Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis

Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis in St. Louis, Missouri by Allied Works Architecture, 2003

The Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis (CAMSTL) opened to the public on September 20 with its first exhibition titled "A Fiction of Authenticity: Contemporary Africa Abroad" featuring ten artists' works in the gallery spaces (and one site-specific installation across the street from the museum). Small by current museum standards, CAMSTL's 27,000 s.f. contain performance space, class room studios, a technology lab, the requisite bookstore and cafe, and offices, in addition to its two gallery spaces.

Designed by Portland, Oregon's Allied Works Architecture, the museum shares its site in the Grand Center District a few miles west of downtown with Tadao Ando's Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts. Together the two structures attempt to create an anchor to attract people to the district while also creating the "cultural soul of the city", according to Grand Center, Inc. As much of St. Louis' downtown and environs still shows signs of the suburban flight decades ago, the district is one of many developments that focus on people's movement back towards downtown, as many cities elsewhere are experiencing successfully.

The effects of the museum on the area and its development has taken a backseat to its relationship to its neighbor, the Pulitzer, a contemplative place to enjoy and study art, which opened two years ago to much acclaim. Their similarities are just as great as their differences, both in their missions and architecture, though ultimately each finds a common goal in the importance of cultural expression and its setting. Since Ando's building preceded Allied Work's building, the latter's designer, Brad Cloepfil, responded to the Japanese master's work without mimesis nor contrast, but respect.

Although Ando's building may have determined some of Cloepfil's design, especially in terms of material and scale, CAMSTL is given the more prominent, corner site. The building maximizes its footprint by following the property line, creating a strong street wall broken in three places: on the west by windows exhibiting a class room studio and a gallery, and on the north by a higher window next to the entry reception desk that frames the tops of three old houses across the street (visible in the image above). The two-story building's exterior has two layers, a stainless steel mesh above the first floor concrete walls, the latter relating to Ando's building but differing in execution.

Inside the museum, the two exterior materials continue their presence with concrete walls supporting perpendicular mesh walls, as well as plaster walls for the display of artworks. The mesh helps to break up the possible monotony of an all-concrete building, but its effects as a light-filtering screen are not used to their fullest extent, since most of the screens wrap concrete walls and are therefore flat and opaque. Regardless, the interior is remarkably open and light-filled with diagonal views created by the perpendicular placement of the walls, the upper walls resting on the first floor walls in a few places.

From certain places inside the museum, one's attention is drawn to the courtyard the building shares with the Pulitzer Foundation. In the courtyard one notices the subtle differences between the two buildings. Ando's building is an assemblage of parallel concrete walls, the opposite of Cloepfil's, for example. Richard Serra's steel sculpture, "Joe", unites the two compositions, itself a strong contrast to the two buildings in form (circular vs. orthogonal) and color/material (rusted steel vs. gray concrete). It's also in the courtyard that one sees the potential of the two building to attract people and act together towards creating the cultural soul of the city.