Bellevue Art Museum

By most standards, Steven Holl’s new Bellevue Art Museum isn’t beautiful. The squat three-story structure is composed of nestled shapes painted burnt sienna. Yet there is something irresistible about the way light pours in and out of the building through skylights and light coves. Located near Seattle, the museum radiates warmth in a wet, gray climate and offers an ambience of purity in a neighborhood of profane dotcom billions. Holl grew up in the Northwest, but he believes that people everywhere, consciously or not, want to commune with the cosmos. And he has spent his career orchestrating effects that bring people closer to a heart-stopping sense of space beyond space. “I am slightly obsessed with the moment that space and light and texture and sound come together to give you pause,” he says. [sections] Holl is among a group of architects who are exploring the idea of the sacred in modern design. Though the practitioners themselves may deny they are part of a movement, and may reject any label defining the ir work, they have created light-suffused environments, both secular and ecclesiastical, that foster a feeling of peace and even surrender to the infinite. Composed with humble or native materials and minimal detailing, sacred spaces produce subtle and complex sensory responses as well as heightened consciousness of realms beyond physical experience. Holl describes the design approach as “getting down to the root of any feeling.”  If the sacred space movement has a figurehead, it is Tadao Ando, the Pritzker Prize-winning architect known for graceful and exacting cubes filled with light. Trained as a carpenter, Ando taught himself architecture by studying the construction of ancient Japanese shrines, temples, and teahouses and by analyzing modernist masterworks. In his Church of the Light in Osaka, he cut a slim, cross-shaped window behind the altar to summon brilliance into the concrete-walled space. “I do not believe architecture should speak too much. It should remain silent and let nature in the guise of sunlight and wind speak,” he has said. [sections] In addition to Holl, a professor of architecture at Columbia University, others who work in the idiom are Switzerland’s Peter Zumthor, designer of spare wood structures, such as the celebrated Swiss pavilion at the 2000 Hannover World’s Fair and thermal baths in Wals; the New York-based partnership of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, whose recent natatorium at Cranbrook features a planetarium-like dome with round skylights; the New Yorker Michael Gabellini, an exemplary handler of subtle gradations of light and precise, finely made interior fittings for private homes and fashion boutiques; and James Turrell, an artist whose light sculptures are widely exhibited in galleries and who now practices architecture from his ranch outside Flagstaff, Arizona. Earlier this year, he completed his first building in the U.S., the Live Oak Friends Meeting House, in Houston, Texas.  The movement has a philosopher, too: the late University of Chicago religion professor Mircea Eliade. According to The Sacred and the Profane, Eliade’s 1957 treatise on the building practices of ancient cultures, architecture, the most practical of disciplines, is deeply rooted in spirituality. Early man would not have thought of erecting a tent without considering its relationship to the heavens, Eliade noted. Doors were positioned to admit not just bodies but spirits, and roof holes releasing smoke from a fire also provided access to starlight.  Eliade argued that modern people are still “unconsciously nourished by memories of the sacred, in camouflaged myths and degenerated rituals.” Those who do not follow a regulated spiritual path may ascribe a special value to, say, a birthplace, the scene of first love, or a building encountered in one’s travels. “Even for the most frankly nonreligious man, all of these places still retain an exceptional, a unique quality. They are the ‘holy places’ of his private universe, as if it were in suchspots that he had received the revelat ion of a reality other than that in which he participates through his ordinary daily life,” he wrote. [ss] In short, sacred space architecture is conversant with private emotions and meanings. “When we think about occupying any territory,” says Steven Holl, “whether it is an interior or a landscape, there is a possibility of an emotional binding relationship that is not measurable. This condition of the unmeasurable is related to a notion of wonder.” What sacred space architects do, Holl believes, is “get back to the root” of wonder, a child’s sense of the world, often before he or she has a formal understanding of religion or what is generally viewed as sacred. Because art museums are repositories of objects that summon emotion, they represent a logical project type of sacred space architects; and the movement’s emphasis on light and hush lends itself to art appreciation as much as to worship. (Nor do museums have to stretch for religious associations: the title “curator” is based on the same latin root as “curate,” the term for a medieval clergyman.) By their nature, too, cultural institutions have encouraged architects’ experiments with forms, materials, and lighting, at least since the ’80s, when I.M. Pei deposited a glass pyramid on the grounds of the Louvre. Holl’s own glass addition to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, slated for completion in 2004, will be a row of crystalline light wells rising out of the earth. And last summer, Turrell made a luminous catacomb out of the tunnel that connects the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, to its new Rafael Moneo-designed addition. Ando’s first U.S. building, the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts–a series of concrete cubes inset with slivered glass that will house one of the world’s great collections of cubist works–opens in St. Louis in October, followed next year by the architect’s Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. Later this year, Williams and Tsien will complete their Museum of American Folk Art. The first freestanding museum to be erected in Ne w York City since the Whitney was built in 1966, its lobby will feature two staircases, mismatched in size, that taken together challenge the aspirations of the tiny, 29,000-square-foot structure. (Though their symbolic importance is not always intended, staircases bear special meanings in sacred spaces; like Jacob’s ladder, they evoke humankind’s struggle for transcendence.) Sacred spaces are often intimate enclosures defined by their entrances. Holl’s Bellevue Art museum greets visitors with an astral projection from the Hubbell Telescope, and in Ando’s design for the forthcoming Fort Worth Museum, access to an enfilade of cubes will be through an overscaled door. The new Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, D.C., designed by Leo A. Daly, is approached via a bridge over a pool that terminates in a large open-air courtyard. Project designer Lori Arrasmith says this space was influenced by Civil War battlefields and the “weightlessness you find lingering where great acts of violence have occu rred.”  A bridge is also a feature of Michael Gabellini’s unbuilt house for the Williams family. Sited in a residential Denver neighborhood, the house will be surrounded by a moat that Gabellini modeled on aristocratic Japanese buildings; crossing bridges, he believes, is a metaphysical token of movement between states of consciousness. Inside, the architect paid special attention to the house’s bathrooms because of the importance of cleansing in sacred rituals. A five-by-eight-foot guest bath on the ground floor will receive diffuse natural light (a Gabellini trademark) via a shaft that rises through the three-story structure to a white glass skylight on the roof.  The gestures and moods of sacred spaces are easier to pin down than their designers.

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