They talk about circulation — how it will lie on the grass and look out over the valley and align itself to compass points. They have made each room to catch a different kind of light. It feels like a giant living sundial.
On the hill above the main museum campus, the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute’s Lunder Center at Stone Hill sits at a nexus of trails, looking out over the valley.
This minimalist Japanese design in the New England mountains is unique in the United States, if not the world, said Michael Conforti (the Clark’s director in 2008 when the center first opened).
“I can’t think, except for the Beyeler Foundation in Switzerland and the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark, of any place like it,” he said in an interview at the museum. “The vertical light and open space isn’t something you get in this country …. You’re always kind of outside. It’s a transparent space.”
Glass walls let in light and and show wood floors of the same pattern inside and outside the walls. It is a place to experience art fully and directly, he said.
Japanese design in New England
The architect, Tadao Ando, won the Pritzker Prize in 1995, an arcitectural equivalent of the Pulitzer. According to Pritzker’s biography of Ando, he taught himself his craft, from walking in fields, building wooden ships’ models, apprenticing with urban planners, designers and craftsmen, and visiting temples, shrines and tea houses in Kyoto and Nara. He is a professor at Tokyo University now, and he is working on new buildings from Venice to Abu Dhabi.
“He’s a visionary,” Conforti said.
Coming up the wooded path to the front of the building, visitors will see an apparently smooth wall, said Lisa Green, director of communications and design; this design element of Japanese architecture goes back to Zen gardens and wandering paths at the entrances to temples. The long approach prepared visitors for the experience of entering the building and all they would see, hear and feel inside it.
Inside these high-ceilinged galleries, the Clark exhibits art from new times and places, she said. Visitors can also see art recreated. The Stone Hill Center houses the Williamstown Regional Art Concervation Laboratory.
Following the sun
Ando designed the building to give each lab as much light as possible, and the right kind of light, Green said. Two stories of glass walls bring northern light into the painting and furniture labs. This light is bright and steady, and it does not peak at noon or fade in the morning and afternoon. Eastern light falls in the paper and photo department, where some techniques need as many hours of morning light as possible.
Some of Ando’s genius on this project, many people agreed, has been a willingness to listen, to accommodate all of the people who will use the new building, and to take infinite care over the details.
“It’s much larger and more efficient,” said Tom Branchick, director of the WAC and department head of paintings, who spent a hot afternoon last week carefully cleansing a painting with ionized water and setting the canvas to bleach in the sun.
In the old lab, he said, he had paintings stacked against each other and interleaved. Now he has ample storage and office space and a brand new eleven-foot-by-eleven-foot ex-ray room.
“The light is exceptional,” he said. “I pinch myself all the time when I come to work. It’s like working in a piece of sculpture; it’s refreshing to look up and out the window.”
“Everybody here loves it,” said Hugh Glover, head of the furniture department. “We just want a fleet of Segway or skateboards to get up the hill.”
Ando had never designed a building to be both a public space and a working space, and he had never designed one in an environment like Williamstown, Branchick said.
The technicians in the painting lab want the light to come over their shoulders and fall clear on the canvases. They work on several paintings at once, in stages, he said. So a line of paintings hangs on the wall opposite their windows — and anyone sitting on the terrace cafe with a tall glass of iced coffee can watch the restorers at work.
Working with the land
Visitors can also walk across the hilltop to Stone Hill and through the woods on two miles of new trails. Gary Hilderbrand of Reed Hilderbrand, the landscape architects for the project, said his office has also worked very closely with Ando. They wanted to create a building without boundaries, he said, that would sit comfortably within the campus.
“He has high aims,” Hilderbrand said, “and the process was truly collaborative.”
Hilderbrand has put in new pathways through the woods, connecting the museum’s roads to the stone bench and the loop around Stone Hill.
The Clark stewards a landscape unique in the northern Berkshires, he said. The museum has 140 acres, and their private land has a wide public appeal. The community values it highly. Local people walk over the mild slope of meadow behind the museum in all seasons.
“That will never change,” he said.
Hilderbrand has worked to protect the museum’s wetlands, he said, and to restore the edges of the forest and keep them healthy. He has planted several hundred trees, native and adapted hardwoods: sugar maple, red maple, beech, aspen, birch.
The Clark’s grouds are old New England country places, all open views, narrow roads, earthen trails and wooden bridges. Any work he does to maintain them should feel natural, he said. The night sky should be dark too, and the stars should be bright, so the minimal new lighting they have put in all faces downward.
Reed Hilderbrand knows this countryside, he explained; they have worked in most towns in the county, on buildings from Bennington College to Bard College at Simon’s Rock to the Austen Riggs Foundation. And they will be working on this project for years to come.
“Landscape projects never finish,” Hilderbrand said. “Landscapes keep growing, and they do change. This one is just beginning to establish. The trees will grow, and the grass. The paths and the wood will wear.”
The Stone Hill center sits in a tall grass meadow that will fill, over the summer, with Berkshire roadside flowers.
“I’m excited to go up there this weekend,” he said, “and see it come to life.”
This story first ran in the Berkshire Eagle in my time as Berkshires Week editor, on June 19, 2008.