Corrections or additions?

This article by Tricia Fagan was prepared for the November 22,

2000

edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Museum Design: Contents Count

As visitors flock to the newly reopened Zimmerli Art

Museum, there’s a chance that one of the newest and largest works

of art will be overlooked. Although buildings influence us in so many

ways, we tend to ignore them unless one (think Guggenheim in Bilbao,

Spain) demands attention. Well the tremendously successful addition

to and renovation of the Zimmerli is its own work of art and well

worth noting.

The firm responsible for the remarkable transformation of the art

museum space is Princeton-based KSS Architects. Now 17 years old,

KSS is a well established firm of 38 employees (including an internal

"Interiors" group), a reputation for excellence and a noted

expertise in college and university-related projects.

That’s none-too-shabby for the three founding principals — Allan

Kehrt, Rafael Sharon, and Michael Shatken — who officially began

the firm on April 15, 1983: Income Tax Day. Originally known as Kehrt,

Sharon, and Shatken, the firm changed its name after Sharon left to

work in a different field. The firm’s first and present office is

tucked in beside Princeton’s favorite pizza parlor, Conte’s.

"We always kid that Ronald Reagan was our other partner,"

says Allan Kehrt. "His economy just started out gangbusters. We

probably wouldn’t have started up otherwise."

The three met while working together at Robert Geddes’ architectural

firm (now named GBQC). It was a firm that they all loved working for,

but the time came when they began considering the possibility of

opening

their own. "It’s a great place and we did good work, but I think

that at a certain point you just say, `Let’s try it ourselves,’"

says Kehrt.

At first the firm worked primarily on residential and retail projects.

Their first academic client was Princeton University, and they were

tapped to create the award-winning Gallery at Mercer County Community

College shortly after. Even the college and university projects

undertaken

in the early years were of a more modest scale. Michael Shatken

explains

that the firm originally sought more intimate projects.

"I think that was another reason we started this firm,"

Shatken

says. "We wanted the tempo of a smaller scale where you get some

more immediate gratification. With Geddes we had been working on

things

that were absolutely enormous, both in content and the time they took

to complete — five, ten years. Ironically," he adds,

"after

17 years, we’re back to where the scale of our projects take two,

three years to complete."

Today, KSS specializes in several project types including college

and university buildings, government, and corporate spaces. They have

a particular expertise in college and university work. In all their

projects they strive to "create good places that are memorable

and that people enjoy."

Pamela Rew is one of three new partners named to the firm as of last

year, and design architect on the Zimmerli project. "Overall,

I’d say that it’s still the types of projects, not the size of

projects

that determines what’s in the office," she explains. "The

firm still has a mix of projects because of the types of clients and

projects which we’re interested in. We’ll still take a small project

for a great client, or an interesting project with a smaller budget,

in order to work on a special gallery or a parish hall."

The partners agree that a motivating factor for the firm is seeking

out new design opportunities in every project. "That’s one of

the reasons we enjoy working within a university environment,"

says Shatken. "Very often businesses tend to be motivated by

purely

financial considerations. Naturally, we also have financial

considerations,

but our choice of projects is motivated by other factors, as well.

We’re very much motivated by enjoyment of design and the quality of

work a project can afford us."

Today, KSS is busy, and variety isn’t an issue. In Princeton, alone,

they are in various stages of development and construction on at least

three projects: renovation and construction for Princeton University

Press on campus, the new Princeton Township building (going up just

across the street from the KSS offices on Witherspoon Street), and

Bloomberg Hall for the physics department at the Institute for

Advanced

Study. The firm was awarded the Bloomberg Hall project through a

blind competition. "This project has an interesting significance

for us," says Shatken. "In a way it serves to close the circle

for KSS, because our design partner on the project was Robert Geddes,

himself."

The firm is also doing a study for a new 75,000-sqare-foot facility

for Rutgers’ Department of Biomedical Engineering on the Busch Campus

in Piscataway. "It’s a really great location," Rew says.

"One

of the nice things about this project is that there is a new master

plan just put in place for Busch Campus, where this building will

be located, and this building will be in the forefront of realizing

that plan." They are also just completing three separate projects

for Richard Stockton College: a new field house, a 240-bed housing

project, and an academic building. Other recent clients include Bryn

Mawr and the Lawrenceville and Westminster Choir College

campuses

of Rider University.

