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Remake/ Remodel

A Pre-Opening Stroll Through the Walters Art Museum's Reborn Centre Street Building

Light For All: A four story atrium opens up the Walters' Brutalist front.

By Mike Giuliano | Posted 10/17/2001

Major events prompt us to invoke biblical expressions, and so perhaps the world-opening "let there be light" can be applied to the reopening of the Walters Art Museum's Centre Street Building. From the sunlight in the new atrium entrance to the sophisticated gallery lighting that literally puts the spotlight on the museum's treasures, the revamp, opening Oct. 20, is all about light.

Linked to the previously renovated Charles Street Building and that building's adjacent Hackerman House, the Centre Street Building had long housed the bulk of the museum collection and yet was itself bulky, cold (often literally), and unloved. Constructed in 1974 in a briefly fashionable architectural style known as Brutalism, it was a concrete tomb for art. From an installational standpoint, the gallery floor plans tended to be awkward. From a crowd-circulation standpoint, walking up the tucked-away, all-concrete, enclosed stairwell seemed like the ascent you'd make in a public-housing high rise. And from a climate-control standpoint--well, there wasn't much climate control in the drafty structure.

A three-year, $24 million renovation has largely reconstructed the 1974 building's interior. As Walters executive director Gary Vikan said at a recent press preview, "All we had was a concrete shell and we built it back up from that." The building's exterior remains basically the same, but the new entrance helps soften the brutal facade.

Although the Centre Street entrance is at the same location as before, it's otherwise a whole new experience. There's now that four-story, glass-walled atrium, serving as a connection between life on the street and life inside the museum. Daylight fills what doubtless will prove to be a popular agora, and at night the brightly illuminated, 59-foot-high opening is a cultural beacon on Centre Street. The atrium also contains a hanging staircase connecting the second, third, and fourth floors. When Walters' publicity material boasts about taking visitors through five millennia of art history, you can sense how that stairway leads you from the ancient world up to the 19th century.

The overall mood in the atrium is one of openness. There's also a sense that classical and contemporary stylistic vocabularies can happily co-exist. Limestone flooring and pink granite steps are among the traditional-seeming elements, while sleekly crafted, blond wood ticketing and visitor-services counters are among the modern touches that wouldn't seem out of place in a Scandinavian furniture showroom. There's an understated theatricality in this space, and in that regard it indicates how the collection within has been highlighted. Just off the lobby is a new café whose stone-vaulted appearance will make it seem like you're dining in a distant era; on the other side of the café is a new museum store that's twice the size of the old store. Unfortunately, the adjacent special exhibition galleries retain the same configuration as before--narrow enough to make some shows seem cramped.

Fortunately, that's not a problem with the inaugural exhibit in the reopened building. "Desire and Devotion: Art from India, Nepal, and Tibet in the John and Berthe Ford Collection" contains many beautiful objects that these Baltimore-based collectors are giving to the Walters when the exhibit concludes a national tour. Most of these items are small to mid-sized and thus fit comfortably into the special exhibition galleries.

Another disappointment is the Graham Auditorium, around which the special exhibition galleries are arranged in a semi-circular sequence. The seat covers and carpeting are new, but the auditorium still seems like a multipurpose hall that isn't great for any single purpose. The too-small stage lacks any sort of backstage space; sightlines in the hall are generally poor.

In the atrium, the most disturbing problem is that the distinctive hanging staircase begins not in the first floor lobby, but overhead at the second-floor level. Visitors begin their tour of the Centre Street Building's portion of the permanent collection by taking either an elevator or the 1974 building's old enclosed stairway, which has been retained. (The elevator and that stairway also lead down to a lower-level family activity center.)

The concept here was to have a clean break between admission, orientation, creature comforts, special exhibits, and events on the first floor and the permanent collection on the upper floors. But it would make more sense to have the hanging staircase not hang so literally, but instead descend to the ground level, where it could take visitors upstairs in grander fashion.

However you get upstairs, the second floor is worth the ascent. Devoted to the ancient world, this floor's lobby area includes a handsome mosaic map by Baltimore artist Rick Shelley identifying many of the regions you'll be exploring inside the galleries.

A pair of stone statues of the lioness-headed goddess Sekhmet, on loan from the British Museum, provide a dramatic entrance to the galleries themselves. Pass between these two statues and some accompanying temple-gateway-related pieces and you know you're heading back to ancient Egypt. It's a dramatic--and dramatically lit--trip. As Vikan says, "Light is what makes it work, and absence of light is just as important as its presence."

As you travel through Egypt and then on to Greece, Rome, and several other destinations, you'll be struck by how the brilliant lighting design calls your attention to individual objects and also to thematic connections between objects. You'll linger before a large marble statue of a Roman emperor, watching the play of light and shadow across his toga; ooh and aah before a glittering display of ancient jewelry; feel right at home in the invitingly lit room where a Roman banquet couch beckons; and contemplate eternity in a gallery whose Roman marble sarcophagi are intricately carved exercises in visual storytelling.

Moving up to the third floor, you'll be struck by an installational layout for the medieval collection that amounts to a curatorial assertion that different religions can live peacefully in close proximity. Orthodox icons from Byzantine, Russian, and Ethiopian societies mingle in the main gallery; doorways encourage you to wander into surrounding galleries where Roman Catholicism and Islam are represented.

Highlights on the third floor include the celebrated Rubens Vase, a 4th-century Byzantine vase carved from a single piece of agate that's showcased in all its beautifully lit, honey-hued splendor, and a simulated early 16th-century Knight's Hall, whose boar-hunt-themed tapestry, elk-antler chandelier, and suit of armor will make you feel like the lord of the manor.

A small portion of the fourth floor contains an exhibit of 19th-century art, but otherwise this floor remains closed until its renovation is completed in the spring. Not that you'll need that as an excuse to come back to the Walters.

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