Sunday, March 16, 2003

In 2 months, 2 big openings

Art museum construction

By Marilyn Bauer
The Cincinnati Enquirer

It's two months and counting before the opening of the new Lois & Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art and the Cincinnati Art Museum's Cincinnati Wing. During the past several months, construction crews have been hard at work on the interiors and exteriors of both buildings. Here's an update.

Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art

[photo] Portion of the new center's exterior will be covered with blackened aluminum panels. Stairs (below), from the lower level, create the illusion of tilted steps, but in fact are level.
(Ernest Coleman photos)
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"We're behind schedule, but they say we'll catch up," says Charles Desmarais, director of the Contemporary Arts Center. "I say we're opening May 31 even if our slip is showing."

The six-story futuristic building designed by Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid at Sixth and Walnut streets, downtown, has come a long way since the last steel beam of the 125-foot-high building was lowered into place Aug. 1.

Most of the exterior is completed. The areas covered with tarpaper soon will be covered in black aluminum, one of the final touches to the building's outside.

Walls are up. Windows are in. To the uninitiated, there seems little chance of an opening with peek-a-boo lingerie.

"Zaha's a space-maker," says Desmarais, examining the building from the street.

It is possible to see the various boxes - each a totally self-sufficient module - that make up the new art center. The clear windows facing Walnut Street are intended to create a void, the desired effect being the dense concrete boxes appear suspended in air.

"It's like she designed all these separate boxes and jumbled them together," Desmarais explains.

The inside resembles a matrix more than hovering boxes. Multiple planes intersect in kaleidoscopic intersections, 30,000 pound matte ebony staircases created by a roller coaster company in Batavia have been lowered in and float over each of the floors.

"It's this intense formal play," says Desmarais. "It's like being inside a crystal or a faceted gem."

[photo] Stairs from the lower level create the illusion of tilted steps but are level.
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It's also like being inside a Chinese puzzle box. The concrete stairway to the lower level intentionally leans in such a way that it appears to be under the influence of a great gravitational pull about to suck it into the basement.

Some galleries are very large. The largest, which will hold Inigo Manalo Ovalle's 11-foot high titanium cloud sculpture in the opening show, is more than two stories high and is topped with a skylight set into the building in such a way that the building seems to continue beyond its panes.

Some of the galleries are small and shaped like a trapezoid or capped with low ceilings or, as Desmarais explains it, the bottom of the cube above. Walls become handrails, windows a lookout from the children's Unmuseum.

(The $3 Unmuseum takes up the entire top floor and is roughly the same size as the former CAC building's gallery space.)

Endless scaffolding, multilinear spaces, workers sanding cement floors in preparation for a specially colored coat of Ardex concrete topping, drilling, poking, painting hammering - it's an anthill of activity.

"There are so many things that create what Zaha calls the `whoosh,'" says Desmarais. He's referring to the sidewalk that continues under glass through the first floor of the museum and then curves up metamorphosing into the back wall; fiber optics set into the lobby floor that continue out to the sidewalk; and windows with graduated panes meant to give viewers the idea the museum is opening out into the city.

The staff offices on the second level have two stories of window and include a lounge, and on the executive floor, an outdoor terrace. The performance space in the basement is painted black and waiting for the black wood floor to be installed.

Both the performance space and the lobby are available for rental, and the center has already taken several wedding reservations.

The infrastructure is complete with the exception of the climate-control system. The museum requires four separate climate zones, so ductwork and connections are still in progress.

The furniture expected to arrive soon will be installed in the first-floor dining area adjacent to the food kiosk, the member and employee lounges and the boardroom. Everything has been donated by Steelcase Inc. in a collaboration that will have them previewing a new line.

"This is clearly not a backdrop building," says Desmarais. "I think of the Guggenheim. I think the experimentalism of this building will put people in mind to view art. The building says: `Get ready to think in a different way than you have in other buildings.' "

Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati Wing

[photo] Details in this hallway in the new wing are from the David Kilgour house (1815-1818).
(Stephen M. Herppich photos)
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The William Morris wallpaper has been installed. Some light fixtures and flooring are in and even some of the paintings, decorative arts and sculpture have been put in place. The Cincinnati Wing, a renovation of the former Adams-Emery wing, is very near completion at the 117-year-old museum in Eden Park.

It will open to the public as scheduled on May 17.

It is quite beautiful. The softly finished rooms are delicate backdrops for the work of predominantly 19th- and early 20th-century artists.

In the Pre-Civil War gallery, wallpaper re-created from a period pattern has been manufactured with a wear-resistant finish; the architectural elements of Cincinnatian David Kilgour's Federal-style "White House" (1815-1818) hang over the entryways.

Marble angels carved by Odoardo Fantacchiotti and commissioned by the Archdiocese of Cincinnati in 1848 stand on either side of the entrance to the Kilgour Hallway, treated as a gallery within the gallery of Pre-Civil War artworks.

Large galleries alternate with small galleries in an architectural plan meant to give structure to the rectilinear space.

"It gets back to how we should exhibit this artwork of the 18th and 19th centuries in this modern space," says KZF Design Director James Y. Cheng, who created the wing.

"It is a very regularly divided space - on 18 foot increments. We created narrower, smaller galleries to modulate the space and to give the viewers different experiences. The larger galleries are for larger-scale pieces. It's a way to make sure it's not just a warehouse of objects."

Custom galleries

The lightly stained anigre veneer walls - they look much like bird's-eye maple - act as dividers that provide structure to the smaller rooms. The last small gallery to the west of the central entrance is built like a giant display case. This is where CAM's Rookwood treasures will be on view.

[photo] Anita Ellis of the CAM looks over statues yet to be installed.
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"It's funny to see all the Rookwood laid out on tables like a giant garage sale," says Cheng, referring to the in-gallery temporary storage. "The Rookwood gallery takes advantage of the fact Rookwood wants to be displayed in daylight, so we introduced a very large window at that end."

Most of the architectural elements of the project are complete except for the integration of the display cases into the architecture and the lighting, which will take some time.

Under construction are the new cafe and its wall of glass that is in the process of being installed. The cafe is nestled between two visual treats. The north side or wall of glass will look onto a newly landscaped garden. The south side will face Joan Miro's "Mural for the Terrace Plaza Hotel, Cincinnati" (1947) that now hangs in a second floor gallery.

The Miro is currently exhibited on a curve but will be removed from its space, flattened out, mounted on a movable frame and reinstalled across from the cafe on a straight wall - a monumental undertaking but one the museum hopes will be well worth it.

"It's a little bit of a hairy process," says Cheng. "It's unusual to be working on a piece of art that large. And it's fabric. In its final installation in this gallery it will be exhibited flat, the way it originally was in the hotel."

When the glass is installed, Cheng says, the change will be dramatic.

"The cafe and gallery will be transformed," he says. "We are opening up a space that was completely walled off and turning it into glass. The courtyard has been terribly neglected, or should I say a well-kept secret. This is all part of the move to open up the museum."

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