The Zimmerli addition, completed in just under two years, falls into

the category of "larger-scale project," but it has also been

one that offered the architects design challenges and the opportunity

to transform an existing art space. For Rew, who acted as the design

architect on the KSS team (which also included Shatken as

partner-in-charge,

David Zaiser, project manager, and Shanyan Lee who provided overall

coordination as project architect), working on an art museum was

especially

challenging given her undergraduate degree in fine arts. "It was

an great experience to be creating a space for all that wonderful

art," she says.

Rew grew up in Plainfield, the oldest in a family of

six children. Her father was an investment counselor in Manhattan,

her mother, a stay-at-home mom. Rew received her B.A. from Hobart

Williams Smith in Geneva, New York, and her MA in architecture from

the University of Virginia. She and her husband, also an architect,

live in Princeton with their three daughters.

Shatken grew up as the youngest of three children in Livingston, where

his father, a Russian immigrant, had an electrical supply shop. He

attended Washington University in St. Louis, graduating from its

five-year

architectural degree program. He and his wife, an artist, have two

girls and a boy.

"One of the design challenges in this project was the fact that

there is such a diversity of missions for a gallery space,"

Shatken

says. "There’s a whole series of things that you’re trying to

accommodate. The traditional obligation is to create a particular

amount of wall-exhibition space for the exhibitions. Then the Zimmerli

mission went on to include educational functions on the university

level, and social functions — which actually are an equally

important

factor for a community-based museum like the Zimmerli."

Another challenge involved the placement and integration of the new

addition. "The new wing is attached to three buildings," he

says, "and is in close proximity to three others — with a

wide range of architectural styles among them to draw from. Probably

the most difficult aspect of the site is that it is so tight: the

adjacent Physiology Building limited the placement and size of the

new wing and also hinders the view of the new addition’s

exterior."

Finally, both architects agree that the challenge of building an

addition

has its own unique set of design challenges. "Building an addition

— if it is well done — is an extremely difficult

undertaking,"

says Shatken. "The existing building must be thoroughly studied,

measured, and documented so that the new construction can join

seamlessly.

Many aspects of the existing building posed serious problems:

disjointed

circulation, varying floor levels, buried utilities in unexpected

locations, and the overall scale of the addition in relation to the

existing building entrance and lobby."

"From an architect’s perspective," he says, "successfully

designing a museum creates a coexistence of two art forms: the

building’s

architecture and its contents. There’s a longstanding debate between

a museum as a neutral box versus it being an exciting space with

interesting

forms, lighting, and finishes." KSS opted to finish the addition

with a colored, textured concrete floor, painted steel structure and

lighting grids, and great quantities of white wall space. Finishing

touches include accents of wood trim, perforated metal steel, and

glass handrails.

Rew adds that the overall process was enhanced by the vision and

support

of the Zimmerli Museum staff, including museum director Dennis Cate.

In spite of (or perhaps because of) having an enormous agenda to

fulfill

— including development of new exhibition and educational space,

new staff support space, improved circulation, tight budgets —

the museum staff was very helpful in their suggestions and input.

Down the road, the architects would love an opportunity to

"complete"

the Zimmerli by building out into the space that remains between the

new wing and the street (presently occupied by a portion of a parking

lot and a small university-owned house). They agree that the last

critical component in completing the museum’s renovation would be

the creation of a new lobby and entrance. "The lobby remains the

one element of the museum most in need of expansion and

renovation,"

says Shatken. "Any future lobby design really needs to introduce

the entire contents of the museum, and more graciously serve its other

functions."

Shatken is optimistic about future architectural opportunities related

to arts spaces. He notes that in recent years there’s been an

explosion

in architecture in the arts field. The best example, he says, is Frank

Gehry’s spectacular new Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain. "Who would

ever have thought that the Guggenheim would have suddenly begun

opening

lots of other Guggenheims?" he asks; then immediately answers

his own question by noting that author Alvin Toffler did indeed

predict

arts construction as the next development explosion.

So the next time you’re enjoying yourself in a glorious art space

— whether it’s the Zimmerli or some other museum or gallery —

be sure to take a minute to appreciate the architecture. It’s a work

of art.

— Tricia Fagan

KSS Architects LLP, 337 Witherspoon Street,

Princeton,

08542; 609-921-1131. www.kssarch.com


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