In renovating the huge Nabisco factory on the Hudson River to display the large-scale works in its collection, the Dia Art Foundation was adamant that 'the art comes first'
Specially tailored to suit vast displays of works by Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Andy Warhol and others of the 1960s/70s generation, Dia: Beacon is enormous. But while its size is staggering, the quality of light, the clarity of the plan and the beauty of its setting make it inspiring rather than intimidating or overwhelming.
What started life as a 1929 Nabisco boxprinting factory (think 'Shreddies'), on the edge of the Hudson River in upstate New York, has become a 27,120m 2home for the permanent collection of the Dia Art Foundation, founded in 1974. The building is a collaborative project, involving surviving artists in the collection, along with fellow artist Robert Irwin and architect OpenOffice.
Dia has a history of showing art in the loft-like spaces of New York's Chelsea and SoHo and in the bare industrial sheds of Marfa, Texas - the military base converted by Donald Judd, now the Chinati Foundation. It also maintains site-specific works like Walter De Maria's Lightning Field in New Mexico and Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty in Utah.
Its favoured artists were making art that was, in part, a response to the availability of a new scale of space, and to environments which were both raw and non-domestic. Up to now, getting the full experience as a viewer has meant a major commitment of both time and money. At just over an hour north of Manhattan, Dia: Beacon is much more accessible.
The journey from the city becomes part of the overall experience. Nothing symbolises the positive face of Manhattan better than the lofty and imposing hall of Grand Central Station, but within minutes there's a view of industrial sprawl competing messily with vast, brick, public housing blocks. Then the train emerges into a totally different but quintessential American landscape. The densely wooded banks of the Hudson seem primeval and utterly untouched, just as they were when painted by 19th-century Hudson River School painters such as Frederick Church, who saw this valley as a sublime wilderness.
Although mundane suburbs lie just out of sight, the blocky forms of the cliffs suggest that the bedrock on which Manhattan is built might not lie quite so deep as the city's self-confidence and sophistication suggest.
The broad stretch of water seems almost to lap against the train; at times looking higher than the tracks, as if about to overflow.
For the moment the walk from station to museum is an intrusion - 10 minutes of underpass, overpass and a grim stretch of highway - but eventually a new footpath will skirt the river bank. Now visitors arrive above the building, and their first view is dominated by the roof, a sea of sawtooth rooflights tidily interlaced with air-handling equipment. These both suggest a continuing industrial use for the building, and act as a reminder that local politicians are (once again) seeing art as a new source of prosperity, a catalyst for economic regeneration of Beacon and the area around.
OpenOffice partner Galia Solomonoff explains that the building - designed by Louis N Wirshing Jr, the in-house Nabisco architect - 'always had amazing bones', and what was needed was a 'careful clean-up, not a facelift'. She describes the design process in terms of a triangle. At the apex sits Dia director Michael Govan (who spotted the building from a small plane) and his staff (including the installers, whose knowledge of the works the architects particularly respect). In another corner were the Dia artists and Robert Irwin, best known for his garden at the Getty Center in Los Angeles and here acting as landscape designer and masterplanner.
In the third corner was the OpenOffice team, which included Arup's New York office. Solomonoff describes her practice's role as 'providing a spectrum of possibilities', and 'closing down options'. She and partner Lyn Rice did not meet directly with the artists, but provided drawings, and spent considerable time getting under the skin of the strong Dia ethos. This seems to be best summarised as 'the art comes first', with curators and architects as possible sources of distraction to be treated with caution.
It is possible to reach the galleries via the administration building, to the left of the site - this is where groups will be dropped off, and a small-scale cafe will revive the flagging - but the architect hopes most people will approach on the main axis.
Entry is via a forecourt to the north, designed by Robert Irwin. The grove of crab-apple and hawthorn trees, which sit in steel-curbed beds within the parking area, was bursting into bloom on opening day.
Beyond, Grasscrete blocks are used, with the edges of paths feathering out softly to Irwin's design, part of a carefully orchestrated balance between man and nature.
The original idea was that the new entrance pavilion should be all glass or glass-roofed, in contrast to the solidity of the original structure, but this was revised, and a narrow tunnel of salt-glazed, iron-spot brick was the final choice. This is divided by a central concrete column and sets up a bilateral symmetry which extends into the galleries.
The bulk of the building is divided into four distinct volumes. To the north are two large blocks, side by side, separated by a longitudinal fire wall on the central axis. These are lit with the north-facing sawtooth skylights, and retain the original battered maple flooring Behind, to the south, is an area with lantern roof-lights and a concrete floor, and tacked on to the west side is the old train shed, which was once served by a special siding.
What is seen first are the two long galleries. Each houses stainless steel floor pieces by Walter de Maria, which could almost be a reflection of each other rather than two distinct realities - so the decision on where to start feels arbitrary, signalling that there is no 'right way' to proceed.
Michael Govan reiterates this, stressing that it is important that there is 'no real hierarchy or chronology' to the gallery, 'which puts responsibility on the viewer to discover the works'. You can wander at will or rigorously follow the plan - but glimpses of hillside and water, to east and west respectively, make orientation an instinctive process.
The De Maria works softly reflect the exposed roof structure, but essentially rarified references are more to the secondary inhabitation of warehouses as found spaces for artists to live, work and show in, than to the memory of industrial production and the lives of the Nabisco workers. There is only the barest of information on the history of building, no sense of layering of experience, and while Solomonoff and Rice admit that they 'fetishise all the construction photographs', and love the grunginess and quirks of the building, the programme has been about achieving order, precision and calmness.
Full-scale mock-ups were constructed of various options for the height of internal partitions, and perimeter glazing. The decision to keep the central opening lights clear-glazed, and surround them with a wired, hammered glass, was one of the cheapest and most industrial solutions considered, but felt appropriate.
One of the boldest architectural interventions has been the raising of the roof, and elimination of columns, to house Donald Judd's plywood pieces. This allowed OpenOffice to reinforce the sense of a different quality of light in the front and back areas of the building. The cooler north light is backed up with fluorescent light and the warmer, more diffuse area with tungsten fittings; but the gallery will basically only be open in daylight hours, and the atmosphere will depend on the changing quality of exterior light.
There is also a basement, less cleaned-up than the main floor, where the tighter grid of mushroom columns still retain the abrasions from passing trucks and trolleys. And in an attic, with strong shafts of light and dark corners, a Louise Bourgeois spider lurks.
Dia: Beacon has already had enormous press coverage in the US, with the New York Times announcing that it 'changes the landscape for art in America'. But it is unique; neither a paradigm for future galleries nor comparable to Tate Modern which misses the sense of extreme generosity of space, or MassMoca's series of narrow 19th-century sheds with no permanent collection.
The regeneration agenda seems a little exaggerated. Beacon is no Bilbao or Salford, and feels comfortably middle class. Even two years ago, its Main Street was sprouting art galleries, cafes, and antique shops. Future months will see the opening ofWatershed - a programme of site-specific installation works at locations along the Hudson - and there is Frank Gehry's new building at Bard College just a little further north. In this sense, Dia: Beacon is part of the wider rebranding of a large area.
At its best, the combination of architecture and artworks is breathtaking. Highlights include Michael Heizer's vertiginous series of voids, North, East, South, West, and huge Corten Torqued Ellipses by Richard Serra.
Perhaps what was once confrontational and challenging is becoming the Establishment; we know by now that there is an alternative to the conventional 'white cube'.
But Dia presents that alternative - that more elemental world - with panache, vigour and sensitivity. It's a mesmerising trip.
For further details visit www. diabeacon. org