Experiencing Great Architecture and Creative Built Environments

Robert Venturi

Allen Memorial Art Museum Addition (1977)

Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, Architects

87 North Main Street Oberlin, OH 44074

on the campus of Oberlin College & Conservatory

Map and Aerial View

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Visited June 2, 2011

A “Decorated Shed”, using Venturi’s own terminology, is his description of the Allen Art Museum addition. It  is one of the milestone Post-Modern projects of the period. Again showing my age, this project was widely discussed in my college architecture classes.

The addition is set far back from the original Cass Gilbert building on the south (right) side. Venturi’s facade references the original facade by using stone of similar color as the original museum, but it is implemented in a contemporary basketweave pattern. Although the addition respects the original building with its setback and the “matching” of facade materials, the actual attachment to the building is a surgical crash. The addition slices right through the middle of a blue terracotta medallion, and cuts the building frame panels in half. The window fenestration, stone banding, base, roofline and fascia do not align with any of the original building organizational lines. This is not to imply that I think it is “wrong”, or that I do not like the addition (which I do in some respects), it is just an analysis of what Venturi felt was appropriate and important to him in creating a new, current architectural diologue and statement.

I revisited this addition the day after my visit to the Akron Museum of Art Addition. I wanted to refresh my memory to compare how the two architect’s attached the additions to the original building. I found the differences to be interesting.

The Venturi addition’s use of the similar exterior materials and the setback from the original building shows how he respects the original building, but the chainsaw-like slicing of the Gilbert building decorative elements and the ignoring of any reference to the original fenestration banding seems purposefully implimented to show it is a new and independent statement.

Coop Himmelb(l)au’s Akron Museum of Art Addition shows an almost diametrically opposed approach. The metal and glass building materials and angular jutting forms have nothing to do with the original building’s materials, and it is crystal clear what is addition and what is original building. The addition is also set back from the original building (mostly due to the site constraints), but Coop Himmalb(l)au must have felt that they had to affect the front view of the original building by hovering a large metal “cloud” over the building, almost patting the original building on it’s hip-roofed head. What Coop Himmelb(l)au did pay very close attention to was the actual attachment to the original building. The main attachment is a glass and steel first floor connection that carefully intersects the existing facade just below the horizontal stone band in the center of the original building’s rear facade. The two story glass and metal addition actually jogs around the existing roof overhang to not disrupt the eve and overhang, and allows the second floor window band to continue intact all the way around the original building. The hovering “cloud” over the original building also has a structural attachment through the original roof, but it is carefully placed to be as invisible as possible. They were very careful not to disrupt the original building’s details with the physical connection of the addition.

The Allen Memorial Art Museum Addition was closed both times I had visited. I searched the exterior of the building to see if I could see an architectural  element that was widely discussed in architectural circles when the building opened. Venturi is known for his references to architectural terms using humorous analagies such as “Decorated Sheds” and “Ducks”. At this museum he introduced us to the “Ironic” column. The “Ironic” column is a short, stubby column cover composed of vertical wood boards capped with a simplified exagerated cartoon-like  ionic capital. When the building was new, this generously published image always seemed to be a main feature of the building. It is usually photographed from within the gallery through a large square window.  In reality I discovered this column is religated to the back by the loading dock and the HVAC equipment. Because the galley has always been closed when I have visited, I have only been able to view this important architectural feature by walking to the back of the “Decorated Shed” and viewed it above the loading dock – not from within the art gallery carefully framed by the square window frame . I think that is ironic.

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