WAF newsletter Foster in Palm Beach: Architecture for art’s sake

Foster in Palm Beach: Architecture for art’s sake

Paul Finch, 24 April 2019


Foster + Partners has reworked and extended Florida’s Norton Museum of Art to create a building worthy of the mother of the arts. 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. 

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.

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. 

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).

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.


Dimensions are based on one of the galleries in the Royal Acadamy, London

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