With names like Charles and Ray Eames, Florence Knoll, and Daniel Libeskind, the past student and faculty roster of Cranbrook Academy of Art is a who’s who of modern and contemporary artists, designers, and architects—and fostering all that talent are campus facilities that are works of art in themselves. One such example is the school’s Cranbrook Art Museum by Eliel Saarinen, which recently gained an additional 31,200 square feet of space thanks to a restoration and new wing, both by SmithGroupJJR.
The latter, known as the Collections Wing, is a composition of three rectangular volumes that step down in height as it extends northward. Its brick cladding and non-ornamental appearance complement the original 1942 Saarinen building, which exhibits student and faculty work, as well as art and objects from the school’s celebrated collection. Think Andy Warhol, Harry Bertoia, Robert Rauschenberg, and Donald Judd, among others. When not on display, the remaining works from Cranbrook’s 6,000-piece treasure trove are still accessible—in its entirety—in the Collections Wing.
“The Collections Wing at its raw purpose is a storage building,” explains SmithGroupJJR Vice President, Design Paul Urbanek, FAIA. Thus, the interior walls are composed of standard gray concrete block, but brush-cleaned to appear silvery and luminous. A deep-raked joint accentuates the outline of each block. “The exploration and honoring of the gray concrete block and detailing bring this utilitarian building material to a richly artistic level.” In contrast, the wing’s entryways are refined in design as a nod to Saarinen, who was said to have a fascination with them and who ultimately created 300 doors on the Cranbrook campus. The unique SmithGroupJJR versions feature stainless steel surrounds and sapele wood plank construction with custom steel pulls. No two doors are alike, but all possess Saarinen’s crafted aesthetic where even the visible hardware becomes part of the design.
As Cranbrook is a school that prides itself in inspiring students to become not just scholars but leading practitioners in the art and design fields, the new building is planned as an active learning center. The design team created vaults for students and visitors to explore stored pieces up close. Shelves are topped with midcentury-modern furniture, full-height sliding metal panels hold paintings and prints, glass encloses a room for ceramics, and drawers and racks store textiles and rugs. Meanwhile, stainless steel and granite recesses in the concrete walls are unique display niches that highlight singular artworks. Hands-on workspaces such as a woodshop and photography studio further the goal of making the Collections Wing much more than a storage facility, and a basic seminar room is outfitted with audio/visual equipment.
While one doesn’t want to tamper with the work of an architectural icon, Cranbrook understood that its Saarinen-designed museum systems and structural components were outdated and inadequate in preserving artwork. This could have, in fact, negatively impacted its accreditation from the American Association of Museums (AAM). SmithGroupJJR therefore set out to make vital upgrades, primarily in climate control, with reverence to Saarinen’s original design. The project team revamped the mechanical plant with current equipment and tore down interior walls to the bare bones, rebuilding them in place with new insulation and vapor locks to regulate temperature and humidity at a constant level all year round.
One cosmetic upgrade couldn’t be ignored: Saarinen had originally designed beautifully lit ceiling coffers in the galleries, but in recent years these were switched off and tracklights were installed. SmithGroupJJR restored the innovative ceiling to its former state and retrofit the coffer system with dimmable LEDs. With this final restorative touch, the Cranbrook Art Museum is not only on par with today’s cutting-edge facilities, but survives as a time capsule that allows visitors to experience the museum as Saarinen intended when it opened.