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Friday, March 15, 2024

Allen Memorial Art Museum - Architectural and design features

  Rajesh Kumar Rana       Friday, March 15, 2024


Allen Memorial Art Museum - Architectural and design features
Flickr / Jim Forest

Allen Memorial Art Museum (architect Robert Venturi):

  • Address87 N Main St, Oberlin, OH 44074, United States


Tuesday                10:00AM - 5:00PM
Wednesday          10:00AM - 5:00PM
Friday                   10:00AM - 5:00PM
Saturday               closed
Sunday                  closed
Monday                 closed

The expansion of the Allen Memorial Art Museum (AMAM) in Oberlin, Ohio, designed by architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown, is one of the earliest and finest examples of postmodern architecture in the United States of America. In a complex dialogue with the original Gilbert building, Venturi's fresh approach to the use of decor played a pivotal role in re-evaluating the architectural symbol and context developed in the 1970s and 1980s. Founded in 1917, the Allen Memorial Museum of Art is today recognized as one of the top five collegiate art museums in the United States.

Since its inception, it has offered free access to the collection to everyone. And the meeting really deserves attention. It originally occupied only one building, surprisingly elegant, reproducing the image of an Italian Renaissance palazzo, designed by Cass Gilbert and named after Dr. Dudley Peter Allen, a distinguished 1985 graduate of Oberlin College.

Dr. Allen and his wife Elizabeth Severance-Allen (later Prentiss) were the main donors to the new museum. The galleries of the Gilbert Building still house the bulk of the collection of old master paintings and works of art from the 19th century, as well as sculptures and masterpieces of decorative and applied art. In 1977, a gallery was added to the Gilbert building to display contemporary art.

The design project, commissioned by the architectural firm Venturi and Scott-Brown, was funded by Ruth Cotes Rusch. This new museum wing is dedicated to Ellen Johnson, professor of art history at Oberlin College. It houses a library with 10,000 publications, a gallery of modern art, restoration and research laboratories, sculpture studios, lecture halls and shops.

In a sense, Cass Gilbert created the phenomenon of postmodern architecture in his building back in 1917. Then, however, this approach was called historicism and did not imply irony in relation to architectural elements. The architects and, in particular, Gilbert were guided by the idea that each type of building, each function is best suited to any of the historical styles, the heyday of which was associated with the dominance of certain philosophical concepts or worldviews. So, for example, the most magnificent and spectacular Baroque style was used for theaters,  strict, classical forms were usually chosen for banks and government institutions, Gothic was the best fit for churches, and a simple and sophisticated Renaissance architecture responded to the educational functions of universities and museums, that is forms referring to the era of the emergence and flourishing of universities and private collections. For AMAM, Gilbert used the vocabulary of Tuscan Renaissance architecture to mimic the European art of the past in an all-embracing American culture.

Allen Memorial Art Museum - Architectural and design features
Robert Venturi

And if you remember what Las Vegas admired Venturi, which was mentioned in the overview chapter of this book, then the comparison of Gilbert's principles with postmodern ideas does not seem so inappropriate. The constant search for roots inherent in American culture as a whole, in itself, provoked the emergence of postmodernism long before Venturi. Attempts to fill in the genealogical map and substantiate their own right to high art led to copying and imitation. Awareness of these processes gave rise to self-irony, and therefore postmodernism (like pop art, which for the Venturi theorist turns out to be an important juxtaposition) became the flesh of American culture. To understand all the subtleties of Venturi's irony, you need to figure out what Gilbert built. The AMAM building has a number of features that are characteristic of other structures on the territory of the Oberlin University campus, created according to the project of this master. For example, in all cases he used local sandstone as a building material and a tiled roof.

But unlike the synthesis of Romanesque reminiscences with the architectural traditions of the Midwest, here the architect almost exactly reproduces the elegant symmetrical facade of Filippo Brunelleschi's Ospedale degli Innocenti (orphanage). It uses the same proportions of an open gallery and arcade with refined Corinthian columns, although of course the bright red roof overhanging the fa├žade becomes a very original accent that Brunelleschi did not have. Red panels appear on the side parts of the facade, on the sides of the colonnade, which also cannot be found in the Italian prototype, and this element acquires special significance at the moment when you look from Gilbert's project to the Venturi building.

It consists of two parts, both structurally and compositionally. It is clear that any lateral increment would immediately break the symmetry of Gilbert's facade, so Venturi was faced with the task of doing this as tactfully as possible in relation to the already existing architecture. He attaches to the old building a small, almost square volume of the same height and connects the Gilbert Gallery with the new gallery erected along it. The harmony between the bodies is achieved not through symmetry or imitation, but through the finest thought-out combination of materials. A small volume, through which the passage from one building to another is made, is covered with a checkerboard pattern of red sandstone and yellow brick and pink granite. This pattern echoes the shape and color of the panels, which were discussed above. An amazingly elegant move! The geometric pattern is matched by rectangular, chaotically located modernist windows on the facade, one of them, starting on one part of the building, ends on the other. And the main part of the new wing was created only of light bricks with two rows of tape windows running along the entire facade. And the appearance of this part of the building reproduces one of the buildings of Mies van der Rohe for the  campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology...

Thus, Venturi subordinates the old building to the new, includes it in a new postmodern context and draws the museum into a kind of game of recognizing architectural styles and the creativity of architects. Indeed, it can be said that  Ludwig Mies van der Rohe  was the Filippo Brunelleschi of his time, or vice versa: they are both great revolutionaries in the history of architecture.

The Venturi Renaissance is no stranger either. While working on the new AMAM gallery, he was involved in the construction of Gordon Woo Hall for Princeton University's Butler College, where he used heraldic and decorative motifs of Renaissance architecture. In the AMAM courtyard, the master cuts one of the corners of his building diagonally, glazes at the level of the first floor and installs a wooden column of the Ionic (conventionally) order of a bizarre bloated shape, which is right in front of the "window". Here it is completely non-functional and is needed only as a decorative detail that continues the postmodern play of forms. If individual fragments of the old and new buildings turn out to be quite recognizable quotes or motives, then such an attitude to the order is absolutely unique - none of the architects, perhaps, even thought of so daringly pulling out of context the most important element of classical architecture.

The destruction of the order system has become a symbol that other postmodernists have followed after Venturi. For example, Charles Moore, in his Lawrence Hall project for the Williams College Museum of Art (1982-1986, Williamstown, Massachusetts), uses the projection of the Ionic order onto flat supports of a square cross-section, while tearing off the capitals from the fust, that is, making a “support "Completely non-functional.

And in 1989, Peter Eisenman, during the construction of the Wexner Center for the Arts for Ohio State University at Columbus, suspended the columns in the air at the level of the second floor, creating the impression of absolute architectural chaos. Thus, Venturi's little flavor for the Allen Memorial Art Museum project inspired a whole generation of architects to a new principle of relationship with the classical order system.

Architectural and design features:

  • Venturi does not imitate or imitate: he creates a new architecture that echoes the old in detail.
  • The museum is named after Dudley Peter Allen, its main donor.
  • Venturi pays attention to materials so that the new parts of the museum are combined with the old ones.
  • The old part of the museum was built in the spirit of historicism.
  • The new Allen Memorial Museum building was an extension of the 1917 building designed by Cass Gilbert.
  • In this project, Venturi radically changes his attitude to the order system: he cuts one of the corners of his building diagonally, glazes at the level of the first floor and installs a wooden column (conventionally) of the Ionic order of a bizarre bloated shape.
  • Venturi added two volumes to the old building - a small transitional hall and a new large building.

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