Grand Rapids Art Museum (courtesy wHY Architects)
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On Friday, the Speed Museum announced the selection of wHY Architecture for the upcoming expansion of the museum. The Los Angeles, California–based architects led by Kulapat Yantrasast, Yo Hakomori, and Richard Stoner, beat out seven other internationally renowned architects from around the world. The Museum originally planned to narrow the list to three last December, but found wHY Architecture to be the perfect match for the project. Plans call for the expansion project to start construction next year in 2010 with an anticipated grand opening in 2012. We spoke with Kulapat Yantrasast over the weekend to discern the firm’s design approach and philosophy and how it might impact the Speed Museum project.

Art Bridge over the Los Angeles River (courtesy wHY Architects)
Art Bridge over the Los Angeles River. (courtesy wHY Architects)

The Speed Museum expansion presents a unique set of challenges that will require a creative solution. Situated on the edge of the University of Louisville’s Belknap Campus, the site is extremely constricted. The original 1927 Beaux-Arts museum designed by notable local architect Arthur Loomis has undergone a series of hodge-podge modern renovations over the years that have served to confuse the Museum’s functionality. The grand front doors have been sealed and the main entrance is situated in the rear of the building behind a low, nondescript glass door. The interior flow and circulation of the museum has also been compromised and overcrowding has forced interior spaces to mix use in inappropriate ways. Further, the Museum must negotiate the transition between the University campus setting, the city and street, and an Olmsted park.

Kulapat explained that museums across the world are stuck with modern additions that don’t enhance the original, historic structures. The temptation is to take the easy road and add on without relating back, effectively forming an architectural tumor. He hopes the new expansion will integrate the Museum into a single, cohesive whole. wHY Architects will not haphazardly tear down older additions, but adopts a self described “architectural acupuncture” that surgically inserts itself into its context. To accomplish this, the design team will study the critical areas of the museum including circulation and public space to create a unique solution for a 21st century museum.

“Museums around the world have become victim of their own growth, getting bigger, fatter and congestedly unhealthy,” said Yantrasast. “A museum’s growth should not mean merely adding new wings or new limbs to the old museum body. Museum expansion or development should be like acupuncture architecture; precise intervention or transformation strategically focused towards critical areas to regain the sense of clarity to the overall organization.”

Museum Director Charles Venable has complete faith in wHY Architecture’s ability to pull off a strong project, and the firm already has the credentials for success. Currently, the firm is working with Renzo Piano on the soon-to-open expansion of the Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago. Kulapat Yantrasast worked with Pritzker Prize–winning architect Tadao Ando on the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, one of the preeminent examples of modern architecture in the country. Ando is known for his extreme attention to detail with simple forms and materials. Expertly utilizing light to emphasize architecture, his projects reveal a timeless beauty.

This sensibility is apparent in Kulapat’s work as well. The recently opened Grand Rapids Art Museum achieves an austere grandeur reflected in its simple yet classic forms and clean lines. Kulapat acknowledged this is one of the challenges of any museum expansion. It’s easy to design a building celebrating one’s own personal genius, but wHY Architects choose not to be distracting to the original structures or art housed inside. While a museum may be a work of art, it’s ultimate function is to house other works of art. A designer must know his or her role as architect and learn an artist’s humility. The goal is balance. The architect must must not distract from the art yet must remain true to his or her own design goals. Being respectful does not mean compromising personal talent.

Grand Rapids Art Museum (courtesy wHY Architects)
Grand Rapids Art Museum. (courtesy wHY Architects)

wHY Architects plans to open the Speed Museum up to its surroundings as a setting for encounters between people, art, and nature. To accomplish this, Kulapat describes a process of facade activation that will engage the unique site characteristics. Shipp Street running through the campus must respond to student foot traffic while the front of the Museum along Second and Third Streets must relate to the urban dynamic and park beyond. Landscape will play a key role in these relationships, and the firm is currently narrowing down a list of more than 20 landscape architects to work on the project.

The Speed Museum also hopes to tap into wHY Architecture’s expertise in sustainable museum design. Their Grand Rapids Art Museum was awarded Gold level LEED certification, a difficult task for any building type, but especially for museums. The Speed Museum hopes to also serve as a ‘green’ model for the local community. Kulapat Yantrasast says a sustainable museum is inherently full of challenges.

A museum is similar to a hospital in terms of interior climate control requirements. Many of the traditional LEED requirements like natural ventilation cannot be applied to an art museum as it would damage the artwork inside. Because of this, museums from the outset use more energy than other buildings. wHY Architects will implement site placement and orientation strategies to harness the sun in keeping the building energy efficient. Recycled and local materials will also play a key role in the design. One ongoing project in Los Angeles takes this notion to extremes. The Art Bridge over the Los Angeles River (pictured above) will be built of trash and debris pulled from the river itself. Kulapat also hopes to implement innovative water recycling techniques that be integrated into the landscape.

The expansion project will be moving ahead despite economic downturns as the Speed Museum has recently secured enough donations to allow for the project to move forward. No budget has been released for the project yet, but a design and cost should be released later this year. With a commitment to expansion and a projected opening date three years away, the Speed Museum expansion is sure to transform not only the art world in Louisville but the surrounding neighborhoods and the image of the city itself.

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Branden Klayko

Branden Klayko

Founder and Editor at Broken Sidewalk
Branden founded Broken Sidewalk in 2008 while practicing architecture in Louisville. He continued the site for seven years while living in New York City, returning to Louisville in 2016. Branden is a graduate of the College of Architecture at Washington University in St. Louis, and has covered architecture, design, and urbanism for The Architect's Newspaper, Designers & Books, Inhabitat, and the American Institute of Architects.
Branden Klayko

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