Corning Museum Breaks New Ground Today

The New North Wing at The Corning Museum of Glass. Photo Courtesy of  Thomas Phifer & Partners




Groundbreaking is today for the new contemporary wing of the Corning Museum of Glass in upstate New York. Designed by Thomas Phifer and Partners, the structure will link the present museum with a renovated space for public glassmaking demonstrations (called a “hot” theater because there are furnaces involved). The new building will incorporate state-of-the-art glass technology, continuing a long tradition of similar architectural innovation on the Corning campus.

The $64-million, 100,000-square-foot expansion, scheduled for completion in 2014, will offer 26,000 square feet of gallery space for permanent and special exhibitions. Although the museum possesses the largest collection of contemporary glass art and design objects in the world, it has only been able to show a small selection at a time, in cramped quarters. Artists range from those known mainly for glass—Dale Chihuly, Lino Tagliapietra and Josiah McElheny, for example—to such figures as Tony Cragg, Robert Rauschenberg and Kiki Smith, for whom glass is one medium among many.

Phifer’s design of the new north wing relies almost solely on raised skylights to illuminate the displays from above. (Engineering is by Guy Nordenson, who has designed frequently for museums, among them New York’s MoMA and New Museum.) Five windowless galleries with subtly curved hollow concrete-and-plaster walls are nested inside an overall rectangular shell that forms a surrounding corridor. The ceiling consists of narrow concrete beams that allow abundant light to flood the spaces, a rarity in art museums, where artifacts must normally be shielded. (Glass, by contrast, has no such restrictions.) Digital models by the firm show super-bright rooms that seem to float, with smooth uninterrupted white walls and brushed concrete floors.

The building’s exterior facade will be fronted by hundreds of very thin glass slats attached perpendicularly to the surface. This arrangement has been devised to create a shimmering texture that constantly fluctuates over the course of days and seasons. A 150-foot-long, seamless mirrored window inserted in the façade will form a contrastingly smooth cross axis, reflecting the surrounding landscape. In a presentation to the press, Thomas Thomas Phifer cited works like a mirror piece by Gerhard Richter and a variously textured cube made of broken LCD displays, by the German artist Josepha Gasch-Muche, as inspirations for his design.

Karol Wight, executive director, says that she expects a more active program of special exhibitions and projects to accompany the expansion. For now, she observes, they are simply content to finally show the permanent holdings to their advantage, given that contemporary is the fastest growing area of the museum’s collections, which span more than 3,500 years. Will the adjacent factories at Corning Incorporated, manufacturer of fiber optics and cell phone screens, produce the glass slats and long window? “We don’t know yet,” says Wight. “They are in the running.”