All Things Parrish

[Parrish Art Museum, Herzog & de Meuron]

In yesterday’s New York Times, Nicolai Ouroussoff reviews a new, stripped-down proposal for the Parrish Art Museum by Herzog & de Meuron. Ouroussoff frames the discussion in economic terms, seeing the newly designed minimalist shed as an indicator of lean times to come, in which creativity is stifled by the dire economic situation. In this case, HdM’s original proposal (described in a pre-crash article by Robin Pogrebin) had to be scaled back to one-third of the original budget. While Ououssoff may be right, I don’t think the scaling-down of architectural ambition is necessarily a bad thing: it may allow architects to focus their creative energy on materials, technologies, and on projects that re-approach the human scale, leaving the era of absurd iconic buildings in the past…

[HdM’s original proposal. Plan]

Herzog & de Meuron’s original proposal was an intriguing synthesis of recent themes in their work. The stripped-down Rossian house profile has always held a place in their oeuvre (from their Rudin house of 1997 to the entry shed at the Schaulager, 2004), but it is only in recent years that they’ve subjected this typological form to intense manipulation. In their project for Vitra, house profiles are extruded into long bars and stacked around a central courtyard, creating a semi-covered public plaza. The stacked bars are allowed to sink into one another, generating complex interior spaces in the intersections between bars, all of which are “pinned” by spiral staircases, revealing the apparently chaotic composition to be the result of a series of simple rotations and translations. In the Parrish design, the typical “house” is sliced and chopped; corners are cut away. Herzog & de Meuron are not afraid to reveal their design process: for Parish it is an endless series of pink foam nuggets, each Monopoly House gable cropped at a slightly different angle, the result of hundreds of intern-hours at the foam-cutter.

[Parish study models]

[Parish presentation model]

These formal manipulations were not simply a way to generate complexity. The clustered sheds of the original design were ostensibly based on the actual dimensions and orientation of artists’ studios, meant to replicate the exact quality of light that would have filtered through the windows into Willem de Kooning’s or Roy Lichtenstein’s Long Island studio. Herzog & de Meuron have recognized the potential of direct quotation before, at their tower for 56 Leonard Street, whose floor plans were supposedly based on Case Study Houses: differences between the plans lead to the pixilated Jenga block composition. At Parish, this kind of postmodern quotation combines with an interest in typology and formal manipulation, resulting in a work of architecture that is aesthetically interesting, formally ambitious, and complex not for complexity’s sake, but to achieve a programmatic goal: to display art in conditions as close as possible to those in which it was created.

[Interior view: original proposal]

As Ouroussoff states, the budget was slashed and this proposal was shelved, but the new design has merit, and may represent a return-to-form for the architects who rose to fame not with formal gymnastics, but with a subtle approach informed by careful study of program, attention to detail, and a keen appreciation of the material realities of construction.

[New proposal for Parish Art Museum – Interior View]

The new design clearly continues the architects’ fascination with the “house” or “shed” motif – here two of these profiles are conjoined, and extruded along a straight line for some distance. The resulting long bar contains movable partitions, allowing much greater flexibility for the exhibition curators. Though they have lost the subtle approach to natural lighting that was such a generator of the first design, this flexibility was surely the smart economic move, as it will allow a variety of different exhibitions, not only “see de Kooning as de Kooning saw de Kooning…” (the architects are surely aware of the long exhibition hall at the Venice Arsenale – formerly used to braid rope – and of the flexibility such a long exhibition hall allows there).

[CCTV Tower, OMA]

When a building in OMA/Koolhaas’ CCTV complex caught fire last year, some took it as a portent of doom, a sign that the era of big, ostentatious, iconic architecture had come to an end. Personally, I think the new design for the Parish is a clearer signal of this, but also a sign of hope. The exterior rendering reminds me of Herzog & de Meuron’s earlier work, such as the Ricola Storage Building in Laufen, where the form of the building was so constrained that the architects were forced to devise a subtle solution that dealt with perception, context, and materiality. As this project becomes further developed, we can hope to see these nuances appear, pointing the way (again?) to an architecture based on subtlety rather than ostentation, where creativity is not limited to formal manipulation and complex geometry, but where artistic freedom can be achieved through the intelligent use of materials, the embrace of new building technologies, and perhaps through the re-thinking of the traditional business models that, yes, allowed construction of impressive monuments like CCTV and the Bird’s Nest, but also caused the disastrous financial situation we now find ourselves in. If the dramatic shift in direction at the Parish is any indication of the future, there may be hope yet.

But, we shall see….


  • Anonymous

    This complex looks like a petri dish of miniature Gehry houses. It's called an art museum, but I suspect this is really a study in disguise contemplating American domestic architecture. Look out Bob Stern, here comes the Swiss Levittown.

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