Corrections or additions?
This article by Tricia Fagan was prepared for the November 22,
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
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
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,’"
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
in the early years were of a more modest scale. Michael Shatken
that the firm originally sought more intimate projects.
"I think that was another reason we started this firm,"
says. "We wanted the tempo of a smaller scale where you get some
more immediate gratification. With Geddes we had been working on
that were absolutely enormous, both in content and the time they took
to complete — five, ten years. Ironically," he adds,
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
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
financial considerations. Naturally, we also have financial
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
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,
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.
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
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
David Zaiser, project manager, and Shanyan Lee who provided overall
coordination as project architect), working on an art museum was
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
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,"
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
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
Finally, both architects agree that the challenge of building an
has its own unique set of design challenges. "Building an addition
— if it is well done — is an extremely difficult
says Shatken. "The existing building must be thoroughly studied,
measured, and documented so that the new construction can join
Many aspects of the existing building posed serious problems:
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
architecture and its contents. There’s a longstanding debate between
a museum as a neutral box versus it being an exciting space with
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
Rew adds that the overall process was enhanced by the vision and
of the Zimmerli Museum staff, including museum director Dennis Cate.
In spite of (or perhaps because of) having an enormous agenda to
— 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
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
says Shatken. "Any future lobby design really needs to introduce
the entire contents of the museum, and more graciously serve its other
Shatken is optimistic about future architectural opportunities related
to arts spaces. He notes that in recent years there’s been an
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
lots of other Guggenheims?" he asks; then immediately answers
his own question by noting that author Alvin Toffler did indeed
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
— Tricia Fagan
08542; 609-921-1131. www.kssarch.com
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