The Water Court at the Pavilions. Photograph by Iwan Baan.

The Glenstone Museum’s New Pavilions Combine Art with Nature

A new cluster of galleries at this private museum in Maryland opened in early October.

by Michael Webb
Nov 15 2018, 6:00pm

The Water Court at the Pavilions. Photograph by Iwan Baan.

Hidden among the bombastic megamansions of Potomac, Maryland, is Glenstone, a 230-acre estate where the architecture is an organic part of the landscape. In the early 2000s, Mitchell and Emily Wei Rales commissioned the late Charles Gwathmey to design a private museum for their burgeoning collection of contemporary art. Encouraged by the response, they selected the New York architecture firm Thomas Phifer and Partners to create the Pavilions, a cluster of galleries offering a unique experience of art and nature, which opened to the public in early October.

Visitors park on tree-shaded gravel, and pick up their timed passes in the wood-lined Arrivals Hall. From here, it’s a ten-minute walk through an idyllic landscape to the Pavilions. “You leave the world behind,” says Phifer. “With every step, everyday distractions drop away.” Pale gray cubes, windowless and enigmatic, emerge from a bluff, as though a giant had scattered building blocks among the wild grasses. A walkway looks down on Michael Heizer’s Compression Line (1968/2016), a sharply incised void that is one of several major art works scattered around the estate.

The approach to the Pavilions, a new cluster of galleries at the museum. Photograph by Iwan Baan.

At the entry pavilion, one descends to a lower level, where galleries enclosed within the cubes line a glass-walled concourse wrapped around a water court. Immediately, the visitors—no more than 400 a day, Thursday through Sunday—are immersed in a contemplative experience. Each gallery is slightly different in size, and many were tailored to specific art works on long-term display. Phifer was inspired by the oculus that lights the Pantheon in Rome and the skylights of Sir John Soane’s Dulwich Art Gallery in London; his building pulls in light from above through clerestories or filtered glass apertures in the roofs. One room is open to the sky. As the architect explains, “By taking natural light from high up, it has a long way to fall and begins to even out and wash the walls.” The quality of light changes through the day and the seasons, so that one is constantly aware of the natural world beyond the walls.

Cast concrete blocks—each of which is six feet-long, one foot-wide, and one foot-deep—are stacked to form these walls. They are smooth to the touch and subtly varied in tone. Their angles play off the square and rectangular ceiling openings to achieve a complex play of geometries: a minimalist art work as rewarding as a room of Donald Judd’s steel boxes at Marfa or Dia:Beacon. Their mass contrasts with the expansive glazing and the alternation of light and shadow—a reminder that the museum is embedded in the land.

Passage in the Pavilions. Photograph by Iwan Baan.

The water court, planted with waterlilies, irises and rushes, was conceived as a liquid version of the raked sand garden of Ryoan-ji in Kyoto. In both, the walls cut off the horizon to direct one’s gaze to the ever-changing sky, or the stillness of an artificial landscape. On the day I was there, it began to rain, the drops animating the still surface and conjuring the misty character of a Japanese print. Each gallery opens out of the concourse, and Phifer likens the sequence to that of Louisiana, an art museum near Copenhagen, where the separate rooms are linked by a passage looking out to the garden. At the midpoint of the Glenstone circuit, a sensually curved wood bench by Martin Puryear is set before a window that frames a panorama of the estate, which resembles a huge landscape painting. It’s a place to pause, stare out, or browse a catalogue from the shelf behind.

The Water Court at the Pavilions.

The Raleses' estate was formerly a farm, and the Pavilions occupy the site where the barns stood. Adam Greenspan of PWP Landscape Architecture has enhanced the grounds to create an idealized version of the natural world, planting trees, restoring meadows, and threading gravel paths through this earthly paradise to link the alfresco artworks, two cafés, and Gwathmey’s original gallery. The landscape serves as connective tissue, mediating between the art and architecture, and becoming an integral part of the visitors’ experience.

How different this is from big city museums, where it is sometimes hard to see the art for the press of bodies, and the iconic works are snapped as frantically as a red carpet celebrity. Museums have become the cathedrals of a secular age, a gathering place for the faithful, and an obligatory stop on the tourist circuit—especially to eat, shop, and take selfies. Even the best architects have been defeated by the scale of these institutions. New York’s Museum of Modern Art is doubling in size for the third time in 50 years, and it now has all the appeal of an air terminal. The Louvre Pyramid is a vast shopping mall, and the Tate Modern concourse can be as crowded as the Tube. In Amsterdam, the Van Gogh Museum has acquired a soaring lobby to absorb the throng, but the paintings have disappeared behind a serried mass of heads. An hour away, near Arnhem, is the Kröller-Müller Museum, a tranquil retreat in a nature preserve, where I communed with some equally fine Van Goghs for a quarter hour before the next visitor arrived.

Large and small, both kinds serve important roles. Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim spurred the regeneration of Bilbao and is an emblem of civic pride. Robert Irwin encouraged the architect to create interior spaces that would challenge artists and curators, as does Frank Lloyd Wright’s rotunda in New York. Unfortunately, the “Bilbao effect” encouraged other cities to indulge in architectural excess, wrongly assuming that if they built it, everyone would come. At their best, big museums anchor their communities, help to educate kids and their parents, and host a diversity of arts events. Visiting the Met, the National Galleries of Washington DC and London, or the Prado in Madrid is a celebration of humanity and its legacy. But, for the connoisseur, nothing beats the experience of Glenstone, and a few other jewels where the experience is unhurried, uncrowded, and holistic.

The boardwalk at Glenstone. Photograph by Iwan Baan.
Tony Smith, “Smug.” Photograph by Iwan Baan.
Another passage in the Pavilions. Photograph by Iwan Baan.
An installation of works by Eva Hesse and Richard Serra. Photograph by Ron Amstutz.
An aerial view of the Pavilions. Photograph by Iwan Baan.
A gallery at the Pavilions.
A design detail at the Pavilions.
Martin Puryear’s bench commands a panoramic view of the estate.
glenstone museum
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