For $26 Million Museum, Herzog & De Meuron Taps Seascape

Parrish Art Museum
The Parrish Art Museum, set within a newly planted meadow, takes on a barn-like form, with a corrugated metal roof topping cast-concrete walls. Photographer: James S. Russell/Bloomberg

The $26 million Parrish Art Museum takes the form of a long barn rooted in a meadow off Montauk Highway in Water Mill, 100 miles east of New York City.

It also takes inspiration from its setting: The endless plane of the sea, the mist-filtered sunlight and the low rumpled dunes of the Hamptons at the east end of Long Island. These have attracted generations of artists, including William Merritt Chase, Jackson Pollock and Chuck Close.

The 34,510-square-foot Parrish was designed by Basel, Switzerland-based Herzog & de Meuron. Senior partner Ascan Mergenthaler pairs two identical white shed roofs that sit on mottled concrete walls. Wrapped by a flat concrete plinth, the building appears to hover just above the mixed grasses and wildflowers that will ultimately grow thigh high.

Up close the Parrish is quietly monumental. Its great length -- 615 feet, or about two football fields -- and almost windowless solidity exude a powerful primordial calm. It makes the many dormers of the wannabe French Provincial winery next door look tortured.

A recess in one of the long walls signals the entry, where I found cabinetry crafted from recycled local pine.

The classically proportioned galleries rise high to the underside of the peaked sheds. A white-painted steel-tube skeleton frames the spaces, supporting wood rafters and an unfinished plywood ceiling.

Roof windows facing both north and south beautifully mix and balance the ever-changing daylight. Electric lighting should rarely be needed.

Visitors will be able to appreciate the works in the kind of light most artists prefer.

(Herzog & De Meuron also installed rows of fluorescent lights. They’re not as warm as conventional spotlighting, but they appear to be effective.)

Barns, Studios

The galleries, not surprisingly, put you in mind of barns and artist studios, which in the Hamptons are often one and the same. The long, rectangular layout accommodates a variety of gallery sizes, displaying both large and small works gracefully in the 7,500-square-foot suite for the permanent collection and the 4,500 square feet devoted to temporary exhibitions.

With a collecting and gift-giving class largely based in New York City, the museum, founded 1897, has struggled to expand since the 1990s.

More people now spend more time in the Hamptons, and director Terrie Sultan figured out how to tap its enormous wealth and collecting acumen to develop a museum far more ambitious than anyone would have thought possible a few years ago. She had to move the museum from its small, charming red-brick building in the village of Southampton to the current site, about a mile east.

‘Bird’s Nest’

Her choice of Herzog & de Meuron was risky because the firm’s work has become expensively acrobatic. It devised the steel-tubed intricacy of the “bird’s nest” Olympic stadium in Beijing. A shiny tentlike structure for a concert hall in Hamburg has been beset with cost overruns and delays.

Mergenthaler had first proposed a tiny village of wooden exhibition structures, evoking artists’ studios. But constructing such an intricate composition became prohibitively costly.

In the final plan, Mergenthaler went in the opposite direction, stripping the design to its essence. He has achieved a kind of unself-conscious beauty found in the local landscape.

In that way, the new Parrish evokes the Hamptons before the mist-wreathed flat fields were carved into privet-hedged plots surrounding exactingly curated clapboard concoctions.

Ricola Roots

Mergenthaler’s strategy also returned Herzog & de Meuron to its roots. The firm came to fame with storage buildings for the Swiss herb-drop maker Ricola that evoked centuries-old agricultural structures.

I rushed a visit (the museum opens Nov. 10) to see it in the yellow sunlight and deep green foliage of summer, when most people will visit. (Winter will transform the experience since the light then is an ethereal Nordic white and the landscape a stolid brown.)

Out on the 6,000-square-foot porch at the building’s western end, the white-metal framing extends the monumental Greek temple allusion in the light of the low setting sun.

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. He is the author of “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Elin McCoy on wine, Susan Antilla on books.

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