A Cloud Over Akron

The Akron Art Museum has 3,700 artworks in its permanent collection, a smidgen in comparison with larger institutions in the Midwest and on the coasts. But it conceived its new expansion and ­renovation—the first public building in North America by the experimental Vien­nese architecture firm Coop Himmelb(l)au—as a direct challenge to the more restrained Modernism of projects such as Yoshio Tan­i­guchi’s recent expansion of the Museum of Modern Art. “I’ve always had the attitude that smaller institutions can be more innovative and take more risks than larger museums,’’ says Akron’s director, Mitchell Kahan. “If you compare us with the Museum of Modern Art, obviously we can’t compete in terms of collections and exhibitions. But we can compete in other areas, and architecture is an obvious example.’’

The $35 million, 63,300-square-foot addition, which opens July 17 after three years of construction, is an explosive collage of glass, steel, and aluminum that deliberately contrasts with the museum’s original building, a neo-Renaissance -style post office built in 1899. The expansion is dominated by an angular three-story glass lobby, flanked by galleries housed within boxy forms encased in shiny brushed aluminum. Atop the entire hybrid composition is the museum’s “Roof Cloud,’’ a 327-foot-long wing of steel beams and aluminum grating that thrusts out toward the surrounding city to call attention to the museum and unify the disparate structures underneath it.

The expansion is an assertive gesture in an industrial town famous for manufacturing automobile tires that is struggling to hang on to its industrial base while adapting to the high-tech age. The sharp contrast between the new construction and the museum’s old post-office building reflects Coop Himmelb(l)au partner Wolf Prix’s view that the best way to respect the past is to juxtapose it with something dramatically new and different. “That’s the Viennese way of treating landmarks,’’ he says. “We are not continuing the language of the old building. We are confident enough we can mirror it in a timely way.’’

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