Allen Art Building New Wing
Designing additions to the chaste art museums of an earlier era has challenged the ingenuity and reputation of many prominent contemporary architects. "Like drawing a mustache on a Madonna" was Robert Venturi's phrase for it. Venturi & Rauch's 1976 addition to Cass Gilbert's Allen Art Building was named for museum benefactor Ruth Coates Roush. It showed how far the building art had travelled since Gibert's Beaux Arts memorial of 1917, and art professor Clarence Ward's faithful rear extension of 1938. For some local observers the latest addition went too far-- the most exasperating entry yet in the architectural road show surrounding Tappan Square. For other it brought a wry message about the state of the art-- a complex in-joke without laughter. For Venturi's friendly critics it did no harm to his standing as postmodern architecture's most refreshing innovator.
The building's interiors are its least controversial aspect. The big bright Ellen Johnson Gallery for modern art, the industrial work space set back alongside, and the beige Clarence Ward Library above that are all sharply defined and segmented from each other and the older building. This makes the trip from library to galleries and classrooms a puzzler, especially in winter. Along the way, though, is Venturi's most disarming ornamental flourish, a stout wood-paneled Ionic column announcing the transition from new to old.
Out in front, as viewed from Main Street, a candid absence of transition in the roof lines and in the seam between Gilbert's palace and Venturi's checkerboard keeps the task of relating old and new forever lively. The red sandstone slabs in the checkerboard were taken from the same quarry used for Gilbert's building. But the quarry was quarried out, and the streaks in the slabs give their walls an oddly soiled look
One cannot doubt the calculated declaration of discord in all this. "I am for messy vitality over unity," Venturi wrote in Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, the manifesto for postmodern restlessness, a decade before his Oberlin statement went up. I include the nonsequitor and proclaim the duality." Many veteran visitors still wonder what their next response to his proclamation will be.
Blodgett, Geoffrey. Oberlin Architecture, College and Town: a Guide to Its Social History. Oberlin, Ohio: Oberlin College, 1985. Print.