When the High Museum of Art opened in its present location in 1983, few in Atlanta would have imagined that 22 years later its building, designed by Richard Meier with the curves of a grand piano and a skin of white-enamel squares, would end up on a U.S. postage stamp in the series Masterworks of Modern American Architecture, alongside the Chrysler Building and Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum. Conceived at the height of Postmodernism, the High's Modernist design was provocative. Its architectural style put the institution on the map and cemented Meier's reputation as a late-20th-century Le Corbusier, whose muscular, monochromatic forms Meier consciously mined.
The recent opening of a major expansion by Renzo Piano may not raise as many eyebrows as the original building, but it reconfirms the commitment to modern architecture of the museum's board and administration. The $163 million "village for the arts," as Piano calls it, more than doubles the museum's existing square footage with a compound of buildings sheathed in rectangular aluminum panels that plays off Meier's original gridded exterior and provides space for its significant and growing collections of European, African, and American art.
The firm Renzo Piano Building Workshop and local architects Lord, Aeck & Sargent created a master plan for the entire 18.25-acre campus of the Woodruff Arts Center, comprising the High, the Symphony Orchestra, the Atlanta College of Art, and three performing arts groups. Behind the existing museum and the Memorial Arts Building, a 1968 Brutalist concrete hulk housing the center's concert halls, the architects added two new gallery buildings (the John F. and Susan W. Wieland Pavilion and the Anne Cox Chambers Wing); an administrative building; and a restaurant and tapas bar that opens onto the main plaza. Delicate glass bridges join the upper levels of the three gallery wings, while narrow pedestrian walkways, covered with glass canopies, link the structures on the ground. "It's a fundamentally urban composition, with a piazza as its centerpiece," says Piano, who rejects the word campus to describe his plan.
That term would imply a certain detachment from the city, but Piano took great care to weave his design into its surroundings. He added walkways and stairs connecting the High with busy Peachtree Street, midtown Atlanta's main thoroughfare, and to a marta rail station directly opposite the museum that puts the High approximately 30 minutes from Hartsfield-Jackson Airport.
And there are plans for the "village" to grow further. The Woodruff Arts Center is developing a south campus for a concert hall designed by Santiago Calatrava for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and scheduled to open in 2012.
On his first visit to Atlanta—during a full-on Southern spring—Piano was struck by the city's pervasive greenery. "Nature is in the DNA of Atlanta. It's a garden city," he says. He added his own bit of green to the High's piazza: a dense grove of 15-year-old Athena elms, whose branches will form an arbor above outdoor café tables, and a group of dark green and silver-leafed sweet bay magnolias.
Piano views every building as a research project, a chance to create an elegant solution to a technological challenge. For the High, as for many of his designs for arts institutions, including the Menil Collection in Houston and the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, the architect explored how to control daylight in the galleries. "I'm a maniac about natural light," Piano says. "I have an almost instinctive reaction to it." This time, Piano invented a system of rooftop vele ("sails," in Italian) that funnel soft northern light into the galleries through cone-shaped openings. Each of these mini skylights twists slightly as it focuses the light—"like 1,000 sunflowers"—and diffuses it through the galleries. (There are 800 sails atop the Wieland Pavilion, 200 on the Anne Cox Chambers Wing.) Piano finds poetry in the daylit galleries. "You gravitate toward the third floor, where you discover the light," he says. "It's a more spiritual atmosphere: a rarefied, silent space."
Former High director Ned Rifkin and chief curator Michael Shapiro, the current director, knew they wanted Piano for the job after they visited his Beyeler Foundation in Basel, which opened in 1997. "It seemed like the right sensibility to complement, not compete with, the building we had. The Beyeler's architecture wasn't too sculptural," Shapiro says. It took gentle coaxing and a visit by diplomatic trustees to Piano's seaside studio in Genoa, but the architect accepted the commission.
Piano's design indeed complements the earlier one, using elegant rectilinear blocks that set off the graceful curves of the original structure. Meier's building sits solidly on the broad lawn surrounding it, and Piano's seem to float on air: the narrow aluminum panels that clad the upper floors appear to hover over the glass walls on the ground level. The glass, in turn, looks as if it is melting into mirrored water—shallow outdoor reﬂecting pools come right up to the bottom of the Wieland Pavilion.