As an institution and a building, the Phoenix Art Museum is the result of distinct interventions over half a century. Originally designed in the 1950s by Frank Lloyd Wright apprentices Alden B. Dow and Blaine Drake, the museum was completed in 1959 as part of the Phoenix Civic Center complex that also housed the Phoenix Little Theater and the Phoenix Central Public Library. Located at the northeast corner of Central Avenue, the city’s most important north/south artery, and McDowell Road, the Civic Center originally consisted of three low, horizontal, stucco-faced modern buildings (one for each institution) connected by ramadas and grouped around a series of landscaped courtyards. These main buildings framed a large central courtyard with the library occupying the south side of the complex parallel to McDowell Road, the art museum to the northwest on Central Avenue and the theater to the northeast at the rear of the site. In 1965, Dow and Drake nearly tripled the size of the art museum (to 72,000 square feet) with a new wing that included a sculpture courtyard, the Singer auditorium, and galleries dedicated to Western art.
During the city’s period of rapid growth in the 1990s, the Phoenix Central Library was relocated two blocks south to the present Burton Barr Central Library building, providing the opportunity to expand the art museum yet again, this time with funds partially provided by a voter-approved municipal bond. After an international search, the museum hired New York–based Tod Williams and Billie Tsien Architects to provide a comprehensive expansion plan and a new branding identity for what had emerged as one of the leading cultural institutions in the Southwest. This was essential because, while Dow and Drake’s original buildings from the early 1950s and 1960s were simple, well-designed structures, the museum had no significant institutional presence on Central Avenue since it was isolated in the center of the site and surrounded by parking lots.
The Williams and Tsien addition, completed in 1996, combined some of the existing buildings into a new and unified scheme focused on the creation of a new entrance on the west facade intended to open the museum to Central Avenue. This public entrance is composed of two large, textured masses gently sloping toward the center. The two walls of precast modulated panels are finished with a subtle aggregate of green quartzite that echoes the local sagebrush and palo verde trees from the region and is bridged by a polished stainless steel portico that reinforces the entrance and the urban orientation of the institution. The south wing houses an impressive gallery hall that also serves as a gathering space during openings and special events. A palette of warm materials characterizes the space. Its floors have Yukon Silver limestone and three large exposed trusses running the long span of the gallery. The hall acts as a hinge connecting the central courtyard, the new galleries, and a large auditorium in the museum’s southwestern corner.
To the north, interweaving gallery spaces link the old building and the new, interacting with the garden at the core of the block and the former library. The bridge, ramps, lofts, and openings provide a controlled labyrinth of visual connections, providing visitors with different light conditions and casual episodes experienced as the body moves though a sequence of interventions in time and space.
By 2006, the museum concluded that it needed a more direct entrance from the parking lot on the north side of the site. This led to another major expansion, also designed by Williams and Tsien, which produced an enlarged and unified complex, totaling 280,500 square feet. The new project shifted the museum entrance to the northwest, giving more relevance to the central patio, now a true gathering space at the core of the complex. Galleries and other facilities and storage spaces nearly doubled in size. The new entrance, oriented towards the northern parking areas, provides a more sequential but still casual approach. A 40-foot-long, cantilevered canopy marks the entrance, creating a welcoming transitional space between the parking lot, the garden, and fountain outside, while also protecting the glazed, spacious lobby from the desert’s strong western light. Eschewing conventional monumentality, this scheme has bolder, more cosmopolitan design elements than the subtle localizing references of the earlier Williams and Tsien intervention. Visitors move through a sequence of compressed and expansive spaces, from the opened up entrance to a narrow and elongated space composed by slightly slanted walls leading to the more intimate spaces of the original Dow and Drake building. From there, the progression continues to the former Central Avenue entrance, the central patio (and eventually the grand hall), up to the modern galleries via a poured-in–place gray concrete staircase. Visitors then move north to the new galleries of contemporary art. Here, a sculpted cantilevered staircase gives a general view of the different spaces in the new addition.
As the art museum grew to occupy the western half of the site, most of the original civic center buildings were replaced. The library building, for example, was demolished when Central Library relocated. Other midcentury components were retained and woven into the new complex, including the original Little Theater. In 1996 Williams and Tsien, in collaboration with the DLR Group in Phoenix, transformed this structure, keeping some original structural and decorative components visible in the facade. In 2006, a new building known as the Phoenix Theater opened with significantly enhanced accessibility and services; it occupies much of the eastern half of the site.
Relying on the local and low-tech with respect to building technology, tectonics, and (inexpensive) materials, Williams and Tsien created a multilayered museum building, rich in spatial experiences. They have given form to an institution that seeks to reflect on the physical growth of the city of Phoenix and the cultural aspiration of its citizens.
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