HERZOG & DE MEURON GO WEST
Herzog & de Meuron's (H&deM) first completed building in the US, a $67.5 million (£35.7 million) extension to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, opens this weekend - and will no doubt be mobbed.
Not that this is the Walker's first time in the architectural spotlight.
Since 1971 it has had a striking Modernist home - a cluster of plum-coloured brick boxes by Edward Larrabee Barnes (who died last year), which has proved very popular with artists and curators.
But the centre's director, Kathy Halbreich, thought it could seem a little forbidding, and that it did not allow the Walker to function as an art centre rather than a museum.
She wanted to stress the distinction between a place simply showing artworks and one accommodating a theatre, cinema and diverse media, fostering connections between disciplines, rather than compartmentalising them (as New York's new MoMA has done). It should have the buzz and interaction of a 'town square', says Halbreich.
The Walker selected H&deM after 'an extensive search', but is cagey about other contenders.
Two positive factors were the practice's long-time engagement with art and artists, and its proven ability to handle a project of this scope. Its brief was to keep the Barnes building 'as pure as possible', but to give the extension its own distinct character, and especially make its public spaces more welcoming.
The site is at the south-western edge of downtown Minneapolis, beside an eight-lane highway (though there is a footbridge nearby). In contrast to Barnes' tight orthogonal building at the north, H&deM's addition is looser in plan, its main elements part-rotated in turn as it spreads south.
It is meant to mediate between the city to the east and a garden to the west - designed by Michel Desvigne - which forms part of phase two of the project, along with demolition of the adjacent Guthrie Theatre (being rebuilt by the Mississippi to a design by Jean Nouvel). At present, squares of turf give the general idea.
The eye-catching feature of the scheme, literally dazzling at times, is the faceted tower, an approximate cube, which houses the McGuire Theatre, as well as a special events space and an upmarket restaurant, both looking onto the city through large eccentric windows.
As with the copper bands of the Basel signal box or the coloured polycarbonate of the Laban Centre, what makes the tower special is H&deM's treatment of its skin. It is clad with panels of aluminium mesh, each embossed with a complex faceted pattern, and though the metal is already very sensitive to changing light and weather, the faceting makes it even more so.
It's sure to suggest a host of similes - 'crumpled silk' and 'frozen lake' are two already in print - and given Herzog's love of fashion, the allusion to fabric is apt. For while Barnes' clean-cut building is a sober-suited model of Midwestern rectitude, H&deM's extension is straight off the catwalk - icily glamorous and exotic.
The aluminium is swept beneath a dramatic glowering cantilever and into the lowceilinged Hennepin Lobby. Inside the extension, H&deM has kept continuity with Barnes by using the same brick and terrazzo, and indeed the new galleries - which increase exhibition space by a third to 40,000 sq ft - are similar to Barnes': calm, column-free, orthogonal and flexible, though almost totally dependent on artificial light.
Where H&deM differs is in otherwise avoiding right angles, which is fine in plan, the spaces contracting and expanding.
But walls are canted, apertures determinedly askew (whether entrances to galleries or the many windows), and furniture likewise.
This becomes a bit relentless and, like last season's clothes to the fashionistas, may soon seem mannered or dated; a glib way to be 'expressive' or 'dynamic' and not be the Barnes.
The Baroque foliage pattern that appears on the embossed metal panels of the intimate, black, 385-seat McGuire Theatre, and more vividly as 'fretwork' at the threshold of galleries, may divide opinion too. But the conjunction of materials - aluminium, greenish glass, polished white plaster (like Scarpa's stucco lustro), variegated brick - gives the interior a definite allure, the transitions between city and garden are well-modulated, and the social spaces inviting (especially the garden-facing Cargill Lounge).
What the opening exhibitions demonstrate is the strength (and idiosyncrasies) of the Walker's permanent collection. H&deM has pulled off a difficult trick, enabling curators to present work with flair, free from distraction - which lets that collection shine - while introducing the user-friendly features the Walker required. But the social side of things shouldn't rule out contemplation, at least when the opening crowds subside.
Though the restless angularity in parts of the new addition may come to irritate some returning visitors, this vibrant building could well spark the creative cross-connections that the Walker wants. And given the respect shown to Barnes in the process, his reputation can only be enhanced.