A Presence of Permanence


   Last week while riding my bike along the swollen Mississippi, my mind took me back to the architect selection process for the Figge Art Museum.  One of the reasons David Chipperfield was chosen was that he’d designed several projects alongside rivers, most notably (at that point*) the River and Rowing Museum by the Thames near Henley.

  We first met Mr. Chipperfield (now Sir) at that site and listened to him describe how even more stringent were flood plain building requirements in the UK than in the states.  And how, in any case, a river is a force of nature with which one best not trifle.  He quoted TS Eliot in that regard: “A river has a permanence far greater than mere humans.”

  That respect, in part, led him to set the volumes upon concrete columns thus placing them just above flood level.  Their shape was inflected first by the long obtusely peaked tents set up during the annual Henley Regatta.  The rooflines of traditional wooden barns of Oxfordshire were the second important influence. 

  The structure thus “fit in” and assuaged fears of local conservatives.  Chipperfield also though endeavored to clearly interject something new by having it appear to float over the site – resting it upon nearly invisible walls of glass.  The raised platform also bears resemblance to pavilions in Japan where will be found most of his early built work.

  The hovering effect was achieved for our project by exactly opposite means.  FAM looks like a glistening rectilinear crystal made to appear to float by its stark contrast with the dark concrete plinth upon which it rests.  Though the scale of the two buildings differs significantly, important similarity does not end there.  Both buildings honor their contents without sequestration. 

  Both employ skylights to allow for some natural lighting**, but more importantly both set up an opportunity for the visitor to visually interact with mother nature.  At Henley it’s the embrace (if not caress) of poplars around one small glazed room while here it’s the invigorating slap in the face one receives exiting fourth level exhibition space to look out and over the mighty Mississippi through a huge window sixty-one foot tall and nearly as wide.  Our own Grand Canyon.

*Chipperfield’s recently completed Neues project on Museum Island in the River Spree in Berlin was for ten years one of Europe’s largest.  It’s received raves.  Hope to visit one day…

**The skylights at Henley have been said to have been inspired by those at the Kimball.  Indeed, during our visit, Chipperfield was heard to say that “he’d work very hard to make the building what it wants to be” a phrase made famous by Kimball Architect Louis Kahn.

***cf June 26, 2009 – For a nearby work of Frank Lloyd Wright’s by a river.  There are some similarities as well as fundamental differences.  Wright’s has roots.

****cf June 5, 2009 to read about bridge builders and nature.

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