To those who have visited Provincetown, Massachusetts, it would be hard to imagine a 20,000-square-foot institutional building rising up in the middle of that quaint, New England seaside town. But such a building now exists, and thanks to a thoughtful design by Machado and Silvetti Associates, it fits right in.
Operating from a white clapboard house since 1921, the Provincetown Art Association and Museum (PAAM) has been a longstanding presence on Cape Cod. But ad hoc additions over the years left the museum an architectural collage of disjointed constituent parts. With each addition carrying its own mechanical system, the museum was not only unsightly, but also inefficient. The lack of climate control and leaking roofs discomfited employees and visitors, but more important, prevented the museum from borrowing artwork from other institutions.
When the new executive director Christine McCarthy took over, she decided to finally restore and expand the museum. Her challenge was to commission a large institutional building on a cramped site in a quiet residential section of the small beach community. McCarthy turned to Boston-based Machado and Silvetti, whose principals, Rodolfo Machado and Jorge Silvetti, are longstanding Harvard professors and Provincetown homeowners. The two Argentina-born architects have always been particularly committed to generating specific designs in the context of competing, even polarizing, styles. They set out to navigate a third way, resulting in what the two call “unprecedented realism,” the title of their 1995 monograph edited by K. Michael Hays. In this approach, they acknowledge competing vernacular and formally autonomous precedents, but position their work in the unforged territory in between.
Such a scheme was required for the Provincetown museum. Rather than razing the entire structure, the team salvaged and restored the original house along with two galleries in the back, while tearing down the more derelict add-ons. In a $5 million, two-part process, in 2004 the architects restored the old house so that the museum could mount shows in its exhibition space while the new wing was being built the following year.
Silvetti notes that they “used every buildable square inch of space.” But by manipulating the relationship of solid and void, the architects eliminated what the program suggested would be an urbanistic imposition on the small town. The elevation’s massing is broken up into three horizontal bands. The lower, concrete-and-glass portion is set back from the building’s volume. Tucked beneath the upper two levels, it withdraws from the street, an effect accentuated by the glass walls. On the top level, a boxy glass lantern is pulled up and out from the cedar siding, which amplifies this isolated element as a negative space in relation to the mass.
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