As you inch along the Montauk Highway into Water Mill, your eye barely registers the long, low-slung, more or less identical peak-roofed boxes that nose toward the traffic, offering to satisfy the range of the East End’s needs—garden supplies, custom auto-paint jobs, wine, catered parties, patio furniture. So you might not pay much attention to the newest longhouse on this stretch of road, a plain white shed that stretches out in an open field, showing off its length.
The new Parrish Art Museum is only the second building in the Northeast by Herzog & de Meuron, the Pritzker Prize–winning Swiss architects, and it’s the opposite of the preening extravaganzas that the firm is famous for—the bird’s-nest Olympic stadium in Beijing, for instance. (Their other New York opus is the apartment building at 40 Bond Street, garlanded in lacy graffiti-tag patterns cast in aluminum.) In the past, the firm has housed art behind sumptuous surfaces and kinetic forms. It has coated museums in elaborately patterned copper (the de Young Museum in San Francisco), swaddled them in walls of greenery (the CaixaForum in Madrid), had them levitate alarmingly over public plazas (the Museum of Natural Sciences in Barcelona), and expanded them with crinkly, glittering metal icebergs (the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis). The Parrish, on the other hand, is almost frippery-free. At first glance, it could be an industrial chicken coop. The outer walls are concrete, and the roof is corrugated metal. The architects call the basic form “almost banal,” which is accurate except for the “almost.”
Yet this is no ordinary bit of banality. Follow the footpath that winds from the parking lot, through a phalanx of deciduous trees, across the undulating meadow, and it’s immediately apparent how much subtlety and sophistication the architects have smuggled into the plain shed. Each 600-foot-long outer wall is a single expanse of concrete that was poured into a wood form and still bears the marks of the planks’ rough grain. An outdoor bench of smoother concrete runs the entire length of the wall, as if to acknowledge that looking at art is a tiring business. The roof spreads out far beyond the sides, hanging over a vast terrace where, even in a downpour, cocktail-partyers can drink and stay dry. Doors and a few walls are made of rough hardwood salvaged from an old textile mill and stained a deep, dramatic black. The German industrial designer Konstantin Grcic used the same aged wood (with a lighter stain) for benches, counters, and gift-shop shelves. The cumulative result of all these crude materials is an atmosphere of deliberate casualness.
The Parrish occupied a gracious but cramped building in downtown Southampton for more than a century before succumbing to the expansionist wave that has swept the world’s museums. In 2006, Herzog & de Meuron proposed an $80 million compound of galleries modeled on various Long Island artist studios, connected by air-lock-like joints. Renderings were released, benefits held—and fund-raising stalled far short of the goal. Rather than write off the project as just another fantasy, one of the firm’s partners, Ascan Mergenthaler, suggested lining up the separate blocs into a long hall, with two rows of galleries along a single spine, beneath a double-peaked roof. Doing so whittled the final bill down to $26 million.
Architects may fear the obvious conclusion: If you lose more than two thirds of the budget and still produce a good building, you’ll probably be asked to do so again. But clients and designers should both embrace another message: that imagination costs less and is worth more than sumptuous materials and showy design. In most minimal, modern designs, all the messy stuff that makes buildings work gets stowed out of sight in hollow walls, false ceilings, and secret compartments. Here, the architects’ palms are open, their sleeves rolled. Look up, and there’s nothing but steel braces, a plywood frame, and fluorescent tubes. Look down, and it’s all polished concrete. There’s something comforting about being in a building with nothing to hide.
The design springs from that milky East End radiance that has seduced artists from William Merritt Chase to Fairfield Porter, Willem de Kooning, and Jane Freilicher. The museum lies askew to the road so that one bank of clear-glass skylights can face due north, as in the ideal studio. Translucent panes soften the harsher rays that flow through a matching set of south-facing skylights. Museum curators are not generally fond of natural light, which has a disruptive habit of changing, shifting, and throwing down spatters of glare. But the architects—and lighting designers from the engineering firm Arup—thought that perhaps art should be seen by the same light that painters use. There are no spots throwing peremptory, look-at-this incandescent circles on preselected masterpieces. Instead, a diffuse, shadowless aura permeates the galleries, letting each painting produce its own distinctive luminescence. In Freilicher’s Grey Day, from 1963, slate-colored roofs, tan fields, and a matte bay lie beneath a sky that’s pearly with clouds. In April Gornik’s Light Before Heat, from 1984, sky and water mirror each other with streaks of lavender and mauve against a bleached expanse of moisture. Those light-infused landscapes breathe with the galleries’ soft, changeable glow. When a cloud drifts overhead, Freilicher’s Day immediately goes grayer and Gornik’s Light dims.
Those painters loved the East End of Long Island for its horizontality, its rippling landscape and low-swooping sky. Part of the new Parrish’s allure is the precision with which the architects placed it in the meadow, a solid white bar pillowed on a living bed of green. The landscape architects at Reed Hilderbrand took a distinctively un-Hamptons-like approach: Instead of barricading the museum behind a high hedgerow, they swaddled it in tall grasses that, when they reach their full four-foot height, will hide nothing but muffle the traffic noise, soften the harsh stroke of roadway, and let the site flow into the vineyard beyond. Cancerous construction has eroded the East End’s natural charms, but the new Parrish cultivates memory, linking the vanishing terrain outside with the painted land within.