September 27, 2007

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Publisher's Note: The Frankensteined museum
By†Jody Reese

The Currier Museumís $20 million renovations are nearly complete; unfortunately the renovations are a complete architectural disaster.

The Currier Museum of Art in Manchester is New Hampshireís premiere museum, built in 1929, designed as an Italian palazzo to neatly fit into a neighborhood of historic New England homes and religious and civic buildings. The Ash Street School, a beautiful example of Second Empire architecture, is located a block away (to be fair, so is a 7-Eleven convenience store).

The problem with the 30,000-square-foot addition to the Currier isnít that it wonít work well as museum space. Iím sure it will. The problem is that the new building is entirely out of place in its residential neighborhood and is a Frankensteinian mix of architectural styles. (Full disclosure: Though I donít live in sight of the Currier, I do live in this neighborhood, on one of the streets of New England farmhouses and Victorian-style buildings that so starkly clash with this blocky new structure.)

The building now towers over the neighborhood, butting up against the street. The wide south-facing steps are gone as are the large trees that helped the building blend into the neighborhood. The warm facade of the yellow brick has been replaced by large brown tiles that clash with the Victorian flourishes of the surrounding buildings. On the drawings from Ann Beha Architects, the design firm, the renovated Currier is seen as a building standing alone, as if it were the only building in the neighborhood, which is clearly how it was designed.

Adding to this sense of distortion, the Currier placed a 35-foot industrial sculpture at the north end of the building that seems more appropriate for a corporate business park. The piece even towers over the Currierís north entrance and is surrounded by uniform trees that donít play well against the sculptureís asymmetrical bright traffic-cone- orange steel tripod legs (really, what could?).

In addition to the appearance of the traffic-cone-colored sculpture, the north entranceís Italian columns have been replaced by a bus-terminal-glass-style exterior that clashes with the Spanish tile roof just above it.

However, itís not the north entrance that really sinks this work; itís the brownish gray tiles that cover the south cube of the addition, giving that part of the museum the look of a medical manufacturing plant. Utilitarian, sure, but pretty, no.

So why does it matter that the Currier doesnít fit into the neighborhood or that itís a jarring architectural mishmash of more than 200 years of style and seems to cause me personal pain every time I drive by it?

Great buildings make great cities. Manchester has seen its share of blunders ó Wall Street Tower, the filling in of the canals and the destruction of the train station. Itís a shame that the Currier will join this list.

Institutions are judged on their buildings. Like cities, museums are viewed and remembered, at least in part, by how they look to outsiders. While the design of the Currier may have been driven by how good the space will look from the inside, thatís not how the rest of the city will see it. And thatís too bad. Because the Currier is a real asset to New Hampshire and it should be seen as such.