Architect Michael Bongiorno on DesignGroup’s New Wing at the Columbus Museum of Art

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In a world dominated by international firms delivering projects across the globe, it is refreshing to see a project by a local architect with intimate knowledge of a site’s context and cultural history. This is the strength of Michael Bongiorno, architect at DesignGroup and the brains behind the renovation and extension of the Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio.

The new addition opened in October, and Bongiorno spoke to Architizer about the challenges of the design brief, the impact of the project on the cultural heritage of the region, and the development of his design from conception to completion. This is how a contemporary cultural building is formed …

Architizer: Can you provide a backgrounder on the existing building and how this informed and influenced the design of the new East Wing?

Michael Bongiorno: The historic, 1931 Elizabeth M. and Richard M. Ross Building was designed in the Renaissance Revival style and modeled, rather directly, upon the Freer Gallery in Washington, D.C. The basic organization of both the Freer and the Ross Building is a circulation loop along which a series of formal galleries encircle a central court that is bisected by a central circulation axis. The central court at CMA, “Derby Court,” once an outdoor space, is now a glass-roofed event space.

A 1972 addition to the north has been repurposed as part of the new work but does not serve as a reference point for the new wing. Materially, the exterior of the Ross Building is defined by buff Indiana limestone with bronze entries, window grilles, and light fixtures. Recognizing that the Ross Building is a beloved community icon, the new addition maintains the visual integrity of the original building exterior to the greatest degree possible. By offsetting the new wing from the Ross Building via a light-filled concourse, we interiorized the entire eastern exterior of the Ross Building — making it part of the visitor experience.

The addition has a very different, but complementary, design [than] the Ross Building [has]: minimalist in form but complementary in material. We deployed context-specific, time-honored materials in new ways: buff Indiana limestone with a decidedly horizontal emphasis defines a majority of wall surfaces, while the pre-patinated copper cladding of the upper gallery references the bronze (a copper alloy) features of the Ross Building. By acknowledging that the beloved Ross Building is a historic jewel, and that the new wing is a minimalist setting for it, shaped specifically by CMA’s new vision and mission, we hoped to highlight its beauty.

A: As a Columbus-based architect, can you speak to the significance of this project, both for the CMA and the city as a whole?

MB: The project represents an enormous leap for both CMA and Columbus. For CMA, it is an opportunity to manifest their vision to be more visible, relevant, and connected to the community — serving as a meeting point between art, the public, and the physical city. Obviously, a significant part of that vision is, and will continue to be, Museum programming. But the missing piece has been a type of responsive, not inherited, space that captures the imagination of their visitors both current and potential.

As a result, this project brings both innovative programming and innovative space in complete alignment. For Columbus, a progressive, “smart and open” city, increasing the visibility and relevance of our cultural institutions as a whole is a collective aspiration that we all share. The design of the building and site, while local in its genesis and sensitivity, aspires to be international in sensibility, quality, and impact that will serve as a high watermark for provocative, locally produced design.

A: Museums have become increasingly regarded as social, if not altogether public, spaces. To what degree does the CMA address or reflect this shift?

MB: The project design is driven significantly, at a mission level, by the shift you note. CMA is part of a vanguard among art institutions that [focuses] not only on art, but also on visitors and their social experiences through art and with each other. It was the Museum’s clearly stated intent to create a place where barriers between the community and the collection are removed, where people from all walks of life could come to just “hang out.” Bigger, livelier, more experiential spaces, while highlighting the collection, intensify social interactions and make elbow room for innovative programming and events. You can see this in a few key areas.

The entry atrium is a highly active collector space that serves as not only an entry and ticketing point, but also as a hub connecting a variety of functions to encourage spontaneous interaction. The retail store, café, and sculpture garden, while still providing interaction with parts of the collection, are all pre-ticket functions located at, and accessed from, prominent public locations. The garden, in fact, serves as a public park open to all during museum operations.

The galleries themselves were designed as ultra-simple blank slates that the Museum can transform over time to adapt to whatever interactive programming, exhibition, or interpretive moments the Museum can imagine. Additionally, and unlike the Ross Building, new spaces were designed to be outward- more than inward-looking — connecting the Museum interior to the surrounding physical city and the physical city to the Museum interior. The net effect is a blurring of boundaries between what can be thought of as “private” Museum spaces and the public realm.

For more images and information on this and other projects by DesignGroup, check out the firm’s profile on Architizer.

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