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Foster in Palm Beach: Architecture for art’s sake

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Foster + Partners has reworked and extended Florida’s Norton Museum of Art to create a building worthy of the mother of the arts, writes Paul Finch. Photography by Nigel Young

If architecture is the mother of the arts, does that mean architecture itself is an art? And if it aspires to be so, is it restricted to what Adolf Loos described as the only architectural types capable of being art: the monument and the tomb? 

There are buildings that could be both, for example the Norton Museum of Art, in West Palm Beach, Florida, newly extended by Foster + Partners. It is a monument to the vision of the museum’s founders, Ralph and Elizabeth Norton, but also a tomb in the sense that all museums are tombs for what rests in them – in this case some 7,600 paintings, sculptures, photographs and magnificent Chinese antiques and artefacts.

Fosters has reworked the museum’s existing 1941 Art Deco building and added significant new spaces, though they comprise less than 10 per cent of the total 12,000m² built area. One senses this was a labour of love for both architect and client, particularly the just-retired chief executive Hope Alswang, not least because the delivery of the expanded and upgraded museum has convinced the local art-owning community that it is worthy of substantial donation of works that might otherwise have gone to New York.

Financial contributions to pay for the $100 million project were numerous and generous. Hedge-fund owner Kenneth C Griffin gave $20 million, which financed the key new building sequence that forms the remodelled front of the facility. Other sponsors have preferred to focus on community access – the museum is thus entirely free to enter on Fridays and Saturdays. 

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The museum began life as an overspill institution when the Nortons realised that their art-buying habit had outgrown the possibility of displaying everything in their own home. They commissioned a building from Wyeth, King & Johnson, which has largely survived in Foster’s 20-year masterplan for the museum. The usual accretional architecture associated with cultural organisations has had to be deconstructed in the Foster plan – a side entrance that replaced the original axial main entrance has been closed. The new entrance is on axis with the original, creating a west-east route through the buildings and open courtyard that formed the core of the original design.

Now the spaces at the front of the plan comprise an entrance foyer, a grand room for exhibiting large work (dimensionally modelled on Gallery 3 of London’s Royal Academy), an auditorium and an event space, all arranged pretty much to match the width of the existing building. However, immediately to the south is a new kitchen and restaurant with both internal and external space, the latter overlooking the most explicit artistic element of the new design: a sculpture gallery and garden. The garden in particular transforms the idea of the museum, because it comprises non-axial external space rather than the internalised axial courtyard of the original design.

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Gallery space in the existing building has been spruced up, repainted and relit, and given a more inviting feel by new openings allowing a greater freedom of circulation. This is important because there is no attempt to disguise the nature of the collection, which reflects its founders’ multiple interests. So different elements of the five-subject collection (European, American, Chinese, Contemporary and Photography) have their own space, but may sit side by side as though they were different rooms in a house. 

Although small in percentage terms, the Foster additions more than punch their weight in their contribution to what is almost a new institution. The front elevation, now on South Dixie Highway, is an essay in cool presence, complete with super-scale neon lettering (55 miles per hour graphics?) and an entrance plaza featuring an Oldenburg giant typewriter-script eraser. Larger than both, though entirely natural in its scale, is an 80-year-old banyan tree, which Norman Foster describes as a ‘protagonist’ for the project. A large canopy is cut to accommodate the tree, the canopy itself providing shelter in the case of rain from the drop-off to the side of the entrance. Longer-term parking is provided across the road next to a quiet cemetery, which probably guarantees a clear outlook in the years to come. Not prominent, but an important part of the additional architecture, is the space provided for staff, teachers and the education programme. This is extremely well handled, includes a triple-height route that partly hosts an internal library, and manages to provide some significant views out for museum workers previously locked away in basement space. 

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As with many cultural institutions, an architectural commission is inevitably about mixed-use – workspace, restaurant, kitchen and so on. Little chance, you might think, of these more prosaic types being the subject of artistic inspiration. 

However, Foster is clear that all design comprises artistic activity. ‘Every line you draw working with materials and nature, every decision you make, is an aesthetic decision …’ he says. ‘The circle design on a door may give a sense of mystery, even if the doors are designed to resist 175-mile-an-hour winds.’

He was speaking at events previewing the launch of the Norton in its new, improved guise. The launch included a grand gala dinner in a spectacularly lit tent located in a garden on the museum site, one of two gardens identified as locations for future expansion in the masterplan design (the team included Fosters’ head of design Spencer de Grey and partner-in-charge Michael Wurzel).

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The third garden, however, will be sacrosanct: the sculpture garden including work by Léger, Gormley, Haring and Rondinone. If one looks in this building for an experience of architecture akin to the experience of great art, it is the moment when you move from a black-box gallery through a door into the brightness of the sculpture court with the garden beyond.

It is the manipulation of space, light and volume, a manipulation that takes place across time, that brings the mother of the arts close to art itself. The ‘promenade architecture’, especially in circumstances where art is to be viewed, is crucial to this story.

