An architect who designs so the art can shine

Inga Saffron, Inquirer Architecture Critic

Updated: Sunday, September 9, 2007, 2:09 AM

Architect Gluckman, by his torqued wall in the Skylit Galleria between the old building and the new galleries: A classic instance of Gluckman sculpting air.

Hardly a month goes by, it seems, without some city, somewhere in the world, breathlessly proclaiming that it has just commissioned a superstar architect to design an eye-popping museum building that will surely be a work of art and could well rival the Guggenheim Bilbao in its daring form.

You won't find Richard Gluckman's name attached to such projects, even though the New Yorker has worked on more museums and art galleries in the last 30 years than almost any living architect. Many of his best buildings are spartan boxes that might be mistaken for garages or workshops. Maybe that explains why Gluckman is the world's least-famous great museum architect.

Through all the recent style wars, the designer of the Philadelphia Museum of Art's new Perelman building has held fast to the notion that a museum's architecture shouldn't upstage its art. And the people who run the art world - the museum directors, gallery owners, and curators - adore him for it.

"Richard has an ability to make a white box feel like permanent architecture. It doesn't overwhelm you with being new," said Michael Govan, who worked with Gluckman at New York's Dia Center for the Arts and recently took charge of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Philadelphia Museum of Art director Anne d'Harnoncourt explained Gluckman's appeal this way: "He makes spaces that seem inevitable."

Name a top-tier white-walled New York art gallery, and Gluckman probably designed it: Gagosian, Mary Boone, Tony Shafrazi. His firm, Gluckman Mayner, created the galleries for the Dia, the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, N.M., and the Museo Picasso Malaga in Spain. Last month, the Gap's founders tapped Gluckman to design a San Francisco art museum.

Tall, lean and sandy-haired, Gluckman, 60, was wearing a rumpled, sand-colored summer suit and sand-colored eyeglass frames during a recent inspection tour of the Perelman, so that he became a neutral backdrop for the more colorfully dressed people around him. He similarly likes to pare his gallery spaces to a few, carefully chosen elements. The look is no look.

Though Gluckman's super-refined aesthetic is a favorite of museum directors, some Perelman visitors may leave Gluckman's 59,000-square-foot addition scratching their heads and asking, "Where's the architecture?" But others are likely to come away with an appreciation for a magician's power to make architecture disappear, leaving nothing between the viewer and the art.

With increasing ideological passion, the museum world has divided in the last decade into two architectural camps: Some institutions, like the Denver Art Museum, have sought spectacle architecture to brand their institutions and attract visitors and monied donors. Now, the pendulum is swinging back to an old-school belief that the primary purpose of museum buildings is to function as neutral containers for art.

Though Gluckman is clearly in the white-box camp, he takes issue with the suggestion that neutral containers must be neutral architecture. "It is possible to have a spectacular building that is perceived as quiet," he argues. "Spectacle and content aren't mutually exclusive. But I think it's important to understand the parameters under which a building functions. There are civic supporters who want a building that mimics Bilbao. Frank Gehry's buildings are good. But some work, and some don't."

The Perelman addition can be seen as the anti-Bilbao, a quiet, but firm, rebuttal to the kind of controversial lightning-bolt pyrotechnics that Daniel Libeskind brought to the Denver museum.

Both buildings are sculptural, but Gluckman achieves fireworks at the Perelman by manipulating the wall plane in the central atrium to make visitors take note of their place in the space.

You enter what appears to be a long, straight corridor, only to discover that one wall torques and twists like a Richard Serra sculpture. That angled wall telescopes the long space to a final point of light. Had both sides of the atrium been straight and plumb, there would be no tension and no drama.

The Serra reference is no accident. Nor are the industrial-style fluorescent light fixtures, which recall Dan Flavin's sculptures. Gluckman's architectural sensibility was formed in the mid-'70s when he fell in with a group of New York-based minimalist sculptors, including Serra, Flavin, Donald Judd, and Walter de Maria. Flavin, who was known for his assemblages of colored fluorescent light tubes, asked Gluckman to help renovate his SoHo loft.

Through introductions made by those artists, Gluckman was soon hired to renovate a townhouse belonging to Heiner Friedrich and Philippa de Menil, the wealthy art patrons who established the Dia Art Foundation. Friedrich was precise in his instructions: "Do not design," he told Gluckman. "Let the spaces be what they want to be," he added, paraphrasing Louis I. Kahn's dictum about buildings being what they want to be.

It turned out that the project wanted to be a factory loft, or, more accurately, a factory loft that was cleaned up and comfortable for habitation. Today, such residences are ubiquitous, but in the early '70s people were just beginning to rediscover the affinity between manufacturing buildings and modernist ideas.

Gluckman's historical importance, says Hal Foster, a Princeton University art history professor who has written a monograph on the architect, is that he transferred the unpolished loft aesthetic to the high-society milieu of the art gallery. The venue for displaying new art became barely distinguishable from the un-designed artists' studios where it was created.

"Gluckman understood that these artists were working in old industrial spaces. Those spaces became the unit of their work, determining the size of their pieces," Foster explained.

Serra had the most profound influence on him, Gluckman acknowledged. "I was privileged to be in a chapel with him in Spain, and hear him explain how the elliptical curve of the baroque arch influenced his work. We've had long discussions about how simple volumes are manipulated by the subtle shaping of planes."

Gluckman's epiphany about factory buildings occurred just as postmodernism's historically inspired decoration was in the ascendancy. His commitment to designing unadorned loft spaces kept him from dabbling in that cartoonish style, he says. It also helped him become the go-to architect for New York's art world. He has designed studios, lofts and solo exhibitions for numerous artists. Gluckman considers them his true architectural tutors.

With a background like that, it's no wonder he creates museums that put the art back on a pedestal.

Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or isaffron@phillynews.com.

Inga Saffron, Inquirer Architecture Critic

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