SFMoMa design by Snohetta. Courtesy Snohetta

It was a long but fascinating day at the Arkansas Arts Center as the five architecture firms chosen as finalists to renovate and add on to the Arts Center presented their philosophies of work and their ideas on how to meet the Arts Center’s desire to connect to the park and city. This will be a skeletal rundown of what I heard today over five hours, with more detail to come later.

Each firm acknowledged that the renovation and new construction will be challenging, thanks to the complexity of the facility itself, which has been added onto eight times around an original 1937 structure and has numerous roof, HVAC, lighting and other issues. Adding to the challenge, several architects noted, is the budget; one architect referred to the budget as “tight.”  The Request for Qualifications issued by the Arts Center put the preliminary hard construction budget at $46 million, to cover the renovation of 90,000 square feet, new construction at 40,000 square feet and landscaping of 35,000 square feet, but it is anticipated that $60 million or more will be raised, a sum that should include endowment money. Bonds issued by the city to be paid off with a 2 cent sales tax on hotel rooms and private funds will be available. The bond issue is expected to produce $35 million. A capital campaign for private funding is in a quiet phase — no private dollars have yet been pledged. You can read the RFP here. 


All characterized the Arts Center as having all the ingredients for a successful model for the future — combining visual arts, theater and the museum school — and called the idea of altering the facility to enhance what it has to offer as exciting. All stressed that public input and research into what is wanted, needed and available already will be addressed before any design gets underway.

Problems cited: Where should the main entrance be? How can the building enhance the identity of the various programs the Arts Center offers? How can it be more integrated, rather than the chopped up into a split-level, highly segmented facility is today? The building has no real visibility from the park other than doors, which means there is little natural light indoors (the staff offices have no natural light at all.) It feels, in other words, like a closed box plopped down in a park to which it has no connection.


The architectural firms, some of their projects, and certain comments:

Snohetta is an international firm founded in Oslo, Norway, with offices around the globe, including an office in Manhattan. Founder Craig Dykers focused a lot today on the firm’s expansion of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where the glass-walled first floor of the museum invites the public into the museum. Among the firm’s numerous projects are the Lascaux IV Caves Museum in France, the Alexandria Library in Egypt, the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet and the James Beard Public Market in Portland. Snohetta is partnering with the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y., to plan for its expansion.


Dykers said it might be a good thing to “loosen up” about where things should be located — perhaps the Museum School should be located in the space that is the Wolfe Gallery now, with glass walls to give the public an inviting view of seeing people making art. He suggested a core that the entries to the museum would link to and spaces where the program purposes could overlap, noting that the SFMoMa has held parties on its loading dock. He believes that museums need areas for contemplation — “palate cleansers” — and access to daylight for visitors, and yet there should be a holistic feel to the facility. He (and others) noted that landscaping is cheaper than construction and can be put to good use as connectivity, citing the grounds of Snohetta’s Lascaux Cave project.

Dean Kumpuris, who is on the selection committee, asked Dykers and all the other architects how the Arts Center can connect to the River Market district and its cultural landmarks. “Design for local, and global will follow,” Dykers said. It was echoed by the other architects: If you build a great place that people want to come to, they will.

Shigeru Ban, another international architectural firm, counts among its projects the Aspen Museum of Art, the Centre Pompidou in Metz, France, and the Oita Prefectural Art Museum in Japan, as well as the Cite Musicale on Ile Seguin, Paris, which is still under construction. All make use of wood — such as the screen that surrounds the Aspen Museum. Zachary Moreland, senior architect with Shigeru Ban, noted some of the Arts Center’s problems: Its multiple entries and layout is “disorienting,” and noted how hard it is to find the Museum School, which exists as various classrooms off the open courts; there is no separate entry for staff, the high-ceiling galleries are at odds with the permanent collection of works on paper, and lighting in the tall spaces are an “extreme challenge.” The loading docks require that art be moved through galleries and the primary loading dock is uncovered. The building is disconnected from the park perimeter.

Ban, the principal, remarked that it was a shame that the facade of the 1937 WPA-built Museum of Fine Arts was hidden in a gallery instead of being open to the park. Unlike the other firms, Shiguru Ban presented conceptual drawings of a future Arts Center  with a timber truss entryway to a new atrium incorporating the 1937 facade, passageways to a central core, a lightweight second story over the museum school, and a tower to a rooftop cafe that could remain open when the Arts Center is closed.


Ban also suggested lowering the ceilings in the galleries (which I predict will never happen. The drawings need intimate spaces yes, but the temporary exhibits need the taller walls). Moreland assured Kumpuris that “great design,” the opening to the park and programming would bring people to the Arts Center from the River Market district.

