With all due respect, Akron, Ohio is about the last place you’d expect to find a provocative piece of modern architecture. Yet the Akron Art Museum’s John S. and James L. Knight addition is just that.
The 63,000 sq. ft. addition was designed by COOP HIMMELB(L)AU of Austria and represents the celebrated firm’s first public project in the United States. The addition represented a first for the museum too. After having operated out of existing buildings since its inception in 1922, the addition is the museum’s first purpose-built space.
The addition has been widely written about since its completion and the reviews have been mixed. But as far as those intimately involved with the project are concerned, the design is an unequivocal success.
“This is a historic milestone in the growth of the Akron Art Museum, and one I am thrilled to share with the entire Akron community,” said Akron Art Museum Director and CEO Mitchell Kahan. He called the work of the architect on the project “inspiring” and said he looked forward to the museum’s expanded role in the life of the city.
The choice of an architect was the result of an international competition. COOP HIMMELB(L)AU was ultimately selected because of its leadership in contemporary architectural theory and thought-provoking approach to the reinvention of existing resources. The firm’s design literally and metaphorically opens the museum to the city and to the public, creating a nexus in downtown Akron for cultural, social and educational events and gatherings.
“The City of Akron has been a leader among municipalities in the U.S. in supporting the visual and performing arts and we have now brought the United States its first public building by COOP HIMMELB(L)AU,” said Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic at the addition’s dedication ceremony. “Our community can take pride in this building as a symbol of the city’s innovative spirit, and take pleasure in the exciting new opportunities it represents for cultural and economic growth in our city.”
The museum’s existing building was originally constructed as a post office in 1899, and was designed by architect James Knox Taylor. Acquired by the city in 1927, it served various purposes for the next 50 years. After an award-winning restoration of the exterior, and the creation of an all-new interior by Cleveland architect Peter van Dijk, the building became home to the Arkon Art Museum. That was in 1981.
COOP HIMMELB(L)AU’s expansion integrates the 63,000 sq. ft. addition with the existing 21,000 sq. ft., 19th century Renaissance revival museum. The expansion dramatically increases the museum’s ability to originate and present traveling special exhibitions and display major, rarely seen works of art from its own permanent holdings, including recent acquisitions in photography and sculpture; special strengths in the institution’s collecting. The new building also increases facilities for educational workshops for school children and an expanding roster of public programs.
From a design perspective, the Knight Building addition is comprised of three distinctive elements: The Crystal, The Gallery Box and The Roof Cloud.
The Crystal is a three-story glass lobby that serves as the public entry and a focal space connecting the museum’s art, education, administration and public program spaces. The Gallery Box is a large, flexible exhibition space designed to accommodate temporary exhibitions and collection presentations, which comprises 7,300 sq. ft. of space for changing exhibitions and 13,000 sq. ft. of permanent collection galleries. The Roof Cloud is a 327’-long cantilevered steel armature extending over and embracing the old and new buildings and the adjacent street, creating a striking new landmark for the city.
“The design for the Akron Art Museum is a design of the museum for the future,” said COOP HIMMELB(L)AU founder, architect Wolf D. Prix. He was the firm’s principal in charge of this project. “The design embraces the past, rather than replacing or destroying it. It uses architecture to create a public space within the city and a private space within our own souls—reinventing both the city and ourselves at the same time. With such a project, there is a great opportunity to make a living contribution to the city.”
The innovative Roof Cloud was wrapped with a new lightweight aluminum egg crate screen product manufactured by Ohio Gratings Inc. of nearby Canton, OH. The company worked with the architect to develop the egg crate screens, which are supported by steel struts connected to the Cloud’s structural steel frame. The system was refined to meet air flow and shade requirements, and engineered to be as lightweight as possible. The aluminum screen panels were constructed in an egg crate fashion from press locked material consisting of 2” x 1/8” aluminum bars with 3” x 6” openings to form panels that matched the sight lines of the aluminum composite wall panels that wrap the exterior of the Gallery Box.
Ground was broken for the addition in May 2004. It was dedicated on July 17, 2007. The total project cost was $35 million, which includes both hard and soft costs, including planning and fundraising activities. Westlake Reed Leskosky of Cleveland was the project’s executive architect.