After graduation last May, I decided to break free of Boston and the northeast for the summer and resettle myself somewhere completely new for a change. Megan and I ended up in Atlanta due to the influence of our good friend Bobby, a native Georgian and frequent booster of all things ATL. Convinced that we could at the very least meet new types of people and understand life in this country from a different perspective, we decamped in the heart of Atlanta’s thriving Midtown neighborhood for nearly three months, subletting a spacious old apartment on Juniper St. from some Georgia Tech students who had relocated to California for the summer.
Our location in Midtown and proximity to the Highlands and Little Five Points placed us strategically among the most vibrant of Atlanta’s residents. The neighborhood’s identity as a leading arts district for the southwestern U.S. is summarily expressed by the Woodruff Arts Center, a collection of museums and theaters that run along Peachtree St. NE and constitute the inner city’s most architecturally significant area. Anchoring this cultural district is the High Museum of Art, a complex of several buildings whose centerpiece is the 135,000 square foot, Richard Meier-designed museum which opened in 1983. In August when my ATL days were numbered, I made the short journey up Peachtree by bike to check out the city’s leading cultural institution and admire Richard Meier’s pristinely white artifices under a blistering summer sky.
Richard Meier is an avowedly rationalist architect whose design aesthetic springs directly from the stripped down functionality popularized by modernist forebears such as LeCorbusier and Mies. Known particularly for his purely white geometries and familiarity with the art museum typology, in the past three decades Meier has garnered commissions for civic and cultural buildings throughout the world, with the Getty Villa in Los Angeles arguably being the most well known among them.
The High Museum predates the Getty by a few years, and began its life as the Atlanta Art Association in 1905. In 1926 the High family, who had been major donors to the Art Association, donated their home on Peachtree St. to house the group’s growing art collection, which eventually moved into a separately constructed museum building in 1955. By the late 1970s, as Atlanta was growing in population, economic vitality, and cultural significance, the High Museum saw it necessary to expand their facilities to adequately reflect the city’s growing importance as the unofficial capital of the southeastern United States. With $20 million to cover the cost of the new building, the High Museum’s fundraising efforts were matched by a $7.9 million grant from who else but the president of the Coca-Cola company, Robert Woodruff.
I imagine that the trickiest part of designing a museum is figuring out how the building’s tectonic form will communicate with the two and three dimensional artworks inside of them. While traditional museum design has encouraged visitors to enjoy the spectacle of the architecture as much the art, in some recent projects like Sanaa‘s New Museum on the Bowery, architects have taken deliberate steps to simplify their compositions and try to focus visitor’s attention away from the buildings themselves and back onto the exhibitions housed within. In the case of the New Museum, the designers were working in a highly dense urban context with long-established artistic bona fides. Such was not the case for the High in Atlanta.
Meier understood the High Museum’s importance as a cultural focal point for Atlanta, developing his design as “a series of architectonic responses to context in the broadest sense, understood to include not only functional, programmatic, and typological concerns, but also the physical, social, and historical context of the city”. Recognizing the site’s unique location in a pedestrian-oriented section of a notoriously sprawling metropolis, Meier began with a simple parti of four quadrants or cubes. One of these cubes is carved out to distinguish itself from the other three and form the monumentally glazed quarter-circle atrium, with four levels of ascending ramps acting as the circulatory crux of the whole composition. This grand atrium is oriented towards Peachtree St. and connected to its sidewalk by a long ramp that diagonally bisects a verdant front lawn.
Although most visitors ascend this triumphant ramp and begin their exploration of the High in the grand atrium, I actually entered through a courtyard off to the right side, through the more recent Renzo Piano additions. The most remarkable aspect of Piano’s portions of the museum are the qualities of light created by his spherically coffered ceiling planes, found in the new lobby as well as the top floor of the additional galleries. These ping-pong ball negatives glow softly with indirect daylight and cast the galleries in an even and natural light, ideal for art viewing and preservation. Piano’s circular coffers at the High are a less explicit but more elegant solution to light diffusion than is found in his recently opened addition to the Art Institute of Chicago, where rows of tilted white blades rest simply atop a trussed glass ceiling to block strong southern rays from entering the gallery spaces.
While natural light plays an indirect role in Piano’s new galleries and lobby spaces, it is front and center in Meier’s spectacular quarter-circle atrium. Stepping into the ground floor of this space and viewing the stacked ramps immediately evokes the continuously spiraling ramp of Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York. Meier deliberately sought to reinterpret the virtues of the Guggenheim while avoiding its excesses, namely the fact that circulation and gallery functions are not separated in Wright’s design and that those continuously curving walls, while beautiful, are famously difficult for hanging paintings.
Separating gallery and circulation functions, Meier’s atrium is almost completely free of artwork, serving instead as a reverent gathering space directly lit from above. The natural light that pours through this glass ceiling falls over a radial arrangement of structural beams and smaller mullions, casting the atrium’s white walls in an intricate play of light and shadow that changes with the sun’s position throughout the day. The walls that define gallery edges are clearly supported by a regular post and lintel system, but project into the atrium at irregular angles and distances, affording those on the ramps a constantly shifting perspective into the exhibition spaces and artwork.
When the museum first opened in 1983, its design was a huge step towards putting Atlanta on the American cultural map, and was praised by architecture press as “undeniably a jewel and Meier’s finest work to date”. Considering that Richard Meier won the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s highest honor, just a year later, this glowing assessment appears to be accurate. Although it has since expanded and Meier has gone on to better known and grander museum commissions, the High Museum continues to be a major draw for admirers of art and architecture alike, with a monumentally modern building and grand atrium forming the definitive base for Atlanta’s growing artistic caché.