Ever since Corning Glass Works, now Corning Incorporated, established itself in its namesake town in upstate New York 164 years ago, glass has been the economic, cultural, and artistic lifeblood of the rural hamlet. When the Corning Museum of Glass opened in 1951, the mystique of glass extended well beyond residents of the picturesque region. Last year, annual attendance at the continually expanding museum (the original Wallace Harrison building was added onto by Gunnar Birkerts in 1980 and Smith-Miller + Hawkinson in 2001) rose to 440,000—almost comparable to the annual number of visitors at the St. Louis Art Museum, for instance, in a city whose population is 30 times that of Corning's.
The new wing's one-story, 26,000-square-foot gallery space—the largest in the world devoted to the exhibition of contemporary glass art—features softly curving concrete walls encased within a crisp, seamless glazed vitrine. Its innovative design, where glass panels transition from rainscreen to window, maximizes glass size to create a skin with very few joints. Overhead, impossibly thin concrete joists look delicate but support the vast steel and glass roof (see sidebar). While mimicking the qualities of glass, these strategic building elements also cater to its display.
Although horizontal light hitting a glass plane makes it appear dark, according to Phifer, daylight pouring in from between those slender roof joists “brings it to life.” Recalls the architect, “We learned fairly quickly that glass art is not harmed by daylight. We were doing a very different museum here.” Phifer's office worked with Arup to modulate daylight within the space, which, on average features 200 to 300 footcandles when combined with fixed electric illumination, and on a particularly sunny summer day can reach as high as 500 footcandles. (By comparison, galleries that exhibit paintings are usually kept at around 30 footcandles.)
And, unlike paintings that hang on a wall, the large, contemporary glass artworks on display, 117 in all, mostly sit on the floor or are suspended from the rafters above. This gave Phifer the freedom to design those sinuous concrete walls, 20 feet high and cast in place. The overall effect is that of a cloud, where the colorful glass objects stand out against the muted background—surfaces blur into each other, and specks of sunlight passing through an occasional transparent skylight panel travel across them.
Financed entirely by Corning Incorporated, the new wing features the company's famous Gorilla Glass, which composes the ultrathin barriers surrounding all of the large-scale sculptures and installations. The damage-resistant and optically pure glass—found in 2.7 billion cellphones, tablets, notebooks, and other devices—is being used for the first time in this capacity. “It's the kind of material that just vanishes because it's so clear and thin,” says Phifer.
The experience of the new wing is vastly different from the rest of the galleries, where glass objects from earlier eras are exhibited in dimly lit rooms, and exterior glass walls are covered by curtains. “It was the ethos of the time to keep galleries darker,” says Tina Oldknow, senior curator of modern and contemporary glass. The new wing is located on the north end of the completely connected complex and immediately adjacent to the main admissions lobby, where guests arriving by car enter. (Bus groups enter on the opposite end of the lower level.) Visitors—who, museum research has found, are overwhelmingly drawn to contemporary works—are encouraged to start in the new structure and then finish the loop through the other buildings. “Reading the end of the book first works for us here,” explains Oldknow.
Along the way, visitors will also pass through the ventilator building of the former Steuben Glass factory, designed by Harrison in the 1950s and renovated by Phifer to accommodate retractable seating for 500 for glassblowing demonstrations and glass-design sessions. The rest of Phifer's 100,000-square-foot project—which at $64 million is fairly economical for a museum building despite its groundbreaking envelope and structure—includes office space below the gallery and a boardroom overlooking it.
The Contemporary Art + Design Wing may be the most recent among Corning's collection of modern glass buildings—and Tom Phifer the latest in its roster of high-profile architects—but it is not destined to be the last. Just as a spirit of invention drives the Fortune 500 company, Corning's enlightened patronage of both art and architecture will surely continue to shape the small town it calls home.
Set in Concrete
Encased in glass, the gallery space of the new Contemporary Art + Design Wing at the Corning Museum of Glass is defined by its stunning structural elements. Liberated from the requisite straight walls for displaying paintings and works on paper, architect Thomas Phifer introduced curving concrete interior walls early in the design process. Within them would sit the large sculptural glass art from the museum's permanent collection, top-lit by daylight streaming in from the mostly glass roof.
Structural engineer Guy Nordenson, who had also worked with Smith-Miller + Hawkinson on the previous museum renovation and addition, suggested a series of deep beams that would both filter daylight in and hold up the roof. Inspired by Sverre Fehn's Nordic Pavilion at the Venice Biennale (1962), where transparent roof elements are suspended between similarly slender rafters, Nordenson's solution features 3½-inch-wide and 4-foot-deep precast concrete joists positioned 3 feet, 2½ inches apart. The spacing was calibrated based on input from daylighting consultant Arup. “We had to strike a balance so that enough light came through to illuminate the works, while managing glare and overall brightness,” says Arup associate Matt Franks.
Almost all of the 200-plus high-strength beams, composed of 10,000 psi concrete, have a unique geometry, given their varying spans (between 6 and 55 feet) and connections to the irregular serpentine walls. Fabricating those elements was a challenge. Quebec-based Béton Préfabriqué du Lac (BPDL), whose product can be seen in projects as diverse as the new Yankee Stadium and the new Whitney Museum of Art, was the only precaster willing to take it on. “Typically, just one face of a precast element needs to look good,” says Guy Bouchard, BPDL project manager. “Here, three sides are visible,” not to mention prominently featured in the pristine gallery space. BPDL used a single mold for the different shapes, pouring the concrete vertically over 1½-inch-thick steel rebar for a smooth finish all around.
The challenge for Nordenson's office was predicting the behavior of those beams, since the standard methods for determining the resistance of steel, aluminum, and timber structural elements do not extend to reinforced-concrete beams. “Calculating how well these beams would support the loads without buckling was made much more complicated, because concrete will crack,” explains Nordenson. A system of thin steel purlins runs perpendicularly over the top of the precast roof joists to provide lateral bracing.
While glass lies at the heart of all things at the Corning Museum, in this case, the concrete skeleton plays an equally important, and highly visible, role. JM
Personnel in architect's firm who should receive special credit:
MEP and Fire Protection Engineer:
Civil Engineer and LEED Consultant:
Daylighting and Lighting:
Acoustical and Audio Video Design:
100,000 square feet
Manufacturer of any structural components unique to this project:
Metal Panels (on North of Connector Building):
Metal Panels (on West Elevation of Gallery Building):
Metal Standing Seam Solid & Perforated Panels (on Amphitheater Hot Shop and West Connector):
Custom Glass and Aluminum Rain Screen and Cladding System (Gallery Building):
Metal/glass curtain wall (on replacement curtain wall systems at existing interfaces):
Rain Screen Wall:
Precast concrete roof joists:
Other cladding unique to this project:
Exterior Wall Insulation:
Interior Boardroom Window Glass:
Insulated-panel or plastic glazing:
Cabinetwork and custom woodwork:
Paints and stains:
Custom Interior Metal Perforated Plates at Gallery Portals:
Gallery Interior Metal Panels and Custom Extrusions:
Interior Gallery Wall Plaster:
Floor and wall tile:
Gallery floor grilles:
Gallery concrete flooring:
Gallery Custom Casework:
Gallery Custom Casework Glass:
Dimming System or other lighting controls:
Other unique products that contribute to sustainability: