Tacoma Art Museum: The artistic design behind Haub Family Galleries

When the Tacoma Art Museum celebrates the completion of its $15.5 million, 16,000-square-foot museum expansion and grand opening of the Haub Family Galleries this weekend, much attention will be focused on the Western American paintings and sculptures that comprise the inaugural exhibition.

In total, Erivan and Helga Haub and their family donated nearly 300 pieces of art dating back to circa-1800 by artists such as E. Martin Hennings, Georgia O’Keeffe, Tom Lovell, and John Clymer (among others). The Haub Family Collection represents the single largest gift in the museum’s history.

Perhaps equally as interesting is the new wing itself. Designed by Olson Kundig Architects, the low-slung addition has many unique building features, such as 16-feet-wide-by-17-feet-tall sliding sun screens. The manually-operated hand-wheel allows museum staff to control the amount of light that enters the building, yet still allow passersby to glimpse inside the galleries.

“Certainly the building is a key part of the story,” said Tacoma Art Museum Executive Director Stephanie Stebich during a preview tour this week. “It is architecture in the service of art. We really asked for a transparent building where you could see the city and its activity, and make the collection available for people walking down the street. The Haub Collection should be quite familiar and a part of their lives.”

Another feature: a new entry experience that includes a 30-foot-tall canopy, as well as entry spaces that blend the new wing with the existing museum.

During the tour this week, Olson Kundig Architects Design Principle Tom Kundig described some of the thinking behind the new museum expansion. His comments, which have been edited and condensed for publication, are included here.

ON DESIGN IDEAS BEHIND THE NEW HAUB FAMILY GALLERIES

What began to recur in my mind was that the project was mostly about what we called ‘intersections.’ I mean, here we are downtown and there is a major intersection. You have Sound Transit coming through here. You have the Prairie Line, which was just finished through the University of Washington Tacoma. Also, you have the intersection of two buildings at this point—a collection that is very carefully, very coherently dedicated to Western Art, and the existing Tacoma Art Museum that already is in place and carefully curated. Those two pieces coming together—that is the intersection that is really fascinating. The original building was designed by Antoine Predock, a terrific architect out of Arizona. We were asked to bring in something to his project—which he did with an earlier board and an earlier director—and marry those two together in a coherent way. It’s a pretty fascinating intersection between the two.

What is important about intersections is that moment where the two parts and pieces come together. That is where we have tried to locate and enhance the entry experience for people coming to the Tacoma Art Museum. That’s our lobby. That’s the city living room. That’s the gathering place. That’s the place where everybody comes together. That’s the intersection. And then everything sort of radiates off of that.

ON THE UNIQUE HAND-WHEEL AND SLIDING SUN SCREEN FEATURES

The device is a system that makes this building as transparent as possible to the street. The big issue in museums is always how to bring the public through the threshold. There is always some resistance to entering a museum. Once people are in the museum, of course, they have a wonderful time.

So how do you expose the inside to the outside?

Well, there is a problem with that because when you expose the inside to the outside you are actually exposing the outside to the inside, which involves solar issues and conservation issues that museums are always dealing with if they are working with works on paper or any other fragile materials.

This device actually does both. It’s intended to be opened during the night. It glows during the night and you can see what is happening in the gallery. During the day, we can actually draw some of these shading devices and still have some transparency between the outside and the inside.

I certainly grew up amongst the barns and fences of the great American West. There is some reference to the way these horizontally break out and let the light filter into the space. Those are intended to be somewhat the memories of how farmers would mitigate or control light coming into the barn. You didn’t have a grid. You couldn’t switch on the light. You had to somehow use the natural light and bring it inside. That’s why they left little gaps in the barns. Also, it’s manually operated. That’s a reference to the old barn doors and the old box cars, which were literally operated by hand because, again, there was no grid back in the early days of the West. Our ancestors would always use their brains rather than their brawn, and use levers, pulleys, screws, counterweights, and all those devices where you use natural forces to move big, heavy things under your own power. It’s intended to sort of recall some of that history.

To read the Tacoma Daily Index’s complete and comprehensive coverage of the Tacoma Art Museum’s expansion project, click on the following links:

Todd Matthews is editor of the Tacoma Daily Index, an award-winning journalist, and author of A Reporter At Large: A decade of Tacoma interviews, feature articles, and photographs. His journalism is collected online at wahmee.com.