J.D. Welch - User Experience Design

Philip Johnson's Neuberger Museum of Art

What is most extraordinary about the campus at SUNY Purchase is not its severe master plan, nor its brand-name-architect designed buildings, but the complete reversal in critical commentary from its inception through realization. In the late 1960s and 70s when the campus was being planned and constructed, the literature speaks to classical values of liberal education and ordered beauty; a distance of twenty years has produced scathing criticism of the ideals of the project to focus on the (generally regarded) unfortunate result. However wonderful the intent, the campus has clearly failed to meet expectations, in large part due to the treatment of the physical structures that constitute it.

To examine one structure in particular, Philip Johnson and John Burgee's Neuberger Museum is rather well summed up by Sexton, who concludes "Sadly, Philip Johnson behaved himself in designing the Neuberger, resulting in a quiet building that fits into the campus [master] plan, and provides no stimulation for a viewer (35)." Over the last twenty years, commentary has shifted from the theoretical to the practical. While the initial design for the Neuberger (and the rest of the campus) expresses the idealistic, it-sounds-good-on-paper goals of the planners and patrons, the built result does not, however, give a fantastic aesthetic experience.

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The interesting thing about the Neuberger is that there are a variety of goals expressed by the builders, including the differing conceptions put forth by the architect, the patrons, etc. In the 1974 catalogue to the inaugural exhibition at the Neuberger, several parties stated, explicitly or implicitly, their goals of the structure. Then governor Nelson Rockefeller expresses his lofty goal, which he obviously felt had been realized in the structure: "this imaginative building... magnifies beyond measure the potential of each of these works of art to reach people, to give pleasure and lift the human spirit (Neuberger 4)." Getting a bit more specific as to how the space should be organized, college president Abbott Kaplan describes the Neuberger as a "teaching museum... it will offer students an opportunity for intensive study of significant works of art (6)." Philip Johnson states with further clarity

Instead of trying to create a community landmark that would represent in its architectural form the idea of a place sacred to the arts, we have attempted at Purchase to design a facility for the use and delectation of students and teachers devoted to the practicing as well as the exhibiting arts (9).

Interestingly, the primary source for art, Roy Neuberger, offers no comment on the building to house his collection. The catalogue that these statements come from, as well as the work written for the 1971 Museum of Modern Art exhibition, broadly focus on the more theoretical implications of the master plan, and are spiked with many references to classical ideals, and the specific architectural precedent of Franklin's University of Virginia campus-- a "model for an ideal community (Goldberger 6)." What was built was "a Modernist's reinterpretation of of one of America's most recognizable academic plans (Sexton 33)." The extended essay for the "Model for a Museum" exhibition has a decidedly Modernist tone, in its esteem for the values of the greatness of art and stance that the permanent collection should be paramount, relegating the temporary exhibitions to "hovering on the borders of entertainment (Neuberger 16)," a possible jibe to the emergence of post-modernist art. Since the permanent collection was/is dominated by twentieth century American works, this commentary stands in the theoretical continuum with Greenberg's assertion of the heroicism and absolute value of Modernist art. The campus is thoroughly Modernist, its conception rooted in classicism and ordered organization.

So what happened to "The physical components and supporting services conducive to support the Platonic vision of an ideal museum (8)?" For the answer to this all-important question, it is time to look into the specifics of Johnson and Burgee's building.

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The Neuberger was conceived in Edward Larabee Barnes' 1968 Master Plan, designed by Johnson/Burgee in 1969, and was the first structure on the mall to be finished. As such, the spaces of the building were initially doing anything but showing art: "the Museum became a temporary base for students of dance, music, the visual arts, and occasionally drama (14)." While this was obviously just an economization during the rough start-up years of the College, it proves that there is nothing about the building that makes it particularly bad for these tasks, and very little that makes it specifically a museum of art. Johnson characterizes his design as a "crankshaft," that is "[5] 60 foot wide blocks slide back and forth along the central 300 foot long access ." He goes on to note that "all else is flexible: lighting, wall spacing, colors. In a building of this nature, much of the design is perforce left to the users (9)." To continue this 'user-friendly,' almost 'do-it-yourself' orientation, there are paint and carpentry shops, a conservation lab and photography studio all contained in the building.

