KULAPAT YANTRASAST, AND HIS FIRM WHY ARCHITECTURE, USE WHAT THEY CALL “ARCHITECTURAL ACUPUNCTURE” TO TRANSFORM KENTUCKY’S SPEED ART MUSEUM
THE WAVE OF MUSEUM EXPANSIONS of the last decade and a half has slowed. Museums are still being renovated and expanded, of course, but new trophy buildings now come in small handfuls rather than in what seemed like droves. So it is somewhat startling to see a bold new building that both respects and transforms a nearly ninety-year-old encyclopedic collection. Designed by Los Angeles and New York–based firm wHY Architecture, the new building at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky, deftly reconciles the desire for a striking contemporary design with the museum’s historic building, all while providing a satisfying place to view art.
As a Louisville native I visited the Speed throughout my youth. It was an important part of my visual education. But a series of renovations and expansions over the decades had rendered the museum complex disjointed, with confusing circulation, and wings in a jumble of architectural styles from neoclassical to modern to postmodern. In 2009 wHY and the museum’s leadership embarked on a seven-year journey to rethink the institution as well as its identity and role in the city.
Founded by Kulapat Yantrasast, wHY Architecture keeps a relatively low profile, but the firm is well known in the art and museum worlds and has been building a strong portfolio of cultural projects, including new and renovated museum buildings, commercial galleries, and a new home for Pomona College’s studio art department with a curved, sculptural roof that extends over several pavilionlike buildings. (The somewhat inscrutable name evolved as the firm matured and morphed from the two-person “workshop”—thus the “w”—of Yoichiro Hakomori and Yantrasast to its current incarnation as “an ecology of disciplines.”)
Early in his career Yantrasast worked for the Pritzker Prize–winning Japanese master Tadao Ando, and still helps oversee Ando’s projects in the U.S., including the recent expansion of the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Yantrasast’s first major freestanding cultural project—the Grand Rapids Art Museum, an elegant composition of massive concrete planes framing views of the city and the serene minimalist landscape, completed in 2007— bears the mark of his years with Ando. The building was the first sustainably certified art museum in the United States, and it helped bring green building into the cultural sector.
At the Speed the lasting influence of Ando on Yantrasast is present (the concrete work is muscular but beautifully executed and begs to be touched), but the building is a confident expression of Yantrasast’s expanded formal language and diversified material palette. It is a marker of his evolution and maturation as a significant architect in his own right.
Located on the Belknap Campus of the University of Louisville (the museum is independent of the school) along a network of Frederick Law Olmsted– designed parks and parkways, the building has a commanding presence on South Third Street. Stacked and shifted volumes define the building’s massing. Its exterior is sheathed in fritted glass and folded aluminum panels in a subtle champagne color, both of which appear to change according to light conditions throughout the day and in different seasons. Yantrasast said that the folded panels, which are oriented vertically so that rain will keep them clean, are meant to evoke the classical moldings of the original building. A monumental interior staircase, visible from the outside through a fritted glass wall, looks out over a terrace with a large Henry Moore sculpture and a reflecting pool.
On the inside, most of the circulation is pushed to the perimeter of the building, emphasizing views out to the campus. The galleries, which are dedicated to modern and contemporary art, are largely windowless, creating a focused viewing experience. A second large terrace offers more campus views, allowing the visitor to have a variety of moments indoors and out. Curators can also use the terrace as a space to show art.
“The new building needed to be dynamic. By shifting the masses, you could lighten up the building and give opportunities to engage with the exterior and the campus landscape,” Yantrasast says.
Most important, however, is how he married the old and new buildings to create a spatially distinct but unified whole. He calls his approach here “architectural acupuncture.” He says, “I stopped in Louisville on my way to New York to interview for the Speed job, because I wanted to be able to speak about the museum intelligently. I knew I couldn’t just add another thing on the side and just add to a collection of things. The old building felt congested—it needed clarity—so I thought of this idea of architectural acupuncture. To try to open up the old and add the new through a series of precise interventions.”
Yantrasast connected his new building to the old museum with a pinwheel-like plan. David Chipperfield used a similar idea for his extension to the Saint Louis Art Museum; but where Chipperfield’s building is set back from its Beaux-Arts predecessor, Yantrasast pushed his addition forward. Yantrasast’s more assertive approach gives the much smaller Speed Museum a more prominent presence on the street and the campus, and a bolder identity in the city at large. It also signals greater ambitions on the part of the museum, which, though it has the largest collection in the state, is dwarfed by the museums in Cincinnati and Indianapolis.
The debate between the merits of recessive and assertive museum architecture has played out in building projects across the country and around the world, and it has proven particularly challenging for encyclopedic collections. Here, too, wHY has succeeded, clarifying the original building, designed by the prominent Louisville architect Arthur Loomis and completed in 1927. “The measure of success is how the two buildings relate,” Yantrasast says.
On the ground level he connected to Loomis’s neoclassical building with a glass bridge that crosses over a newly excavated, sunken courtyard that allows a sense of lightness and openness to pervade the formerly cramped-feeling underground galleries. (The below-grade courtyard also contains the expanded educational facilities, lockers, and a stroller parking area. This area for small children is close by the serene galleries, but discreetly separated from them by sliding glass doors.) “Throughout the building, we tried to create spaces where people can gather or be alone, so that no one’s experience is compromised,” Yantrasast says.
Yantrasast cleared away most of the accretions on the Loomis building, but kept portions of an addition to the rear and repurposed some of the space to create a new film center called Speed Cinema. The film center is close to the university’s main library, and should serve as a magnet to bring more students into the building, a goal of the museum. Overall the spaces are lighter, and the completely rehung collection feels both richer and more comprehensive than ever before (perhaps most surprisingly, the holdings of early Kentucky art and decorative arts resonate and fascinate in ways they never have before).
The ambitious curators at the Speed, who have recently made significant acquisitions in modern and contemporary art, now have a flexible and elegant facility with which to engage the public in new ways. wHY’s decisive and holistic approach has helped the institution grow with intelligence and sensitivity, and has strengthened the Speed’s identity.
“I worked on this project for seven years, so it’s been very satisfying to see that people really appreciate how the old and new now come together,” Yantrasast says. “I have been really surprised how many people—civic leaders, people from outside the museum world—keep telling me they think it’s ‘world class,’ that’s the term they use. I think it has set a standard that I like to see.”