Peeking over a railing, I look down into a heavily wooded ravine where beefy buildings in concrete curve around courtyards and wrap two ponds vaulted by copper-roofed bridges.
This hidden castle is the Crystal Bridges museum, in Bentonville, Arkansas.
It houses a historical survey of American art collected in just a few years at astonishing cost at the instigation of Alice Walton, heiress to the Wal-Mart Stores Inc. fortune.
Passing a stainless-steel tree sculpture by artist Roxy Paine, I cross a bridge to an elevator tower and descend three floors, where one of the bridges that give the museum its name opens up in front of me.
It’s a tour de force. Deep beams of yellow Arkansas pine vault overhead, rising and swelling outward like the belly of a particularly elegant whale. Light filters in from slots overhead. Outwardly slanting glass walls held together by elegant pipes, ball-joint fittings and cables pick up reflections from the wind-riffled surface of the ponds.
No art could compete with this spectacle. The vast space is used as a restaurant called Eleven and for parties.
With Walton, 62, architect Moshe Safdie chose a wooded streambed in a 120-acre swath of woodlands the family owns just north of the headquarters of the retail giant her father built. Safdie dammed the streams to form the ponds. Walton chose the generically bucolic name Crystal Bridges.
Safdie, 73, doesn’t need to strain for grandeur; bold forms come to him naturally. He shaped balconied and arcaded gallery suites into broad crescents with draped copper roofs to echo the slope of the land. He tones down a characteristic bombast in recognition of the lovely ravine, and he achieves a lyricism and sensuality rarely found in other projects.
Tightly wedged, the 200,000 square feet (18,580 meters) of pavilions stare narcissistically at each other over the water. The Walton family has threaded the surrounding forest with pleasurable trails dotted with sculptures including a “Skyspace” installation by James Turrell.
As you enter the first two gallery suites devoted to art from the colonial era to the end of the 19th century, you encounter a collection that’s esthetically conservative and methodically assembled, including two famous portraits of George Washington (Charles Wilson Peale and Gilbert Stuart) and great painters of grand, idealized nature like Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, and Asher Durand, whose 1849 “Kindred Spirits” cost $35 million.
The museum displays two riveting portraits by Thomas Eakins. It wasn’t able to acquire a third masterpiece, “The Gross Clinic,” when $68 million was raised in Philadelphia to keep it in the city where it was painted.
The heart-stopping prices are unavoidable for a museum seeking work of this caliber. In 2010, the Walton Family Foundation contributed more than $1.2 billion to support acquisitions and operations as well as construction. An additional $20 million gift endows free admission at the museum, which opens to the public on Nov. 11.
Executive Director Don Bacigalupi said it won’t only represent the vision of Walton, who was an equity analyst and breeds cutting horses on a ranch near Fort Worth, Texas. Professional curators guide display and acquisition, overseen by a board that Walton heads. About 450 works are on view, which is almost the entire collection.
Early-20th-century work is displayed in white-box galleries placed within the northern of the two pond-spanning bridge structures. The triumphal march of Arcadian American identity gives way to a richer story that includes the darker side of industrialized urban life.
The largest gallery suite shows off safe yet blue-chip modern works by Georgia O’Keeffe and Edward Hopper. Andy Warhol renders Dolly Parton with bedroom eyes beneath a cotton-candy puff of hair.
Recent acquisitions of contemporary art echo the earlier themes of portraiture, nature and American life more skeptically, such as a foreboding view of suburbia by Kerry James Marshall.
Walton’s lower profile may also blunt the widespread and condescending perception that she is a rube using bucks ill-gotten by dad’s retail rapacity to haul the nation’s patrimony to this remote Xanadu, where the rednecks won’t appreciate it.
She’s only done what a long line of wealthy collectors have done: bring culture home, where some extraordinary works can make a difference in peoples’ lives.
The strip-mall and big-box-store landscape of Bentonville is so bleak, however, that the care and commitment lavished on the museum feels like a mea culpa. Walmart’s empire of big-box stores has done much to obliterate the small-town charm you can find on Bentonville’s town square, where Sam Walton’s original five-and-dime is now a museum.
With square miles of churches and city halls built like metal-sided warehouses, you find not just a lack of civic grace in Bentonville but what seems a mean-spirited aversion to it.
While a museum won’t change that -- Bentonville isn’t Bilbao -- maybe people who love the museum will.
(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. Island Press has just published his book, “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)