While Johnson/Burgee were obviously influenced by and continue the open, freeform use of space that characterizes structures like Le Corbusier's Campbell Center, Goodwin and Stone's MoMA and Mies van der Rohe's museum projects, the Neuberger does not distinguish itself as much more than a warehouse. Granted, the repetition of the same basic form creates a strong yet subdued sense of rhythm when looking at the building from the exterior (which of course is hard with the arcade in the way on the mall side), and also in the repetition of openings along the central axis. The vista so highly regarded in Beaux-Arts architecture is retained somewhat in the use of a central(ish) hall to move axially through the main level. The character of the gallery spaces change radically as one moves through the space. In recent installations, the first 'box in the crankshaft' is installed with a cafe and small temporary exhibition. In the next, another temporary show is hung on the ground floor and stairs lead to the permanent collection, tucked away on the second level. Opposite the stairs, a wall of glass overlooks one of the sculpture courts. The third box presents African art, pieces arranged neatly in Plexiglas vitrines in the low-ceilinged space. Next comes the massive, partitionless gallery that can handle the largest installations, followed by the last box/gallery, another temporary exhibition space with a moderate ceiling. Another rhythm is thus created, namely the succession of intimate contrasted with more grand spaces. Boxes two and four each have high ceilings, whereas one, three and five do not.

The structure is very restrained, and could hardly be instantly regarded as Johnson's work. He explains this himself, however, saying "geographically alone, this building could not have stood by itself as a landmark. The site provided by the campus architect, Edward Barnes ... [gave us] the restricted site for an active museum(9)." The structure had great practical goals to live up to, including the overriding concept of teaching and student involvement:
The immense areas of space in the basement.. .ensure that students will be able to study individual works... Nearby workshops and other practical amenities mean that students under supervision will be able to work on exhibits and, in general, the museum will train students for professional museum tasks (17).

So, while the treatment of space creates a relatively interesting interior, the outside of the building is undistinguished, even in the group of buildings around the mall. The only thing to set the Neuberger apart from a mechanical shed are the sculpture courts.

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It is hard to determine whether or not the Neuberger has lived up to its intended greatness. The campus is now described as "born in... an atmosphere of belief in the ability of well-intended and well-crafted work to enlighten and uplift beyond the capability of ordinary buildings (Goldberger 8)," however the same author goes on to comment "the decision to mandate a single material, in this case a dark, reddish-brown brick, gave unity, but of the dullest sort, and it meant that from a distance, all the buildings blurred into a vast brown whole (10)." Again we see the contrast between design and execution, which would be hard to contend are in any way equal.

The Neuberger sinks the quickest into the brown void, as the innovation of the building resides only on the inside. While Birkerts' dance building gives us glass coming out of the building on 45-degree angles and Venturi creates a pattern on the humanities building in black-glazed tile, Johnson's subtle use of simple forms cannot be understood as intended-- there is no place on campus to view the entirety of the side facade. The structure makes sense in plan and and unobstructed model, but to actually circumambulate and observe the structure, there are only great walls of brick occasionally interrupted by a sculpture or two.

I suppose the moral of the story is that modernist architecture can only fit into the theoretical framework of a 'utopian' university plan. On paper, the beautiful relationships of form to void look great, but in practice the overbearing use of the grid and insensitive use of cheap materials create a dreary, prison-like atmosphere. It is too bad that Johnson/Burgee's Neuberger had to get caught up in the mess; on its own, on a well-chosen site, the building's quiet simplicity could do well. Unfortunately, it is now shoehorned into a suburban lot, other structures on both sides; even the front facade is hidden to the traffic on the mall. While the contents of the space might 'lift the human spirit,' the building is forever drowning in a monotone sea of brown brick.

Sources

Goldberger, Paul. 1997. "Exhibition Statement." Suburban: The Architecture of Purchase College. Purchase: Neuberger Museum of Art.*

Neuberger Museum of Art. 1974. The Making of the Museum: I. New York: Harbor Press, n.p.*

Sexton, James. 2000. "Trapped at SUNY Purchase." Westchester County Times, May, 33-35.


* For simplicity and relative accuracy in citing references from these works, I have used my own pagination of the photocopies placed on reserve, starting with '1' on the title page.