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Architect’s view

The Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach was built in 1941 to house the art collection of the industrialist Ralph Hubbard Norton and his wife Elizabeth. The museum was laid out as an elegant series of Art Deco-inspired single-storey pavilions around a central courtyard. Subsequent expansion broke this logic and it was further undermined by the relocation of the main entrance to the south side of the building.

Foster + Partners was introduced to the project when the museum trustee, Gil Maurer – with whom we had worked previously on the Hearst Tower in New York – asked us to develop a masterplan strategy to protect and enhance the museum’s legacy for future generations.

We worked closely with the museum to establish and define a brief that resulted in a masterplan for the next quarter of a century, reflecting Florida’s growth and the museum’s ambition to become a major cultural destination.

During our research, we re-discovered the clarity and elegance of the historic 1941 building, which over time had become a collection of disparate spaces. Our approach was to reassert the logic of the original circulation pattern by locating the entrance along the main street, thereby giving the museum a distinct presence. A new Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen sculpture, Typewriter Eraser, scale X, is placed on a reflecting pool, becoming the main protagonist of the newly created entrance plaza. 

At the heart of the endeavour lay the desire to create a seamless and stimulating art experience by restoring the historic gallery spaces and complementing those carefully with new spaces. 

We further sought to rekindle the wonderful relationship between the architecture and the outdoors, which was originally expressed in the colonnaded courtyard. A new colonnade provides shelter and marks the interface between the building and the surrounding garden and forms an integral part of the experience of the new museum. 

The gardens also enable a wider programme of cultural activities such as outdoor movies, dining and drawing classes, that will lower the threshold for experiencing art and make it accessible to a larger audience.

Michael Wurzel, partner, Foster + Partners

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Client’s view

The difference between the Norton Museum of Art pre-and post-Foster + Partners’ work can best be summarised by a vivid metaphor coined by Norton Museum of Art Director Emerita Hope Alswang: ‘If we were a car, we would have been a 12-year-old Volkswagen, but this is like someone gave us the keys to a brand-new Lamborghini.’

The Norton’s leadership and Board of Trustees could not be more thrilled with Foster + Partners’ transformation. We began this process because we had a feeling that the building could and should do more to serve its visitors, especially those from the South Florida region. 

Once the needs were identified, we knew Foster + Partners was the firm we wanted to work with. There was no competition or bidding process.

Partner Michael Wurzel first visited the campus in 2010 to understand our intent and needs and review possible solutions. From there, several mandates were generated that served as guidelines throughout the project. These elements, all of which were completed, have made the expansion so successful. They include: moving the entrance to South Dixie Highway, now one of the city’s major thoroughfares; re-establishing the east-west axis of the original 1941 Art Deco building; using the land around the building to create a museum in a garden to create more spaces for art and programming, and to offer a totally different indoor and outdoor visitor experience; and incorporating the 80-year-old banyan tree into the design of the west wing.

Sam Ankerson, deputy director, Norton Museum of Art

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Working detail

The architectural vision for the museum expansion included a cantilevered roof design that posed several unique structural challenges. The roof’s tapered, sharp edge essentially created an airplane wing and required a wind-tunnel study to accurately capture hurricane-level wind pressures, especially uplift. The study also took into account the presence of a banyan tree immediately adjacent to the building, and the rare scenario of its absence, should it ever be removed and no longer block the wind.

Tapered steel trusses were chosen as the structural system to maintain a stiff and economical profile, but the relatively light structural steel (compared with concrete) resulted in additional challenges, given the hurricane-scenario wind uplift pressures. To mitigate this effect, a network of tubular steel columns supporting the roof structure under gravity loads was embedded into the perimeter and interior masonry walls. This configuration resulted in the uplift pressures being transferred from the columns to the masonry, thereby engaging the weight of the masonry walls to prevent uplift at the foundation level. With a back-span depth of 9 feet (2.75m), primarily for stiffness, the cantilevered steel trusses created an ideal space for routing mechanical services. Ductwork passing above and between the gallery and public spaces, in the void between the truss members, resulted in minimal penetrations in the masonry walls and ultimately decreased cost and shortened the overall construction schedule. 

Leif Johnson, principal structural engineer, MKA

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Project data

Start on site February 2016
Completion February 2019
Gross internal floor area 12,356m²
Construction cost Undisclosed
Architect Foster + Partners
Executive architect CBT Architects
Client The Norton Museum of Art
Structural engineer MKA
M&E consultant Bury
Quantity surveyor Gardiner & Theobald
Project manager Gardiner & Theobald
Main contractor Gilbane
Executive landscape architect EDSA
Lighting consultant George Sexton Associates
Acoustic consultant Acentech
Geotechnical engineer Engenuity
Signage Roll Barresi & Associates
Water feature consultant Freeport

Performance data

Percentage of floor area with daylight factor >2% 11% 
Percentage of floor area with daylight factor >5% 30%
On-site energy generation Provisions for PV in place (area of 1,000m² on top of canopy). Annual solar yield: 1,829kWh/m²
Annual mains water consumption 23 litres/day/person (estimate)
Heating and hot water load 42W/m² (estimate)
Airtightness at 50Pa Unavailable
Overall U-value 1.2W/m² K 

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