and comparative views of paintings. The biggest success of the new wing is extending this intimate art-viewing experience that makes the Phillips so special. New galleries don’t upstage the old ones but repeat their small scale in rooms filled with just a few choice works. Aligned with the floors of the adjacent annex, they feel like part of the older building so that the visitor hardly notices the shift into the addition.

“The Phillips Collection was not trying to reinvent itself with an architectural statement,” Director Jay Gates said on a recent tour of the new wing. The goal of adding on, he said, “was to accommodate institutional functions, which beautiful old houses don’t allow and are basic to the life of a serious museum.”

The challenge of expanding, Mr. Gates explained, was to build all those things the Phillips had long been missing — an auditorium, a research library, classrooms for visiting schoolchildren, adequate office space and room for unloading artwork. All those spaces had to be shoehorned into a tight site, made tighter still by city-dictated preservation requirements and community concerns over the Phillips’ growing presence on the block.

Architects David Cox and Donald Gregory responded by submerging the auditorium, classrooms and library on two subterranean levels that extend underground to an alley at the rear. Behind the preserved front wall of the apartment house, now painted a bright yellow, they inserted galleries and offices within a new building that respects the historic structure’s original footprint.

Performing such a “facade-ectomy” typically is dismissed as superficial, “fig-leaf” preservation by architects, but Mr. Cox and his team did their best to relate their design to the old facade’s windows and bays as well as to existing floor levels in the adjacent Goh Annex.

“It was like building a watch,” Mr. Cox said. “The biggest challenge was circulation, providing a clear way for museum-goers to find their way around.”

Now the Phillips has a clear front door. By pushing out the ground floor of the annex by eight feet, the architects made room for a generous, oval lobby and a somewhat clunky portico of red-tinted concrete that completes its curve on the outside.

Around this entrance, a new facade has been designed to respect the history of the museum. Rusticated walls of Minnesota limestone nearly match the masonry that sheathed the 1960 addition before it was re-covered in brick. Incorporated into one side of the new front wall is the stone relief of the Braque-inspired bird that once graced the original annex entrance.

To enter the Sant Building, named for donors Victoria and Roger Sant, visitors make a right turn from the annex to descend a short flight of steps into a daylit exhibit space. Sinking the floor allowed for a 17-foot-high gallery to be placed at the street behind the apartment building facade. The second-floor windows in the old structure filter daylight into the top of this room, which is tall enough to display large postwar canvases by artists such as Adolph Gottlieb and Frank Stella. The projecting bay in the preserved facade forms a niche for a Joan Mitchell abstraction.

Galleries on the upper floors also incorporate architectural eccentricities in keeping with the Phillips Collection’s older buildings. On the third floor, a tall room is topped with a skylight and an angled ceiling to convey the feeling of an attic studio that was once part of the museum.

The Rothko room is back, re-created on the second floor almost exactly as it was in the annex. Framed by a quartet of canvases by artist Mark Rothko, the contemplative chamber incorporates a tall, narrow window that Mr. Cox says is similar to the glass door in the room’s former incarnation.

To hear a lecture, visitors won’t have to trek to the Cosmos Club anymore. They can take a newly installed elevator to the 180-seat auditorium in the basement. The elegant hall is outlined in sound-absorbing fabric panels and cherry wainscoting and is furnished with wood-backed seats recycled from the Kennedy Center.

As in the other museum buildings, the floors within the addition are connected by a staircase. Its slightly bowed design, with a wide cherry handrail on metal balusters, pays homage to Mr. Moore’s spiral stair in the annex. So that old and new galleries can be linked, the staircase is located on the northern side of the addition farthest away from the existing buildings. It is set against a Tuscan red wall that is noticeable from a distance.

Visible from the windows in the stair hall is the new building’s most delightful space: a small walled courtyard planted with Japanese maples and flowering trees. Billed as a sculpture garden, the outdoor oasis is home to newly acquired pieces by Barbara Hepworth and Ellsworth Kelly and conveys the same intimacy as the galleries indoors. The perimeter is lined with raised stone planters, and a porch provides outdoor dining for the museum’s new cafe. This is the perfect spot for eating a sandwich or reading a book on a sunny day.

Here, the new building makes its strongest architectural statement in the rear facade. Arranged like a series of town houses, the bays are crisply, if fussily, detailed in banded brick and the same yellowish limestone applied to the entrance facade and courtyard planters.

The contrasting masonry, copper-framed windows and gable-topped bay, set off by an oculus — an opening at the apex of a dome — and “chimney,” reinterpret the picturesque architecture of late 19th-century London through a contemporary lens. Like so much of the new addition, this architecture isn’t groundbreaking, but complementary to the existing museum buildings and their pleasurable presentation of art.

Renoir back from world tour

New architecture isn’t the only attraction being unveiled at the Phillips Collection next weekend. On display inside the new Sant Building are recently acquired modern photographs and big postwar abstractions previously stored for lack of space. Two new sculptures by Ellsworth Kelly and Barbara Hepworth have a permanent home in the walled courtyard at the rear.

Back on view in the 1897 mansion will be one of the museum’s favorite paintings, “Luncheon of the Boating Party” by French impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir. It is one of 60 paintings returning from a four-year international tour that will make up a new exhibit of masterworks at the museum.

The Phillips also has scheduled activities on April 15 and 16 around a Renoir theme. Chalk artists will draw Parisian scenes on the sidewalks, and street performers will portray characters depicted in the “Boating Party.” On Saturday, the film “A Day in the Country” by son Jean Renoir will be screened. A specially commissioned musical piece, “Renoir’s Feast,” will be played by composer and pianist Haskell Small on Sunday evening in the mansion’s music room. Admission to the weekend events is free. For more information, call 202/387-2151.

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