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Crystal in the Garden
Thomas Phifer designs new wing for the Corning Museum of Glass in central New York.
Courtesy Thomas Phifer & Partners

With buildings by Wallace Harrison, Gunnar Birkets, and Smith-Miller + Hawkinson, the Corning Museum of Glass boasts an impressive ensemble of glass architecture. A new building by Thomas Phifer and Partners, which includes a reworking of the grounds, aims to give the campus a new clarity and focus. Citing works in glass by artists Dan Graham and Gerhard Richter, Phifer has designed an enigmatic building that seeks to blur, reflect, and engage the landscape, all while creating an ideal interior for viewing art glass.

Phifer has gained a reputation in recent years for taut and refined modernist designs for museums and residences. At Corning, he designed a 100,000-square-foot gallery addition clad in tensioned fins of ultra-thin glass. “I’ve long been engaged in how to connect architecture to its place,” Phifer told AN. “We began with a series of ideas of how we could use glass to blur the distinction with the landscape.” Phifer and his team looked at a variety of glass materials—all manufactured by Corning—before settling on the fins, which are slightly milky and treated with a reflective coating. In addition to the fins, a series of reflective glass panels will frame painterly views of the landscape.

Left to right: The galleries will be lit with natural light; the column-free "porch" overlooking the grounds; The exterior is clad with glass fins.

The landscape itself is sited on the museum’s former bus parking lot, and will be designed by Cambridge, MA-based landscape architects Reed Hilderbrand. “The campus didn’t have a town green,” Phifer said. “It became clear to us that we wanted to create a building in a garden.” The design of the new wing features a more than 170-foot-long column-free “porch,” offering expansive views out to the newly wooded grounds.

View of a large, oval-shaped gallery (left). The curvilinear gallery as seen from above (right).

Inside, a series of galleries with curved walls departs from the rectilinear nature of the exterior. Most of the works will be placed or hung independent of the walls, so the architects were able to deviate from the conventions of white box galleries. The amorphous form is meant to evoke a cloud. The fluid spaces will also encourage more circulation around the objects. Perhaps the most innovative aspect of the interior is the ceiling, which allows dappled natural light to illuminate the objects from above: the optimum light condition for glass. Four-foot-by-three-and-a-half-inch-thick concrete beams, resting on the curved gallery walls, diffuse the light. The ceiling ranges from completely transparent, to translucent, to opaque in a randomized pattern.

Phifer and Partners is also renovating an existing building into a new hot shop and auditorium. The project is scheduled for completion in 2014.

Alan G. Brake