There is no law in nature that the outer skin of an object must express its internal structure. After all, as British writer and polymath John Ruskin said, the zebra stripes do not depict the underlying bones or muscles. As in nature, one of the most prominent trends in architecture today is to treat the cladding of a building as a completely autonomous object, which is nothing more than an aesthetic obligation in its own right. Is there a more striking illustration of this trend than the Oklahoma Contemporary Art Center, wrapped in a mantle of aluminum fins that shimmer like many vertical sequins and shimmer?
The $ 30 million, 54,000-square-foot building was completed two years ago and was scheduled to open on March 13, 2020. Unfortunately, it was the same day that Covid-19 was declared a national emergency. Until next July, it didn’t open that door, and on a limited basis. For the whole world, it’s virtually a new building.
Oklahoma Contemporary (originally known as the City Arts Center) was founded in 1989 to offer exhibitions of contemporary art along with lectures, workshops and art classes. In 2014, it was decided to build a new home and was commissioned by Oklahoma City’s prominent architect Rand Elliot. This place was a pretty lonely but now improving neighborhood and wasn’t the most promising environment. Surrounded by active rail lines, it is a 4.6-acre plot that includes a 100-year-old warehouse for an abandoned light bulb factory. Still, he made the most of it.
Elliott chose it as a theme featuring the sky, which is the subject of Oklahoman, because there is no corresponding landmark nearby. He devised a compact four-story cube, crumpled its sides and pleated 20 faceted polygons. He covered it with a jacket of 16,800 anodized aluminum fins, each fixed in place at one of nine different positions at different angles to the sun. As a result, the reflectance is constantly changing. At one moment the building looks like a silver crystal of facets, and at another moment it looks like an origami sculpture made of light. The nickname for Elliott’s design is less appropriate than “folding light.”
An old warehouse with about 10,000 square feet of useful space turned out to be an unexpected asset. Here we found rooms for the awkward aspects of the educational program, such as wood and metal works, textiles, and especially ceramics with an array of volatile kilns. The art studio is famous for being dirty, but by separating it from the main building, the primary structure is kept as clean as the operating room of the hospital even two years after the main building was completed.
The entrance to the main building is at the rear and frankly allows most visitors to arrive from the parking lot. Pass under the jagged Porte-cochère and step into a bright and cozy space offering a variety of attractions, including a cozy “creative lounge” with a cafe, gift shop and full art library. There is no admission fee. Newly arrived visitors can start brainstorming immediately. Beyond that, there are five studios, one for teens and one for toddlers, all with views of the three-block park that blocks the building from across a busy street.
The main gallery is on the second floor, with 8,000 square feet of space whose facet walls trace the inside and outside of the appropriate south side of the building. Instead of the usual non-functional white box, give something that reacts to the artist and curator. Equally irregular is the Black Box Theater above the gallery on the third floor, a cave-like space with galleries on either side. (Just as the eccentric Fenway Park spawns another type of baseball, this space should promote another type of performance.) The building’s most fascinating space is on this floor, a wonderful north. It is a vast dance studio suitable for you. View and even better light.
Elliott is as much fun as this angled delight, but he succeeds when folding light rather than folding space. Virtually all inner walls are placed at an acute or obtuse angle with respect to the next wall. Jeremiah Davis, Artistic Director of Oklahoma Contemporary, likes to challenge visitors to “find the right angle” and says it’s not an easy task. And there is no guarantee that a room with an 80 degree angle will produce the same happy 100 degree angle in the next room.
Still, off-quilter geometry is strangely familiar. For example, it reminds me of an improvisational performance of an artist’s loft, which was rigged inside an old factory. It’s clear that part of this informal style (called Makeshift Garret) was the goal here. It gives Oklahoma contemporary its amiability, relaxed tones and unbuttoned pure cheerfulness. And that is very rare. It is a building where it is almost impossible to take bad pictures.
-Mr. Lewis teaches architectural history at Williams College and reviews the architecture of the journal.
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