Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

Clark Art Institute: Contemporary Haven, But No Masterpiece

Photograph by Tucker Blair. Courtesy The Clark.

When Sterling and Francine Clark built a museum for their collection in 1955, the building included an apartment with an octagonal breakfast room. On four of the room’s eight sides they hung society painter Alfred Stevens’s “Four Seasons,” four paintings of elegant young ladies communing with the landscape (except for Winter, who is looking at herself). In the refreshed Clark Art Institute, those canvases still flank a window framing the Clarks’ superlative Berkshires view, providing a capsule version of the play between inside and outside, artifice and nature, that was always part of the institute’s allure.

Tadao Ando Architect & Associates’ new Clark Center at the Clark Art Institute, opened in July 2014 in Williamstown, Massachusetts, part of a long-term expansion of the institution’s photogenic 140-acre site that also includes the design work of Selldorf Architects (renovating the neo-classical museum and late Modern research center) and Reed Hilderbrand Landscape Architecture (restructuring and focusing the grounds), with Gensler as executive architect. The result is a museum that has blossomed into a campus, with geometric buildings, handsomely made of natural materials, arranged around a dramatic reflecting pool that has just the slightest hint of a curve. The concrete is silky, the staircases dramatic, the vistas extensive, the taste level, the highest. And yet, within the walls of the Clark Center and the original museum building, I felt confused, claustrophobic, and sometimes like I’d rather be eating lunch outside.