“If you think you know all of the answers when you start a project and present a design, you aren’t thinking hard enough,” says Thomas Phifer, FAIA, speaking about the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, N.Y. “Over the life of a project, you begin to learn more and more to understand what might be appropriate.”
Phifer unveils his final design for the $64 million, 100,000-square-foot project on Wednesday morning, and with it, his vision for a campus whose architectural pedigree includes works by Harrison & Abramowitz, Gunnar Birkerts, Smith-Miller+Hawkinson, and Bohlin Cywinski Jackson.
An initial design for the project was released in June of last year, which showed a new glass-fin and white aluminum-clad north wing that would house 26,000 square feet of new gallery space to showcase some of the institution’s collection of more than 40,000 objects that represent 3,500 years’ worth of glass-making history. The size of this building has remained the same, but the exterior treatment has changed dramatically. “We began to think of a much simpler approach that would be more powerful, and that was this idea of a glass display case, a vitrine that would get very quietly slipped over, so that it would frame the contemporary art on the inside and have a heightened presence there on the lawn,” Phifer says. “How absolutely simple and powerful could you make that idea?”
Reducing that notion to “its bare essence,” as Phifer puts it, the final design replaces the white aluminum with glass panels—measuring 10.5 feet wide by 21 feet tall—separated by thin joints. A sheet interlayer renders the glass pure white. Six windows around the building offer views out onto the campus, including a 150-foot-long vision window onto the restored campus green. This glazing is covered in a screen print of white dots. “I think it says that this is where the contemporary life lives here on this campus,” Phifer says of the new scheme.
Inside, the space is divided into “porch” areas that allow for views out to the surrounding campus, and galleries, where the only light is from skylights. Phifer says that this is because “side light is the worst light for glass”—the material that makes up the majority of the museum’s collection. “It’s also the worst light for sculpture. It makes your retina kind of go crazy.” The galleries themselves are designed to display all of the art on the floor or in vitrines in the middle of the room, with no hanging space on the walls. “I think the most important part of the design are these very special rooms without corners that are kind of cloudlike,” Phifer says.
The concrete gallery walls are now more curvilinear than in the initial design, which Phifer characterizes as having had “more straight walls that were curved at the corners.” Extensive modeling over the intervening months resulted in a final design where each gallery has its own character. “By making it even more fluid, it began to speak to the softness there that we were trying to achieve,” Phifer says. “When Corning came to us, they wanted to build this building for contemporary art, and contemporary art is getting bigger and bigger. I think the scale of these spaces will allow Corning to deal with contemporary art in whatever size and scale the museum decides to collect."
One thing each gallery does have in common is the treatment of the ceiling, which is a series of infinitesimally thin precast concrete beams (3.5 inches wide by 4 feet tall) that line the ceiling plane, concealing artificial lighting systems for use at night as well as smoke detectors and sprinklers. These beams filter natural daylight from a skylight system, creating a dappled effect that allows top light to pour into the spaces. No stranger to integrating natural light into his projects—it is central to his design philosophy —Phifer has created daylit galleries before, including at the new facility he designed for the North Carolina Museum of Art, which opened in 2010. But while the project in Raleigh, N.C., used scrims to filter the light, in Corning, “there are no tricks up there,” Phifer says, “just the type of glass that we are using.”
Working with Arup, Phifer’s team determined that the skylight glass had to have a color index of 97 percent or higher so as not to render green or blue. During the summer months, he estimates that the gallery spaces will receive as many as 450 foot candles of natural light on the floor; in the winter, closer to 130. “Glass looks extraordinary in top light,” Phifer says of the collections that will be on display. “That was one of the secrets of glass that we discovered.” The top light will illuminate the collection in custom-designed displays, which are designed to be made from very thin glass guards, measuring merely 1/16 of an inch. “We wanted for the display and the room to disappear so that the art would just float in the room,” Phifer says.
But the new north wing is not the only part of the project under Phifer’s purview. Also underway is the renovation of the former Steuben Glass Factory building and Robertson Ventilator that sits adjacent to the site for the new structure. “Once you see the contemporary works in the gallery, you will then move into a space where contemporary glass is being made,” Phifer says. The building, which dates to 1951, is being stripped down to its original structure. “We’re recladding it a 2013 skin,” Phifer says, noting that it needed insulation to fend off the upstate New York winters. The new skin will be a “very, very black metal,” Phifer says, which will contrast with the white glass of the new museum wing. Inside, a 500-person demonstration area, with retractable banks of seating, is being inserted into the building to allow visitors a 360-degree view of the glassblowing demonstrations.
Construction on the project is well underway, having broken ground in June 2012. The concrete super-structure is currently being poured, and Phifer estimates that the precast concrete beams that form the gallery ceilings will be installed at the end of this year, and the glass façade panels will be erected in the first quarter of 2014. The museum is still on target to open late next year.
“It’s a very, very quick project,” Phifer says. “For an architect, it’s rare to get this type of instant gratification.”