“On a bad day, I feel like we’re a glorified laundry service,” said Leslie Paisley, standing in Stone Hill Center’s paper conservation lab, “because we’re cleaning, pressing, and mending.” Salvaging prints and drawings from the ravages of time is notoriously slavish work. But this wasn’t a bad day for Paisley, who heads the paper department for Stone Hill’s main tenant, the Williamstown Art Conservation Center. Not a bad day at all. Paisley and her dozen colleagues were settling into a remarkable new space that—with its opening on June 21—has pulled art’s scullerywork out of the cellar and onto the global architectural map.
Designed by Tadao Ando, Stone Hill isn’t your typical new museum building. Set into a steep slope up a winding footpath in Williamstown, Massachusetts, it sits amid enveloping stands of birch, beech, and sugar maples. When you reach this mountain redoubt—the latest addition to the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute—you’ll find no soaring atrium, no signature reflecting pool (though one of those is coming in the next phase of the Clark’s expansion). What you will find is a lavishly appointed, $25 million, art-sudsing laundromat.
Though it does sport a cafe, classroom, and lovely galleries—with white oak floors and windows that open onto the woods—Stone Hill’s showpiece lies elsewhere, in the main painting conservation lab. There, with work stations flanked by elephant-trunk-like vacuum tubes, a wall of glass washes conservators with northern light. On a recent visit, two monumental Arshile Gorky paintings were set opposite that wall. Refugees from the Newark International Airport, they had once been blotted out with 14 coats of house paint. Inch by inch, conservators were stripping away decades-old sludge to reach the mother lode: Gorky’s original 1937 brushstrokes. The building was designed, Ando said, to give its occupants the same natural light under which such canvases were first created. Gorky, I’m sure, never had it quite this good.
In today’s age of mega-museums, the center’s varnish spray booths, vacuum hot tables, and assorted studios give the place a refreshingly workaday feel. (How many trophy buildings can claim, at their core, a lead-lined x-ray room? Top that, Daniel Libeskind.) Credit Gensler, the project’s architect of record, for knitting together the 32,000-square-foot building around a generously proportioned, 24-by-24-foot module, with a geothermal heating and cooling system.
True, conservators can mainly be glimpsed toiling through glass from the building’s exterior terraces. But as compensation, Stone Hill’s natural setting can be lived in the full. The center’s two-story form is pierced by a dramatic diagonal wall, drawing it into the landscape. (During an interview, Ando seemed bowled over less by his own handiwork than the surrounding Berkshires scenery. “I feel like I’m in Switzerland,” he joked.) Working from a campus master plan by Cooper, Robertson & Partners, landscape architects Reed Hilderbrand Associates have restored Stone Hill’s site—once a grazing field—to a tall-grass meadow, so that the building slowly unfolds from the hillside. The effect is heightened by Ando’s trademark concrete walls, formed here with acid-etched pine boards that leave a wood-grained imprint as a trace of the treeline beyond.
Stone Hill’s debut bodes well for the Clark’s canny ambition as an art destination (one that’s either in the heart of western Massachusetts or the middle of nowhere, depending on your mode of transportation). An Ando-designed second phase, due for completion in 2013, will reshape the main campus around a reflecting pool (fitted out for public ice-skating in winter) and add new visitor, conference, and exhibition facilities. Meanwhile, New York–based Selldorf Architects will renovate the Clark’s original building and its Pietro Belluschi–designed Manton Research Center (1973), giving the tired galleries and research rooms a much-needed revamp. As if that weren’t enough, New York firm WORK Architecture Company is designing new gallery and storage space for the Clark at the MASS MoCA complex in nearby North Adams, where there may be hope yet for the Clark’s long-suffering archivists: That sprawling former factory would seem another fine excuse to bring the back-of-house to light.