The Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, is known for its famed roster of teachers and students—Ray and Charles Eames, Florence Knoll, and Harry Bertoia among many—who helped to define art and design for decades. But it is also renowned for the masterful campus planning and architecture by Eliel Saarinen. Inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement, the Academy’s founder, publisher George Booth, enlisted Saarinen to design an arts community—complete with studios, classrooms, workshops, a library, and art museum—that would foster craft, the intense study of the arts, and a spirit of discovery.
Additions to the campus have been few and judicious over the years. But the school’s art collection had grown to more than 6,000 pieces, with much of it stored in the lower level of the Art Museum’s gallery space. Its 70-year-old mechanical system put the collection at risk and limited the ability to lend and receive art from other institutions. With a $22 million budget, the Detroit office of SmithGroupJJR was engaged to renovate the museum and design a new building to serve as archival space.
“I gained tremendous respect for Saarinen,” says SmithGroupJJR project designer Paul Urbanek, FAIA, of the restoration process. “His knowledge of how the space would function is incredible.” Urbanek points to Saarinen’s innovative plaster coffered-ceiling lighting, which creates a soft glow perfect for a museum environment, as well as his inventive hanging gallery walls, framed in rift-cut white oak, that protect the artwork by mediating the temperature of the exterior wall.
Collections Wing is a new attraction
While the renovation has beautifully restored the art museum to its original 1942 splendor, the new 31,200-square-foot Collections Wing has become an attraction itself. It provides rare access to thousands of pieces of fine art, furniture, prints, paintings, and sculpture, while recapturing Saarinen’s genius for materials, detail, function, and transition that is so evident throughout the Cranbrook campus.
The Collections Wing addition is composed of three stepped-back rectangular volumes that decrease in width and height as they recede from the Art Museum. SmithGroupJJR’s goal was to “be respectful of Saarinen while creating a dialog with the museum and the neighboring Studios Building [designed by Rafael Moneo and opened in 2002],” says Urbanek.
The east façade is clad in the same red brick as the Moneo building. Details are minimal. The brick is punctuated by a solitary low projecting window with steel surrounds that echoes similar windows in the Moneo building. Here, the red brick meets a strip of richer glazed brown brick that corresponds to the art museum and wraps around from the west façade. A zinc-clad steel service area enclosure at the northeast corner references lead-coated copper panels also from the Studios Building.
It’s in the interiors of the Collections Wing with its finely crafted details and transitional moments where Saarinen’s presence is felt most, however. “Saarinen was fascinated with thresholds and doorways, creating over 300 door designs on the campus,” says Reed Kroloff, director of the Cranbrook Academy of Art and Art Museum. SmithGroupJJR seized the opportunity to explore these themes in the new addition. The entrance to the Collections Wing itself is through a striking curved stainless steel door at the museum’s lower level. Without visible hardware, it appears to be a wall panel until it dramatically slides open to the Collections Wing.
SmithGroupJJR used utilitarian concrete masonry unit blocks, but gave the blocks a powdery finish and recessed joints for a refined effect. In contrast to the uniform grey concrete, surprising details await at every turn. Each threshold opening is elegantly framed in galvanized steel, and no two doors are alike. Some are mahogany while others are metal, but all are richly articulated with custom stainless steel hardware in the spirit of the school’s Arts and Crafts legacy. And, especially in the case of the 20-foot-long sliding mahogany door, they accentuate the moment of crossing.
A new teaching model
It’s no coincidence that doors are to be pushed or pulled—the Collections Wing is about participation. “We realized we had an opportunity to create more than just a storage facility, that we could create a new model where we could be actively teaching,” says Greg Wittkopp, director of the Art Museum. To that end, the program includes a seminar room, and the different collections are housed in vaults expressly designed to be explored. Sliding metal racks reveal prints and paintings, a glass enclosure displays the ceramics collection, and the 8,000-square-foot main vault on the top floor is a veritable attic filled with the history of 20th century Modern furniture design.
Wittkopp feels the environment creates a very different mindset for the visitor. “The experience is still mediated [as in the Art Museum], but you are not seeing an isolated object that someone has decided you should be looking at,” Wittkopp said. “Instantly everyone gets to be in the role of the curator.”
Key Design Highlights
- Saarinen’s museum building was renovated with extra attention to lighting and upgraded mechanical systems.
- A climate-controlled Collections Wing remedies previous storage space that lacked adequate controls and hampered the museum’s ability to borrow and lend art.
- Honoring Saarinen’s fascination with thresholds and doorways, the new Collections Wing features doors that are each unique with custom hardware.
- The new Collections Wing is accessed through a sliding steel door, located on the lower level of the Art Museum, which appears as a wallpanel until it dramatically slides open.
Cranbrook Art Museum
Architect and designer SmithGroupJJR
Client Cranbrook Academy of Art and Art Museum
Where Bloomfield Hills, Michigan
What 31,200 total square feet on three floors