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Monday, September 16, 2013

Pizzagalli Center for Art & Education at Shelburne Museum

Pizzagalli Center for Art & Education at Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vermont, by Ann Beha Architects, 2013

As museums around the United States continue to expand—think St. Louis Art Museum and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, among others—their facilities overtake parts of the city and the landscape, resulting in sometimes over-sized institutions. Another tactic can be found in Shelburne, Vermont, and the new Pizzagalli Center for Art and Education at the Shelburne Museum, a 45-acre (18-hectare) campus with nearly 40 buildings. The new Center, designed by Ann Beha Architects, adds only 16,000 square feet of exhibition and educational spaces, but it nevertheless makes a large impact on the museum, particularly by allowing it to stay open year-round, when previously it closed during the winter months.

Of course, adding to the Shelburne Museum in the manner of other institutions does not make sense, for twenty-five of its buildings are historical and were relocated to the grounds. For one, this creates an eclectic collection of buildings ("houses, barns, a meeting house, a one-room schoolhouse, a lighthouse, a jail, a general store, a covered bridge, and the 220-foot steamboat Ticonderoga," per the museum) that is without a definitive center or base to add on to; this also means that the buildings are part of the collection, not just containers for the art. The new building respects this by locating itself near the parking lot and museum entry to become a starting point for experiencing the grounds, and by giving a visitors a place from which to take in the museum's Lake Champlain Valley landscape.

While the unique museum takes its name from its locale, it is really the product of Electra Havemeyer Webb (1888-1960), who founded the museum in 1947. Her parents collected European and Asian art, instilling in her an appreciation and eye for art, but she collected buildings to house her Impressionist paintings, folk art, quilts and textiles, decorative arts, furniture, and American paintings now totaling 150,000 objects. Her approach speaks to a breaking down of the boundaries between art and architecture; they work together (and with the landscape) to create an aesthetic and educational institution where history and distant places converge.

So how does an architect add something to a campus where every style imaginable can be found? One approach would take this as an invitation for free rein, rewarding a formally exuberant piece that would become the early 21st-century building amongst the other 38 buildings. But Ann Beha takes a modern yet understated approach, resulting in what the New York Times calls "Modernist pastoral." Two overlapping bars, set at about a 15-degree angle to each other, sit atop stone walls that anchor the two-story building firmly in place. Above the stone are walls of wood, large windows with carefully framed views, and overhanging copper roofs.

The two bars basically define the exhibition and educational components of the program; the former to the south and the latter to the north. They utilize spaces on both floors, but the upper floor is where the most light is gained and where views are to be had. Here is also where the west-facing porch can be found, an in-between space that connects the new building with the landscape and campus of buildings beyond. The space may not have a program, like the galleries and exhibition spaces, but it's integral for lending an appreciation of the museum that Electra Havemeyer Webb created.

Photographs are by Peter Vanderwarker, courtesy of Ann Beha Architects.

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