US Building of the Week

Glenstone Richard Serra Pavilion

Thomas Phifer and Partners
27. junio 2022
Photo: John Hill/World-Architects
Project: Glenstone Richard Serra Pavilion
Location: Potomac, Maryland, USA
Client: Glenstone Museum
Architect: Thomas Phifer and Partners
  • Project Team: Thomas Phifer, Michael Trudeau, Rebecca Garnett
Landscape Architect: PWP Landscape Architecture
  • Project Team: Adam Greenspan, Conard Lindgren, Marta Gual
Artist: Richard Serra (Four Rounds: Equal Weight, Unequal Measure, 2017)
Structural Engineer: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill
Geotechnical Engineer: Schnabel Engineering
MEP Engineer: Meuller Associates
Lighting/Daylighting: Arup
Civil Engineer: Vika
Irrigation: Sweeney Associates
Building Area: 4,096 sf
 
Photo: John Hill/World-Architects

On June 23, 2022, the new building housing Richard Serra's monumental sculpture Four Rounds: Equal Weight, Unequal Measure opened to the public at Glenstone, the nearly 300-acre landscape haven of modern and contemporary art in Potomac, Maryland, co-founded by Mitchell Rales and Emily Wei Rales. The new building constructed specifically for this single Serra artwork was designed by Thomas Phifer and Partners, the same firm responsible for the masterful Pavilions that opened in 2018. Phifer's design for the Serra Pavilion was unveiled last year, with just a couple teaser renderings showing a concrete cube isolated deep in the woods. Experiencing the new pavilion, I learned on a visit one day before the public opening, is as much about the landscape as it is about the art.
 

Photo: John Hill/World-Architects

Visitors to Glenstone leave their cars at the Arrival Hall and from there head off on foot along the main path, which meanders through a gorgeous landscape laid out by PWP Landscape Architecture and leads directly to the Pavilions. A few outdoor sculptures, the original Charles Gwathmey-designed Gallery (2006), and the Patio building with café are also found in this central, more manicured area of the property. To get to the Serra Pavilion, visitors must venture onto the Woodland Trail, which cuts a counterclockwise arc through its namesake woods, past a trio of Andy Goldsworthy Clay Houses and alongside a stream that formerly defined the eastern edge of the property. After a good fifteen minute walk along the Woodland Trail, there is a bridge that crosses the stream and connects to a wooden boardwalk that eventually delivers visitors to the door of the Serra Pavilion. The boardwalk is not straight though; it meanders, much like the main path, opening up vistas of the wetlands, meadow, and woods, with occasional shrouded views of the pavilion in the distance. The time spent in nature seems to ready one mentally for the experience of the Serra installation.
 

Photo: John Hill/World-Architects
Photo: John Hill/World-Architects

At its simplest, the new pavilion is a cast-in-place reinforced-concrete container for art. Its walls are two feet thick, sitting upon a four-foot deep floor slab and capped by a roof framed with six-foot deep roof beams. The 18-foot high space is 64 feet by 64 feet square and features four large rectangular roof openings that are capped by glass-and-aluminum skylights to bring in filtered natural light. There is no artificial light, nor any air conditioning or heating. (Perimeter floor drains and a sliding overhead door at the entrance were the only practical insertions I glimpsed in the concrete space.) There are only walls, floor, and roof in concrete, and four steel cylinders arranged in a square in the square space — it is you and the art.
 

Photo: John Hill/World-Architects

Following the long trek across the grounds of Glenstone and through its woods, my first thought on entering the Serra Pavilion was of the dramatic disconnect between being immersed in nature and then being immersed in a box almost totally cut off from nature. Nevertheless, nature is there in the sunlight that enters from above, in the air moving through the gaps between the concrete roof and the glass skylights, in the framed view of trees back through the door, and even in the insects that occasionally hold onto the sides of the steel cylinders (I saw a couple during my time there). Put another way, the nature that is there is harnessed, albeit subtly, to create the ideal conditions for experiencing Serra's Four Rounds, which is the third Serra piece installed at Glenstone, following Sylvester (2001) and Contour 290 (2004). It is the first Serra not set entirely outdoors at Glenstone, though all three were executed in his signature Corten steel.
 

Photo: John Hill/World-Architects

At its simplest, Four Rounds: Equal Weight, Unequal Measure is a sculpture made up of four cylindrical forms forged from steel, each weighing 82 tons — the heaviest form the foundry could handle. But the differences — the "unequal measures," if you will — are more apparent than the "equal weight": each cylinder has a different height (from 45 to 120 inches) and a different diameter (from 78 inches to 127 inches) that together express how weight corresponds to volume. Furthermore, according to a statement from Glenstone, "each form features a textured, dark patina unique to the vessel in which it was forged." Alone, each cylinder would be impressive in its size but ultimately unexceptional; taken together, they interact with each other — and with the space defined by the concrete pavilion — in a way that is best described as beguiling.
 

Photo: John Hill/World-Architects

Glenstone's statement on Four Rounds asserts that the artwork "is as much about the negative space in which the viewer stands as it is about the objects themselves." While this is evidently true in regards to the placement of the four pieces relative to each other, this assertion heightens the importance of the box in which the sculpture is installed. Put Four Rounds in an empty meadow, or inside four walls open to the sky, or in some other architectural or natural situation, and the effect of negative space would be dramatically different than the result carried out by Phifer in collaboration with Serra. The concrete walls provide space around the cylinders but also bring visitors close to them. The four skylights are the same number as the cylinders, but their rectilinear forms stand in geometric contrast to them, ultimately serving as the only significant mark of the architect relative to the artist. The concrete surfaces are beautifully executed, bearing an industrial appearance that serves the artwork so well that one's perception of the concrete container recedes in favor of the weathering steel — its colors, textures, and many imperfections.
 

Photo: John Hill/World-Architects

After spending time with the sculpture and returning to the meadow and boardwalk outside, the relationship between the landscape and the architecture of the pavilion — so disconnected from each other, initially — became clear. The walk to the pavilion, especially the section through the Woodland Trail, had elevated the senses: the sounds of bees buzzing and the water trickling in the stream; the colors and forms of the trees; and the smells of the rain letting up that afternoon. This was the readiness I mentioned earlier: a readiness to confront Serra's sculpture with all of one's senses, and also to consider it as another element of nature. Conceptualized by an artist, here nature was harnessed and forged by industry, turned into forms exhibiting as much subtle variation on them as is found on the leaves and the bark on the trees outside. Phifer's new container for Serra's artwork says as much — and does it simply.
 

Photo: John Hill/World-Architects

Glenstone is located at 12100 Glen Road in Potomac, Maryland, and is open to the public Thursdays through Sundays, from 10 am to 5 pm. Visit the Glenstone website for free timed tickets.

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