New Wing at Corning Museum of Glass Invites the Light
By ALEXANDRA LANGEMARCH 12, 2015
CORNING, N.Y. — The first thing the architect Thomas Phifer did after being awarded the commission for the Corning Museum of Glass’s new 100,000-square-foot Contemporary Art + Design Wing here was to go back to his downtown Manhattan office and take an Alvar Aalto vase out on Varick Street. Aalto’s Savoy vase — the classic wedding gift for an architect — has thick glass walls that bend and curve, and a footprint that looks a little like a splotch. “It was a really sunny day, and as we looked at that vase in the light, it began to really glow,” Mr. Phifer said. “The more light you pushed into it, the more it glowed.”
Seeking Mr. Aalto’s timeless modernism, Mr. Phifer has been exploring the horizons of glass throughout his 18-year-old practice, exploiting its transparency, reflectivity and indeed the glow. He had been on the Corning museum’s radar since 2003 for his Taghkanic House, a visually delicate pavilion of light and white-painted steel fitting into an Arcadian landscape in the Hudson Valley, recalled Robert Cassetti, senior director for creative services and marketing at the museum. He also admired Mr. Phifer’s North Carolina Museum of Art, a series of aluminum-clad rectangles with 360 oval skylights cast in fiberglass. But could the architect conceive as stunning a plan for the world’s largest show house of contemporary glass art?
Mr. Phifer, whose practice also designed buildings for the Glenstoneprivate art collection in Maryland, was used to dealing with curators afraid of natural light, which can damage paintings and works on paper. The Corning museum, founded in 1951, holds 50,000 glass objects made over the past 3,500 years, telling the entire history of art through a single material. Funded by Corning, the new $64 million wing — which opens March 20 — finally allowed the museum to properly display large-scale works by Roni Horn, Liza Lou, Kiki Smith, Josiah McElheny and Fred Wilson, among others.
“We learned that contemporary glass can take an enormous amount of light and not get damaged,” said Mr. Phifer, whose office worked with engineers to make digital models of the lighting conditions for specific works on every day of the year; they also created physical models in-house that he took out to test in the sunshine.
This combination of high-tech and hands-on making would be repeated over and over in the process of designing, curating and fitting out the wing, which builds on Corning Inc.’s history of innovation, embodied by the museum’s superlative collection of modern glass buildings on its campus by architects from three generations: Harrison & Abramovitz (1951), Gunnar Birkerts (1980) and Smith-Miller + Hawkinson (2001, 2012).
From the outside, Mr. Phifer’s new wing looks like a giant white box, but that simplicity is achieved only through great attention to detail. Its three facades are entirely composed of oversize, almost seamless glass sheets, made opaque with a layer of white or gray silicone sandwiched in the middle. A few carefully placed windows are part of that same smooth surface, achieved by replacing the silicone with a scrim of baked-on white ceramic dots. The dots on the clear windows act like an architectural Instagram filter. “The landscape becomes brightened and heightened and has a slight whitewashing to it,” Mr. Phifer said. “It’s like shaking up a snow globe.”
Mr. Phifer is a tall, dark-haired man dressed all in black, in sharp contrast to his office décor, models and architecture, which are primarily white. He is simultaneously mild and intense, friendly and thoroughly wrapped up in the details and processes required to get architecture just right.
Because glass can take the daylight, he devised a 26,000-square-foot ceiling covered in saw-tooth skylights of clear, opaque and translucent glass. The result is an interior filled with a spalike, almost particulate light. Sun streaking through the clear panes falls in bright diamonds on the pale floors and walls, and the effect, particularly after this long, cold, dark winter, is energizing — and that’s before you see any of the art. Within the rectangular building, each of the five new galleries is a different irregular shape with no right angles. As you walk the wraparound perimeter hallways, you see glimpses of the gemlike pieces through cutouts in the concrete walls.
Corning Inc. did not make glass used on the exterior of the building — the company has never manufactured architectural products — but its marquee product, Gorilla Glass, makes an appearance inside: The tough, thin surface of a billion mobile devices will be used for the first time on all of the display cases and barriers — protecting glass with glass — creating astonishingly thin, clear surrounds.
Gunnar Birkerts’s 1980 Corning museum building was in its time a curving essay in new glass technologies for architecture, paneled in glass rolled over stainless steel. “These galleries were built when all the work was small,” said the museum’s executive director, Karol Wight. “As our understanding and our technical control have improved over the last 50 years, the work got bigger.”
The museum also needed more space: In 2014, it received 440,000 visitors, 20,000 more than the previous year. Over 25 percent are from Asia, brought by tour buses stopping between New York and Niagara Falls. The new 500-seat amphitheater Hot Shop, a 1951 Steuben Glass factory renovated by Mr. Phifer, allows more visitors to experience glass in the making. The museum’s average visit time is four hours, and during the busy summer months, the glassblowing shows include simultaneous translation into Mandarin.
Tina Oldknow, senior curator of modern and contemporary glass, showed Mr. Phifer pieces that would be in the new galleries at the outset of the design process, and these drove architectural decisions. New works by Ms. Horn, Mr. Wilson and Klaus Moje were acquired during construction, to be shown in Corning for the first time. “Once we decided these works should sit on the floor, we began to imagine rooms without corners,” Mr. Phifer said. Entering, he said, “should be like walking into a cloud, with no distractions, allowing the works to levitate.”
The shape of wall cases for smaller pieces was inspired by a white vitrine filled with white glass objects made by Mr. McElheny after famous modern vases and goblets by designers like Josef Hoffmann and Tapio Wirkkala.
One of the museum’s prized acquisitions is Ms. Horn’s glass monolithic sculpture “Untitled,” subtitled with a quotation from Flannery O’Connor (“The peacock likes to sit on gates or fenceposts and allow his tail to hang down,” it begins). It is part of a pioneering series in which Ms. Horn explored large-scale solid casting. The top surfaces of these tub-shaped pieces are untouched by human hand and look like water just about to brim over. Ms. Oldknow is installing “Untitled” in one of the wing’s wraparound hallways to catch changing reflections from the skylights and a window.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are the visually weightless hanging pieces, including the most striking, Lino Tagliapietra’s “Endeavor” (2004), a fleet of 18 boats — or are they a flock of birds? — of different colors and textures skimming the curved wall, made by this native of Murano, an island known for glassblowing, at the age of 70. Javier Perez’s blood red Carroña (2011) looks like it has fallen and smashed on the ground, with taxidermied crows pecking at the remains. Ms. Oldknow describes it as mordant commentary on the declining state of the traditional glass industry in Murano, which makes it “so appropriate for a museum like ours,” which collects the history of glass making.
The Hot Shop, clad in new standing-seam metal paneling, is where Corning’s illustrious collection meets the future: The GlassLab programhas invited contemporary artists and designers to capitalize on the in-house expertise to execute ideas they can’t make themselves. For the opening weekend, the artist brothers Steven and William Ladd are planning a performance, aided by an infestation of glass ants the size of small dogs. In the weeks leading up to the opening, the hot glass staff members were blowing, pinching and assembling ants, working from a sketch the Ladds had sent. “They make little ants out of beads this big,” said Eric Meek, demonstrations supervisor, holding his fingers an inch apart. “Our crew can help them realize their dream. Artists have these crazy ideas, and when we execute it we can see how great it is.”
Correction: March 12, 2015
An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to the new wing of the Corning Museum of Glass. It is called the Contemporary Art + Design Wing — not the North Wing. The article also misstated how many glass objects the museum has. It is 50,000, not 40,000.