Atlanta’s High Museum

Atlanta’s High Museum

With Renzo Piano's expansion now complete, and a partnership with the Louvre under way, Atlanta's High Museum rises to new stature.

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.


The Wieland Pavilion's soaring 85-foot-high lobby, with white-oak floors (like those used throughout the new galleries) and floor-to-ceiling glass walls that overlook the piazza, functions as the new entrance to the complex. Selections from the High's contemporary art collection are in the fourth-floor, or Skyway, galleries of the pavilion, and include works by Tony Smith, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, and Thomas Struth, with rooms devoted to Gerhard Richter and Ellsworth Kelly; special exhibitions are mounted on the second floor. Outside the lobby is an open-air terrace dedicated to Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen's large-scale sculpture of peaches and pears, made of reinforced plastic and steel cable, titled Balzac Pétanque (2002). Galleries devoted to African art and works on paper, and a study center, are on a lower level. The Anne Cox Chambers Wing, connected to the Wieland Pavilion by a glass bridge at the fourth level, will house additional temporary exhibitions.

The existing museum, renamed the Stent Family Wing, was refurbished in time for its 20th anniversary in 2003. Galleries that had been reconfigured over the years to accommodate a crush of visitors and new acquisitions were returned to Meier's original scheme and are now filled with 14th- to early-20th-century paintings, sculpture, and decorative art from the High's permanent collection. The top floor houses extensive holdings of folk art, mostly from the South.

In October 2006, the High and the Musée du Louvre will launch an ambitious and unprecedented three-year exchange of exhibitions and programs. The exchange grew out of a history of collaboration between Shapiro and the Louvre's director, Henri Loyrette, when Loyrette headed the Musée d'Orsay. The Chambers Wing will host a series of shows drawn from the Louvre's various collections. There will also be an exchange of staff between the Paris and Atlanta institutions."I think it's a deeper partnership than has ever existed between two museums," says Shapiro. Though the collaboration will not add to the High's permanent collection, it will allow the museum to display some of the Louvre's masterpieces while it bolsters its own contemporary holdings.

The possibility of seeing masterworks by Velázquez and Raphael from the Louvre as well as selections from the High's permanent collection, with the bonus of viewing—and visiting—buildings by two Pritzker Prize–winning architects and spending time in one of Atlanta's most urbane public spaces, should prove an irresistible draw. As David Brenneman, the High's chief curator, says, "We hope people come for the art, but it's also okay if they come for a drink. We want to be a lively place in the city."

HIGH MUSEUM OF ART, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E.; 404/733-4400; www.high.org.

RAUL BARRENECHE is a contributing editor for T+L.


In addition to a collection that ranges from Gothic art to commissions for the new complex, two special exhibitions are currently on view. "Andrew Wyeth: Memory and Magic," a retrospective of roughly 100 paintings and drawings from seven decades of the Pennsylvania artist's career, will be shown at the John and Susan Wieland Pavilion until February 26. • Through April 2, the lobby, terrace, and second floor of the Anne Cox Chambers Wing will house "Celebrate Architecture! Renzo Piano & Building Workshop," a traveling show on 10 of the architect's projects, from the Centre Pompidou in Paris to the High itself.

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