The Parrish Rethinks the Modern Museum

Posted on 03 September 2009

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No doubt about it — these are difficult times in which to begin any large building project. And for non-profits that rely on fundraising to finance their efforts, times are doubly tough.

It’s a good time to re-prioritize — and that’s exactly what the Parrish Art Museum has done in recent months.

Having long outgrown their current space in Southampton Village, which was built in 1890, the Parrish purchased 14 acres in Water Mill next to Duck Walk Vineyards a few years back with an eye toward building a new facility. The original plan for the museum, designed by Herzog & de Meuron architects, called for a series of inter-connected buildings — replicas of the studios and working spaces of some of the East End’s most famous artists – both past and present.

But given the economic climate, the museum has decided to re-visit its original concept and allow for an economy of scale which, Parrish director Terrie Sultan explains, will not only give the museum the space it needs, but allow construction to begin sooner, rather than later.

“When I came to the museum a year-and-a-half ago, we had a good discussion on proceeding with our capital project,” says Sultan. “We have a reasonable board and although we had raised a good amount of money, we agreed we wanted 80 percent in hand before we began the project, which has stood us in good stead. We didn’t have 80 percent but quite a lot and we knew we had to wait until we proceeded.”

Then the economy went south and Sultan and the board realized that raising the rest of the money needed for the original design was going to be extremely challenging in the current climate.

“The board acted responsibly and that’s how we got to this point,” says Sultan. “We knew we could not push forward with this. We based it on what we had and what we could raise.”

So Sultan and the board went back to Herzog & de Meuron.

 “It all happened very fast,” admits Sultan. “In March, the board and I met with the architect to let him know the economic climate was making it impossible to move forward with the original plan. We desperately need a new building and something we can afford to build. What can we do? Do you want to work with us to find a solution to this problem?”

Herzog & de Meuron, notes Sultan gave their response in the form of an enthusiastic, “Yes.”

Sultan points out, the redesign is largely a matter of economics as well as flexibility. While the original plan called for some 65 exterior walls, the new design is a single building based on 1,000 square foot grids with just four exterior walls. Structured like a long twin barn with two peaked roofs, the building is 600 feet long and 91 feet wide. It features a central spine which will act as a corridor and provide cross over points from one side of the building to the other.

“There’s nothing in this building except useable space. It’s a very streamlined process and a building that is more flexible, in truth, more sustainable and far more economically sensible,” notes Sultan who stresses though the design of the building has changed, the concept behind it has not.

“We didn’t abandon the artist’s studio concept,” explains Sultan. “Two things about the original concept were the desire for northern light and the allusion to artists in their studio. The way it was to be created the first time is different now, but the core concept and values are still in the plan. We’re alluding to the experience, rather than the space itself.”

“We’re not going to emulate or create spaces that are very specifically certain studios,” she adds.  “We’re looking more for the experience. A lot of that has to do with the north facing skylights and high ceilings and light washed walls. Instead of being so specific about any one person’s studio, this is a grand gesture about what the experience of being in that studio is like.”

One of the key features of the new plan that Sultan is particularly excited about is the large porch that will wrap around the entire building and a covered terrace at the western end that can be used to host outdoor performances.

“It’s an aspect of being inside and outside at the same time and the vernacular architecture of the East End,” says Sultan. “It’s a place to sit outside the building and a real smart way of incorporating the idea of a breezeway and open spaces you often see in the houses out here. You can take a sketch pad out there and draw and get a snack at the café.”

The new design comes in at around 37,000 square feet, slightly less, says Sultan, than that of the phase I design, but with much more functional space. Perhaps the biggest difference between the two designs, however, is the price tag.

 “The original plan was a total of $80 million — now we’re looking at $20 or $25 million,” says Sultan. “And we do have 80 percent — which means we can push forward.”

The Parrish is now beginning the permitting process and hopes to get the project underway in the near future. Sultan feels that by taking into account both economic and environmental efficiencies, the new plan represents the future of museum design.

 “You can do a beautiful and architecturally significant project for that budget,” she says. “The architects have proved it. I think it’s the new paradigm for museum architecture in the foreseeable future.”

“There are also things about the economic downturn that we’re hoping to take advantage of,” adds Sultan. “Cost of materials has gone down. We also want this community back to work — our artisans, contractors, steel and concrete people. We’re going to move as fast as we can. We still have some money to raise and want this to feel like a community project.”

The community is invited to two upcoming sneak peak previews of the design presented by Terrie Sultan and Philip Schmerbeck of Herzog & de Meuron. The first is Wednesday, September 9 at 5:30 p.m. and the second will be offered on Saturday, September 12 at 10:30 a.m.  The presentations will be held in the Parrish Art Museum Concert Hall, 25 Jobs Lane, Southampton. To reserve a seat, call Becky Zaloga at 283-2118, ext. 12.

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