Designing for Duke

June 1, 2003

Viñoly: shaping space

 Viñoly: shaping space for "the aspirations for the collection"
Photo: Chris Hildreth


Contemplating Fallingwater, his masterpiece in Mill Run, Pennsylvania, Frank Lloyd Wright said, "I believe a home is much more a home for being a work of art." Is a museum much more a museum for being a work of art? Wright made that case with New York's Guggenheim Museum, which he designed.

Now Duke officials are hoping to draw a similar link between art and architecture, with the Nasher Museum at Duke University. Ray Nasher sparked the project with a $7.5-million commitment. Later the Nasher Foundation donated an additional $2.5 million toward the construction total of $20 million. Construction started last winter.

Model of the new  Nasher Museum

Architect Rafael Viñoly's concept calls for five separate pavilions. Each will house a specific component of the planned museum: the permanent collection from antiquity to the early twentieth century; modern and contemporary art; special exhibitions; the auditorium; and classroom space, along with support services such as a cafÈ, a bookstore, and administrative offices. Those components are all linked by a "great hall," a canopy of flowing glass and steel beams. The overall effect is meant to heighten the relationship between built form and the natural features of the wooded site--the northeast corner of Anderson Street and Duke University Road.

One of the challenges of designing for Duke, Viñoly says, is the fact that he is shaping space for "the aspirations for the collection," as he puts it, as well as for traveling exhibitions, which have become a staple of the museum world. So the Nasher Museum at Duke "essentially is a series of neutral spaces," he says, featuring a flexibility that includes movable partitions and skylights to control natural lighting. "There is no way to look at a piece of art if you are not in a comfortable space and at a proper distance and have proper breathing room between objects." At the same time, his plan acknowledges that museums have become the equivalent, as he says, of a public piazza. "Think of the different ways in which the act of going to see art has changed. That experience isn't the same as it once was. So why should you build a museum as you once would have?"

The museum's prominence as social space doesn't change some principles of museum design, he notes. One of those principles is easy navigation--something that his Duke design celebrates. Confounding the visitor "is one of the few things that are completely unequivocal in architecture," he says. "If you get lost, that's not good."

Viñoly, a native of Uruguay, studied at the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism at the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Shortly after that, he and several associates formed the Estudio de Arquitectura, which has gone on to become one of the largest architectural practices in South America. While pursuing an active architectural practice, he earned a master's degree at the University of Buenos Aires. He later joined the school's faculty.

In 1978, after a military coup in Argentina, Viñoly came to the United States as a guest lecturer, first at Washington University in St. Louis and then at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. He settled permanently in New York City, setting up an independent practice.

Viñoly has worked on other museums--notably, a renovation project for the Queens Museum of Art, one of the landmark buildings of the 1939 World's Fair. As a runner-up in the competition to rebuild the World Trade Center site, his "Think" team imagined two soaring, latticed, scaffolding-like towers that would enclose museums, concert halls, and memorial spaces. New York Times architectural critic Herbert Muschamp wrote of the Think vision, "It transforms our collective memories of the twin towers into a soaring affirmation of American values."

Elevations of the new Nasher Museum

Before that celebrated competition, Viñoly may have been best known for the Tokyo International Forum, a $1.6-billion cultural center with an expansive glass hall and four exhibition spaces, the largest of which seats 5,000 people. He also designed the recently opened Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia, the Princeton University Stadium, and the Samsung Cultural and Education Center in Seoul, Korea.

Defining architecture as "the articulation of public space," Viñoly says it's simplistic to consider a building just in aesthetic terms. "Most of the great artistic products of all time were not based on drama. They were based on ideas," he says. "People try to do with architecture something that architecture is not. You have sculptural components in architecture. But it is not sculpture." So what makes the spiraling design of the Guggenheim work is "the power in shaping and tailoring a particular kind of experience, a sequential promenade that is very clearly organized. In architectural terms, it is a complete invention, this idea of how you might move through a building."

Viñoly says he wasn't interested in designing a museum that would feed into the neo-Gothic look of West Campus: "That's not what we do." He adds, "Quoting is not the same as being deferential. There are so many other ways in which you can acknowledge certain things of quality." For Viñoly, the most remarkable quality about the campus is its natural beauty--which is why he's happy that the museum is situated close to the Sarah P. Duke Gardens, and that the site preserves a large stand of trees.