New Wadsworth Worthwhile

If a museum expansion were measured by its Bilbao effect alone, UN Studio’s design for the expansion of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn., would register only a small blip on the iconographic radar screen. It doesn’t rise up from the ground in a titanium spiral nor does it sit on a riverfront, poised to take flight over a city.

Rather, UN Studio’s design for the Wadsworth’s 1969 Goodwin building and its interior courtyard features a perforated metal roofline that asymmetrically drapes upward and over the four remaining structures in the complex. Echoing the scale of the surrounding buildings, this will be no jaw-dropping urban centerpiece.

Or will it? With his otherworldly Guggenheim, Frank Gehry achieved objectives a bit more down-to-earth than simply fashioning a world landmark. And it’s in the problem-solving realm that UN Studio principals Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos excel.

As it stands, the Wadsworth is a difficult place to visit. Its five buildings, dating from 1842 to 1969, were constructed with inconsistent levels and varying senses of scale. The direction of movement is not defined (even the ticket booth is little more than a fork in the road) and the museum’s upper levels feel dank and uninspired. In all, it’s a disorienting experience, or as van Berkel said of the five buildings: “They don’t mesh.”

Moreover, the museum, perched atop a plinth of retaining walls and lawns, removes itself from Hartford’s streetscape. In a city that’s experienced its fair share of postindustrial abandonment, any attempt to enliven the sidewalks would be a welcome change.

UN Studio solves both dilemmas first by moving the Wadsworth’s entrance to its north face. Entering an interior public space that includes a double-helix pair of staircases that end at two new galleries, as well as a refreshing dose of daylight streaming from an oculus, visitors have more explicit visual cues telling them which collections are where.

This new venue flows through and down the entire north-south axis of the complex to create a new café and outdoor terrace space at grade. With expansive, ribbon-like forms
vaguely reminiscent of the firm’s Möbius House project, UN Studio’s design is also boldly contemporary, if not an instant landmark.

Or is it? Bos and van Berkel’s cheese-grater exterior on the addition visually establishes the Wadsworth as a destination; nighttime uplighting from within the building will give the museum the appearance of height, allowing it to take its place among the corporate towers of Hartford’s skyline.

The intelligence of good design is sometimes more breathtaking than its skin. UN Studio’s Wadsworth expansion is a case in point. By playing the role of both good neighbor and—albeit low-key—architectural visionary, the museum may transform Hartford’s image from the insurance company capital of the United States to something more artistic and enduring.

Categories: Cities