Vladem Contemporary fits the district, city and state

An architect’s rendering shows a night view of the proposed Vladem Contemporary art museum adjacent to the Santa Fe Railyard.

The conversation on the proposed Vladem Contemporary must begin with its building type — contemporary art museum. The Museum of Modern Art set the tone in 1939 with its Goodwin and Stone design, as a modern house for modern art. The congruence was intentional.

Museums in the 21st Century, an international exhibition (adobeairstream.com/design/museum-design-in-the-21st-century-reviewed) that traveled to the Museum of Fine Arts from January 2010 through April 2010 showed that the modern move toward expressive form and materials in museum architecture complements and sometimes competes with the expressive power of the art displayed inside.

Thierry Greub’s catalog essay posits the art museum’s role as urban icon and catalyst enlivening neighborhoods and invigorating cities. Its design, he wrote, may take a restrained stance or transparently communicate the art and activity inside to the public. It may present a new vision of art history, use form to convey architectural theories or offer a highly physical experience of art, as does Daniel Libeskind’s Denver Art Museum.

Since Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Guggenheim, powerful architecture has distinguished art museums in their transformation from solemn repositories into extroverted civic institutions. The architectonic power of the proposed Vladem lies in the diagonal superposition of the new metal-scrim translucent jewel box above the made-over Halperin Building whose brown stucco references the earth.

Within the gamut of contemporary museums, this design is not radical. It is a shade more active than minimal evoking of the sheet metal sheds of the Railyard and will even appear at night as a ghostly freight levitated above the tracks. Its size and “modern” reference seem to have set preservationist hearts a-flutter as they invoke myths of material and scale in attempts to impose formal compromise that is divorced from the museum’s typological development. The typological development? To redefine into the future “contemporary” as applied to architecture.

As a contemporary art contender, thinly populated New Mexico punches far above its weight. Nine years ago, I was present as Jerry Saltz, New York Magazine writer, spoke at SITE Santa Fe. He peered into the audience and pointed at a woman in a front row. “That’s Lucy Lippard,” Saltz exclaimed. “You changed the world.”

Lippard, who lives near Santa Fe, donated her seminal art collection, accumulated over years as a writer and activist, to the Museum of New Mexico. From Georgia O’Keeffe to the Vasulkas to Bruce Nauman to the postwar surge in Native contemporary art at the Institute of American Indian Arts, New Mexico has attracted and been home to more artists and more important artists than any other state in the Rocky Mountain region — more, even, than the goliath to the south. We have the “kunsthalle,” SITE Santa Fe, presenting visiting exhibits and an international biennial. We have an able and informed curator, Merry Scully, who attends to local artists. A museum dedicated to collecting and showing contemporary art is long overdue for New Mexico and Santa Fe.

A state institution, the museum rightly assumes a regional responsibility standing virtually upon the Rail Runner platform, facilitating access by visitors and citizens along the transportation corridor, attracting art and architecture students from the University of New Mexico, community colleges and schools. The Vladem’s interior street is an extension of the track, running public space through the building. The museum’s expressed extension of the transportation corridor encourages both cultural enrichment and commerce.

Transportation leads to art that transports the spirit. And many visitors will perforce avail themselves of opportunities to shop and dine in the Guadalupe Street and Railyard districts. Finally, the Vladem Contemporary will provide artistic and architectural inspiration to students at the nearby New Mexico School for the Arts, reinforcing another significant state government project.

The proposed museum is consistent with the scale of downtown Santa Fe, which is punctuated by large and blocky buildings: the post office, the old St. Vincent Hospital, the Santa Fe Community Convention Center, the Capitol, the PERA building, the Bataan Memorial Building, the Eldorado Hotel & Spa and Hotel Santa Fe, among others. Within this context, the museum is large, not largest, and the translucent articulated scrim of the diagonal bar will attenuate its mass. The museum’s size stems from programmatic needs of exhibition, administration, conservation and storage. Efficient function requires a single building house the program. It fits not only on the level of scale but within the type of the large government building. The Vladem’s upper terrace and galleries give city and mountain views offered by few public buildings.

Architectural design is a holistic undertaking. We are fortunate that Albuquerque-based architecture firms DNCA Architects and Studio GP are designing the Vladem. We need no architectural compromise or mincing of words. We must respect the integrity of the design team’s vision and hard work. Let the architecture spread its wings and provide our contemporary collections the home that they deserve.

Conrad Skinner, AIA, is vice president and president-elect of the American Institute of Architects, Santa Fe Chapter Society of Architectural Historians.