On the Rise
Voorsanger & Associates reaches new heights at the redesigned Asia Society and Museum, New York
Laura Fisher Kaiser -- Interior Design, 5/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
By the time you make it downstairs to check your coat at the Asia Society and Museum, you've already passed the startling red lacquer reception desk, glimpsed the dappled light of the garden café, and marveled at the undulating shojilike partitions that screen the gift shop. But to kick off your tour of the newly renovated museum properly, take a moment to stand in the basement, underneath the stairs, and look straight up through a glass panel in the ceiling. Four flights of blue-laminated glass treads curve and crisscross above, evoking a geisha's fan, a waterfall, the back of a Chinese dragon, or any number of fanciful images, depending on the light. They are a "bridge between Asia and the West," per the society's mission statement, and they epitomize the openness and dynamism of the building as redesigned by Voorsanger & Associates Architects.
Before the $38 million project began in 1997, visitors were greeted in the lobby by a dreary wall of painted gypsum and a two-story barrel-vaulted ceiling, then shuttled between two claustrophobic galleries. The off-putting space did little to engage the public in the full complement of exhibitions, performance art, geopolitical talks, and continuing-education programs that took place there. The international organization also needed a new service elevator, a modern HVAC system, and more room to exhibit art, including the Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller III Collection of nearly 300 masterworks from South, Southeast, and East Asia, dating from 2000 BC to the 19th century. What's more, valuable real estate was going to waste. Five of the eight floors were devoted to offices, and the cloakroom and trash-collection area were taking up prime ground-level space.
Voorsanger & Associates gutted the 72,000-square-foot interior—leaving intact the footprint of the red granite box that Edward Larabee Barnes built on Park Avenue in New York in 1980—and at every turn incorporated elements inspired by Asian culture while resolving pragmatic concerns. The firm consolidated the offices into four floors by reconfiguring the layout with a Steelcase system, making room for 25 additional employees in the process. The gift shop was relocated across the lobby, the utility areas to the basement. (The basement auditorium was refurbished with new upholstery and audiovisual equipment.) These changes allowed the galleries to expand from 4,000 to 10,000 square feet.
The most dramatic move was to demolish an underused side terrace and, profiting from "as of right" zoning, build a two-story garden court housing a café. Daylight pours through what Bartholomew Voorsanger, the firm's cofounder, calls an "architectonic parasol." A canopy of pinned glass supported by delicate steel beams clad in teak, the structure cantilevers to meet a perimeter of insulated glass shaded by laminated rice paper. The floors are a rare blue marble reminiscent of serene pools of water. Flowering vines will eventually climb the limestone walls.
Five weeping podocarpus trees filter light into the courtyard. (There were four until someone pointed out that four is an unlucky number in Asia.) Only a few fronds, evocative of a Chinese scroll, are visible from the lobby—an understated welcome rather than a slap-on-the-back hello. Likewise, though the gift shop is right inside the entrance, only a hint can be glimpsed through screens of birch and stainless-steel mesh backed by glass. "We don't want you to walk directly into the store," firm principal and project architect Jim MacDonald says. "it's not Madison Avenue."
Screens that appear to twist on their axes in fact pivot closed, after hours or in case of fire, to form a protective wall. Voorsanger collaborated with Vignelli Associates to develop the computer models for the interlocking frames. Then, after a long search to find someone who could laser-cut the wood, sand it by hand, and build the complicated structure, the two firms chose a Massachusetts gate company whose owner, Colin Butler, is also known for his finely crafted guitars—two of them sit in the Smithsonian.
In contrast to this old-world craftsmanship, Vignelli Associates also designed the striking red signage throughout the museum, while M.I.T. graduates created interactive signs and information stations. Go to an ecru-painted fiberglass table in the lobby, pick up a "stone" of Dynacast, and set it on a computerized "place mat" to call up games and facts about Asia and the institution. Touch a white plastic strip on a railing, and a three-dimensional calendar dances across a screen via an indirect projection system. The screens themselves are wafer-thin and frameless, so you notice the image rather than the equipment, an important consideration given that technology often looks dated in a matter of months.
"What is powerful about Asian architecture is its conviction of purpose, clarity of geometry, and exquisite use of materials and detailing," Voorsanger says. "These issues guided our design choices." From the very start of the four-year process, Voorsanger was often asked, "What will be Asian about your design?" His answer to that question is a fluid space where nature meets high tech, where a neon-and-beeswax sculpture by Laotian artist Vong Phaophanit looks as at home as an 8th-century brass Crowned Buddha Shakyamuni, and where no fewer than 30 countries can be found coexisting beautifully under one roof.