All Eyes on Akron Art Museum

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It's not quite the funhouse architecture of Frank Gehry's building on the Case campus. But the new addition of the Akron Art Museum set to open in July is the first building in the United States designed by the Austrian firm Coop Himmelb(l)au. Founders Helmut Swiczinsky and Wolf Prix have designed notable buildings around the world including the Vienna Gasometer apartments and the UFA Cinema in Dresden. One writer referred to Prix as a "Starchitect." Akron Museum Director Mitchell Kahan says their local project is creating a buzz in design and architecture circles.

Mitchell Kahan: I know the KSU students are going, 'I can't believe it's going to happen right near our school.'

It'll be the first art museum in Akron built as such. The others were former libraries or car showrooms. The present red brick Italianate building, which will remain, is a former post office. Kahan says the new structure is a far cry from the old idea of fortress museums. It will serve more as a community cultural center.

Mitchell Kahan: The design of the building is intended to say to the visitor, 'Wow, this is really an exciting place.' This is a 21st century city, this is a 21st century institution. This is about the new relationship of art museums to the public.

It'll be the first art museum in North America with radiant heat and cooling. Consultants had to come from other countries to help with many of the construction details not seen before in this country.

Workers are now enclosing glass panels at the entrance, which is called a crystal lobby. Inside, you can see a tornado-shaped pillar that is common to many of Coop Himmelb(l)au designs. But the most notable element is the 300-foot long cross that sits on top the building. It's called a roof cloud, or a wing with one arm outstretched over the roof of the old museum. Principle architect Wolf Prix.

Wolf Prix: The roof reaches out into the main street so people can see there is something new behind the old museum. If you come from down in the city, you will see the wing over the art museum and maybe it makes you curious what happens there.

Prix calls Akron a very intelligent city that deals with new science so he wanted to mix art and science with a structurally sophisticated wing. It appears to float above the building.

Wolf Prix: You have to know I'm an architect, but I hate columns. Because columns are always showing the gravity, and gravity we should overcome as architects like in the Gothic times when they built the cathedrals. So this wing's enormous wide span only has one column. The other columns are not columns because they hold the wing in place because the wing tries to fly away like an airplane wing.

Cincinnati and Toledo have new art museums and Akron's Mitchell Kahan believes Ohio will attract some architectural tourists to see them.

Mitchell Kahan: Smaller institutions, like small cities, can take risks, can be innovative, can be more creative than large cities. That's the reason, if you look across Ohio, we have built in the past 15 years many of the greatest cultural institutions in the country in terms of new thinking about design, function, and architecture and you don't see that in New York City.

So, what if Akronites don't like the strange angles and glass wall of their new $38 million museum? Architect Wolf Prix says that's okay with him.

Wolf Prix: As long as he remembers it. I would love if people give it a nickname, this building, because then it's in the memory and this is very important, yeah?

Prix says in a world of anonymous architecture he hopes this museum will become a sign of new self confidence in the people of Akron. Coop Himmelb(l)au means both skyscraper and blue sky. Already Akronites are looking up. The so-called the roof cloud hovering above the museum is now lit up with dark blue lights at nighttime.

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