The Walker Art Center project was the first of many museum commissions that New York–based architect Edward Larrabee Barnes would receive during his long and distinguished career. In May 1971, the new building opened to great critical acclaim and quickly became a national model for museum design. Art critic Hilton Kramer declared, “In meeting its obligation to provide contemporary works of art with exhibition space sympathetically attuned to their qualities, rather than to the architect’s own overbearing vision of what all art should be, Mr. Barnes’ design succeeds where the grandiose ideas of his more famous contemporaries have often failed.” This sentiment was echoed in reactions from others in the art world, including gallery owner Leo Castelli, who remarked, “It is probably the best museum space that we have in the United States.”
Such praise was, in part, due to Barnes’ ability to capture the emergent qualities of the so-called white cube aesthetic that would become the dominant presentation technique for contemporary artworks in galleries and museums. The pristine interiors of the galleries underscored this approach, with expansive white walls, ceilings, and floors. Openness was achieved through the use of precast concrete T-sections that produced column-free spaces with uninterrupted vistas. Design choices were consciously recessive, but not characterless. Variations in ceiling height and gallery proportions as well as the introduction of natural light through a few strategically placed windows and skylights created subtle changes in the environment.
The design’s unique spiral configuration defined the architectural experience of the building. From the outset, Barnes focused on processional movement: “We want the visitor to remember paintings in space, sculpture against sky, and a sense of continuous flow. It is flow more than form that has concerned us. The sequence of spaces must be seductive. There must be a subtle sense of going somewhere, like a river.” The site’s small footprint and extensive requirements (seven galleries, auditorium, restaurant, offices) necessitated a vertical arrangement of spaces. The problem of upward circulation was solved through a helical plan that features a central staircase and elevator with galleries spiraling out in a pinwheel-like fashion. Programmatically, the largest exhibition spaces unfold as a sequence of three galleries forming a U and connected by a short run of wide “waterfall” stairs, which make movement from one space to another fluid and nearly effortless.
Because the compact site did not allow for an outdoor courtyard, Barnes added a series of rooftop terraces that, like the interior, spiral up the structure on three levels. Designed with large-scale sculptures in mind, these platforms provide dramatic backdrops and views of the downtown skyline. Barnes’ design is deceptively simple and subtly complex. From the exterior, the building is clearly defined by a series of cubic volumes that recall the Minimalist sculpture of the era. Its dark, plum-colored brick cladding contrasts with the light, bright interiors. In effect, Barnes created a structure that is both sculpture and pedestal.
His design captured the zeitgeist of the period, providing a sense of place for the Walker’s ambitious programs. Upon completion of the building, he noted, “A museum is not a temple to the donors, or a monument to the architect, or a security vault—in short, it is not a thing in itself. It is part of the fabric of daily life, sharing urban benefits and problems with its neighbors.”
— Andrew Blauvelt, Design Director and Curator
- Hilton Kramer, “Grace, Flexibility, Esthetic Tact,” New York Times, May 30, 1971, sec. 19D.
- Quoted in Peter Blake, “Brick-on-Brick and White-on-White,” Architecture Plus, July/August 1974, 40.
- Edward Larrabee Barnes, Design Quarterly 81 (1971): unpaginated.
Published in Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections (New York: D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, 2005), 116.