The new center at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute opens up before its guests almost imperceptibly, the entrance revealing itself only after visitors have walked down a long path framed by a slab of red granite. The granite parts to unveil a dazzling reflecting pool which unites the three central buildings of Clark’s 140-acre campus. This area is the nucleus of a decade-long transformation of the Williamstown, Massachusetts, museum which brought together the famed architects Tadao Ando, Annabelle Selldorf, and Reed Hilderbrand Landscape Architects and finally reopened its doors on July 4th.
The first stop at the reimagined Clark is Tadao Ando’s visitor center. As his other works in the United States, the Pulitzer Foundation in St. Louis and the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth, Ando's visitor center is austere and meditative, a transitional space that points to other buildings rather than draws attention to itself. Granite and glass are the main materials and their primary role, according to Ando, is to draw the eye to the hill that rises above the Clark. The minimalist visitor center is followed by a restrained reconfiguration of the galleries in the Museum Building, where Annabelle Selldorf turned the long corridors of the previous incarnation into smaller rooms, giving the space a more intimate air, appropriate for the museum’s collection which is famous for nineteenth-century American and European art.
Connecting these buildings is a three-tiered reflecting pool, which was one of the main points of contention in the 14-year-long, $145 million transformation of the Clark. Nonetheless, as it oscillates between turning opaque and reflecting the rolling hills above it, the pool is undoubtedly the crowning achievement of the project. Stemming from Ando’s idea it was made a reality by the landscape firm Reed Hilderbrand, which took into account the practicalities of the site and the need for a sustainable solution that could provide irrigation for the campus and withstand the cold Massachusetts winters. In a particularly inspired detail, the pool will become a functioning skating rink in the winter, drawing in even the most reluctant visitors.
And while on a recent trip most guests elbowed their way to take pictures of Tadao Ando, who had come from Osaka for the reopening, the true success of the Clark lies not in its association with the great architect, but in the thoughtful harmony of its many elements. From the unlikely pairing of the original 1955 neo-Classical building and the 1970s Brutalist Manton Research Center to the way Ando’s Visitor Center responds to the sprawling fields above, the Clark is not a conglomeration of disparate elements but a balanced whole. While many elements of the project, such as the time and the money invested, as well the involvement of a famed starchitect, might have resulted in a overambitious muddle, the reimagined Clark is a subtle work, one that successfully presents art, architecture, and nature as nothing short of equals.