Nelson Fine Arts Center

Nelson Fine Arts Center in Tempe, Arizona by Antoine Predock, 1990

Located on the Arizona State University campus, Antoine Predock's Nelson Fine Arts Center melds itself into the urban/desert location of the school. With the architects refusal of denying a place's physical presence, the center confronts the desert in a series of spaces that creates a procession from the open exterior to the intimate spaces of the interior.

Consisting of galleries, studios, a theater, and an auditorium, access to the Center happens in multiple locations. In each case the transition from the heat and dryness of the exterior to the ultimately mechanically-controlled interior spaces is dealt with in a unique manner. The auditorium and theater entry is accessed by piercing a circular, brick arcade, which also acts as an aqueduct to deliver water to three fountains, one at the theater entry. This fountain, coupled with the subtle transition from light to dark (in light and in color), create a feeling of comfort, both physically and mentally.
The harsh and relentless desert presence in Arizona is often denied; the prevailing tendency (in terms of development and attitudes toward public architecture) is to convert the desert into an oasis, to tame the desert.   -Antoine Predock
It is in the gallery entry, though, that Predock's genius and understanding of the Southwestern climate is made apparent. Basically a subterranean court, accessed by steps from the plaza or street above, the entrance (featuring another fountain) is dramatically cooler as one moves down into the comfort of the earth's bosom. If this metaphorical connotation is intended or not, the duality of earth and sky is apparent in the museum's entry sequence. Located underneath steps used for outdoor movies (projected onto one of the Art Center's walls), gaps in the "bleachers" allow water to evaporate, cooling the air in conjunction with the underground qualities of the space.

Galleries are located around this court in an open-plan manner, giving one a freedom of movement through the museum that allows one to discover the building in their own way. Structure and materials are similar to the court and constantly refer back to it with undisturbed views. This visual connection may give the indication that any outside presence is gone, but Predock provides areas of respite in the form of trellised walkways circling the galleries. Utilized practically with sculpture, the terraces are enlivened by cactus-like patterns of light formed by the steel trellises.

In spaces like those mentioned, Predock creates areas of transition and division, but also contemplation and comfort; spaces that soothe and inspire awe. Born in response to environmental qualities, but shaped by a acknowledgment of spiritual as well, the Nelson Fine Arts Center must be experienced to be fully understood. The careful attention paid to the desert becomes clear as one moves from outside to inside, from space to space, actually feeling a change, both physically and mentally.