Thomas Phifer and Partners of New York designed classrooms and a bridge connector for the Clemson School of Architecture, the North Carolina Museum of Art, Glenstone Museum in Potomac, Md., a gallery in the Corning Museum of Glass, the Warsaw Art Museum and Theater and the New York City Velodrome, among other projects. Presenters Gabriel Smith, Katie Bennett and Adam Ruffin all grew up in the South — Bennett is a native Arkansan. They did not bring conceptual drawings because they said it wasn’t appropriate; they want to meet with stakeholders first, and “learn your values.” They listed known priorities as connectivity, to keep the doors open while work is ongoing, to design to the budget, design “architecture that works” and “bring reality to the project.” They said Herman’s estimates of $250 to $275 a square foot for renovation and $400 a square foot for new construction was par — “but just barely” — for the region.

Smith said a centralized entry, understandable circulation from space to space (“it’s very difficult for a visitor to understand” the layout now) and a stand alone expansion would give the renovated Arts Center a new identity, as defined by the community. The Phifer group also advocated for “unearthing” the 1937 building.

To Kumpuris question about synergy with the River Market district, Smith said perhaps a vertical element could be added, a “beacon.” But, like the other firms, Phifer’s architects said that “powerful architecture” would provide a “psychological presence” that would be felt elsewhere.

Herman noted that the architectural details of the North Carolina Museum and Glenstone are “turned in” to the buildings, and wondered how Phifer would “present a welcoming facade.” Smith laughed, and said, yes, some of their projects “have a surprise on the inside.” But he cited the Clemson project as an example of an open building and cited the importance of landscaping to bring people in. Committee member Bobby Tucker said it was important to him that Ninth Street be the entrance, but, as Smith asked, does that mean you drop people off and then drive around to the parking lots?

allied works, of Portland and New York, designed the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, the National Music Centre of Canada in Calgary, the Museum of Arts and Design in New York and the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, among others. “We don’t have a style,” founding principal Brad Cloepfil told the audience. “We try to discover the possible … this one will take some time.” He said it will be necessary to “define the life of this institution” now and in the future through client engagement and meeting with stakeholders and the community. “I know you want a beautiful piece of architecture. … Let’s get this right.”

Cloepfil said the firm would “embed” itself in Little Rock, sending Mountain Home native and Allied Works architect Chris Brown back home. He said the renovation should reflect the scale of the city and engage the park. The design should “be the amplifier of” the Arts Center’s three main areas of focus and programming. Another addition, he said, would “add to the chaos,” and that there would be “no easy answer” to solving the Arts Center’s many design drawbacks.

Kumpuris said the city has an “identity problem,” and wanted to welcome the neighborhood and other entities to the Arts Center. “Are you up to that task?” he asked Cloepfil. The architect said iconic architecture alone is not the answer — he called the Daniel Liebeskind’s angular expansion of the Denver Art Museum a failure — but what goes inside. The Clyfford Still Museum is a “box hidden by trees,” but the experience of the museum is the draw. Still, the Arts Center is “introverted,” and a landscaping bridge to the street would soften its edges. “You should feel like you’ve entered the museum when you step into the park.” Like Studio Gang after him, Cloepfil referred to the low-slung and spare Louisiana Museum in Denmark, considered a masterpiece in 1950s Danish design.

Cloepfil said the firm would use create a “digital interface,” which he defined as “beyond a website,” to engage and communicate with the community and offer transparency about the process.


Studio Gang of Chicago and New York, the designers of the Writers Theater in Glencoe, Ill., and the Aqua Tower in Chicago, has been selected to design the Gilder Center at the American Museum of Natural History. Its principal, Jeanne Gang, a MacArthur Fellow, praised the multifaceted programming of the Arts Center and said the challenges of renovation it presents are exciting. “Everything we see is very closed,” Gang said, with a perimeter that is 95 percent wall. “The design starts inside out.”  She pointed to the Writers Theater as an example of open design, with a glass walled performance space and cladding of wooden ribbing on the second floor.

Sketches showing an entrance off the semi-circular drive on Ninth Street, a main inner passage on a north-south axis, and a sculpture garden leading to a re-landscaped pond suggested how the Arts Center could take advantage of MacArthur Park. She noted the firm’s lake renovation for the Lincoln Park Zoo, creating a natural space “where animals come voluntarily.”

“You have all the landscaping you could ever want … that’s a good way to stretch the budget.” The  park offers a way for Arts Center programming to “spill outward” and make the mission more visible.

“Museums are also community centers” rather than places for the elite, Gang said. “The only thing wrong [here] is the facility is getting in the way.”