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Architectural review of the new Provincetown Art Museum

Published: Sun June 04, 2006
By: Straight Dope in Business > Shops
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By Robert Campbell | Boston Globe

In the case of the new Provincetown Art Museum, which opened on Commercial Street in May, the problem was how to put a big thing in a small place.

How, in the pleasantly tiny streets of this much-loved town, do you shoehorn in a 20,000-square-foot building without letting it dominate?

Twenty thousand square feet is more than a third the area of a football field. Provincetown, by contrast, is something of a toy town. Its streets and buildings are not only small, they feel unplanned. Provincetown looks random and jumbled: a series of happy accidents. That’s why it feels so comfortable, like mismatched old clothes.

Like the town itself, the houses tend to look as if their parts had been assembled rather than designed. Wings, windows, dormers, garages , and decks have been added over the years. The town becomes a collection of architectural bric-a-brac.

The architects of the Art Museum are Jorge Silvetti and Rodolfo Machado, who both teach at Harvard. Lately they’ve won praise nationally for their daring and superb renovation and expansion of the Getty Villa in Los Angeles. They’re also the architects of recent theaters and apartments at the Boston Center for the Arts. Less happily, they designed Harvard’s One Western Avenue housing, so little loved by then-Harvard president Lawrence Summers that he ordered trees planted to screen it from view.

Machado and Silvetti, both of whom vacation in Provincetown, clearly understand the DNA of the place. They get their museum pretty much exactly right. It’s balanced on a tightrope. It’s unafraid to look like the important civic building that it is, but it finds ways not to be grand or imposing.

Games are played to reduce the apparent scale. Tall interior spaces are disguised by a Commercial Street facade that’s divided into three horizontal stripes of different materials. The lowest stripe is mostly glass, so a passing pedestrian can see directly into the museum and view its art. Next to the entrance, though, the glass disappears and is replaced by a concrete wall, the surface of which retains the grain of the wood mold the concrete was poured into. This so-called board-formed concrete, says the architect, ``references wood” without being actually woody. It’s a clue that the museum is seeking to look both like and unlike Provincetown.

The middle stripe is surfaced with wood shingles, like much of Provincetown, but these shingles are custom Spanish cedar, sometimes called Cigar Box Cedar. They’re applied in a rare pattern called Dutch lap, which means they overlap not only top to bottom, like any shingles, but also side to side. The shingles, like the concrete, remind you of Provincetown without quite replicating it. Incidentally, they don’t really keep the weather out. The weatherproof layer is behind them.

The third and top stripe is also Spanish cedar, but it’s not shingles, it’s horizontal strips of wood that seem to wrap the building like a streamline-fashioned radio grille. In a couple of places, they become a louver where they cross in front of a window.

All these materials and textures, and there are others, form a collage like the one an abstract artist might make. Visually, they break a big building into smaller parts. Collaging in architecture—the free-spirited mixing of unlike materials—is a delicate game. Famed modernist Marcel Breuer, who loved to play it, was sometimes dismissed as an `` exterior decorator.”

If the game went just a little further at Provincetown, the museum might bear a fatal resemblance to the sample wall of a salesroom. But it stops short of that. It’s a varied and handsome building. As with these architects’ fine Honan-Allston branch of the Boston Public Library, there’s a clear homage to the work of the 20th-century Finnish master Alvar Aalto, designer of the great Baker Hall dorm at MIT.

Not everything is new. The museum was already here, occupying old and decaying buildings. Some parts were demolished, and some were smoothly merged with the new work. One of those that were retained stands next to the new facade on Commercial Street, thus becoming yet another surface in the collage. It’s a dumb-looking Georgian-style house, with white clapboard walls and nine windows arranged symmetrically around a door. Nothing about its proportions feels right. But the frank contrast of new and old is pleasing, like a father arm in arm with his taller son. ``They express the dual identity” of the old museum and its new additions, says Christine McCarthy, the museum’s director.

Indoors, the museum is a delight. The galleries are high and wide and so arranged that you can take them all in—new ones and old ones—with one looping walk. They’re beautifully lighted from skylights, which face north to avoid direct sun. Their backs, facing south, bear photovoltaic panels. There’s artificial light too, but it automatically dims as daylight increases. The whole building, in fact, is a serious attempt at green architecture. The museum expects a silver LEED rating (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) from the US Green Building Council. A $550,000 grant from the Kresge Foundation, about 10 percent of the museum’s cost, is contingent on achieving that certification.

Besides galleries, there’s a shop, office and workroom space, a classroom and studio for art students, and a pair of outdoor sculpture courts. An enormous new basement is mostly for art storage. For the first time, the museum is climate controlled.

Of normal museum amenities, I missed only a coffee shop, but there’s one right across the street. Perhaps the museum will replace its new front lawn, which is a dorky suburban grass patch that doesn’t belong here, with some pleasant paving and outdoor chairs and tables.

The Provincetown Art Association and Museum, under different names, has been around since 1899. It collects only art by artists who have spent at least some time on the Outer Cape. But that’s an amazingly varied list, including, for example, Milton Avery, Robert Motherwell, Man Ray, Andy Warhol, Red Grooms, and most famously Hans Hofmann, who ran a modernist art school starting in 1934. Works by Wolf Kahn, Nancy Webb, and Penelope Jencks are currently on view. The museum now owns 2,000 works by 600 artists. It runs an accredited year-round art school. In short, it’s a thriving and vital place, worth a visit.

Robert Campbell, the Globe’s architecture critic, can be reached at

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