The architectural firm of Herzog and de Meuron, which has now been operating long enough to be almost ‘old guard’, remains nonetheless one of the most reliable sources of original and gently challenging architectural form anywhere. Having burst onto the scene — at its more conceptual edges — many years ago, it has matured into one of a half dozen ‘go-to’ offices for major cultural commissions of the type that demand buildings of significance, stature and Intellectual depth. Never short of Innovative approaches or applications, from siting to massing to materials, Herzog and de Meuron deliver buildings always worth paying attention to, even while evading the ‘louder’ ends of the trend spectrum. Parrish Art Museum is, like many of their works, another new building one didn’t see coming. It is apparently unlike what they have done previously, and ready to cause people to think anew about conventions.
What is so compelling about the new building is how ‘normal’ it is. Flirting almost with the mundane, it proposes the simplest of partis, made as it is of long, low sheds capped with pitched roofs. Inspired explicitly by classic East Long Island artists’ studios, which often occupy former agrarian structures, the simple-house section of Parrish puts art and visitors in a world instantly familiar to both, as if the architecture of art (or rather, the creation of modern American art) has been so long established after the 20th century that everyone assumes it anyway. North-facing skylights illuminate indirectly the giant spaces, dousing all in a calm, even light. A central circulation spine is flanked by a pair of linear galleries, and then two more linear forms — outside covered porches — in turn flank them, making a striped, elongated plan or aerial view.
There are ten galleries at the 50,000sq ft Parrish, which can be reorganised with partition walls making use of the structural grid. There is also back-of-house space: storage, workshops and delivery areas. The public areas are to the west of the galleries, with lobby, shop, cafe and educational space. The straightforward post-beam-and-truss system, exactly what you wouldn’t expect in a major contemporary art institution (by famed architects), is part of the radicalism here. It is the anti-statement becoming a profound declaration In Itself. Architecture at its most basic; ‘old school’ at its purest. Even its placement on site is a result of the most convincingly direct logic: the building runs east-west to afford northward orientation for the skylights, so that they may wash the art with Ideal light. No tricks, no bling. If the museum had to accommodate the making of art, rather than the viewing of it, you get the feeling artists wouldn’t mind a bit. Parrish feels like the ultimate artist’s studio space, just a little tidier and larger than usual.
On the outdoor porches, long benches against the in-situ concrete walls provide lovely resting places to replace art with nature as subject for thoughtful observation. The undramatic and beautiful landscape of indigenous grass fields, so typical of Long Island, seems like a scripted compliment to the canvasses on the other side of these walls. It all fits together in a single, powerful story: landscape, representation, architecture. These Swiss masters have created a building that is intensely American, by distilling what they have understood of America — at least this precious corner of it, including its relationship to modern art-making — and abstracting it carefully into an elemental, edited version of itself. It is refined, to be sure, but will be understood by people as soon as they see it. In a sense, the building does what a painting can do: it re-presents a thing we know, helping us to see it more completely.