This is the new lobby at Tacoma Art Museum. The Haub wing is the ground floor, admissions desk straight ahead. Predock is up top. Earthy versus ethereal.
  • JG
  • This is the new lobby at Tacoma Art Museum. The Haub wing is the ground floor, admissions desk straight ahead. Predock is up top. Earthy versus ethereal.

Just a handful of years after Tacoma Art Museum wildly celebrated the building it commissioned from designer architect Antoine Predock, museum director Stephanie Stebich declared it "unfinished."

"The terrific Antoine Predock building was unfinished," announced Stebich at a press opening earlier this month. "The outsides [did] not carry the spirit of the insides."

Today, that 2003 building has been "finished" by another architect, Tom Kundig of Seattle.

This is a story about more than just building design. It's about the psychology of heraldry and elitism, it's about the habits of automobile culture versus the dreams of mass transit, and it's about the whole typology of museum front doors (which I wrote about in a 2009 story called "What's a Front Door to Do?").

The main photograph that ran with that story was a picture of the dim corner of the concrete parking garage underneath Tacoma Art Museum where most people enter the building. Sometimes people would say they couldn't find the front door, but the issue was that they never got to the front door. They parked underground, and rode the elevator up into the lobby. I would even go so far as to say that TAM's front door has been the least used in Northwest museum history.

And that's because the transformation of Tacoma's downtown core—remade by the sudden appearance of light rail, museums, a university, a convention center, restaurants, shops, and hotels—did not translate into the transformation of the driving habits of most people who want to visit the art museum.

We are in a different time now, a chastened time. This building feels a little more like the anti-Seattle, anti-glam roots Tacoma likes to claim, alternating with its City of the Future aspirations. (This is a common trait among little-sibling cities; I'm not a Tacoma hater.)

The new wing of TAM, by Kundig, speaks of woodsy, machine-age pragmatism. What was supposed to be just a reboot of the entrance turned into an entire new building fused onto the old. Kundig's contribution is self-consciously workmanlike, like a lawyer wearing a Carhartt jacket.

The new building—on budget at $15.5 million, which Kundig didn't hesitate to call tight—is a dark matte structure that looks like a very long railroad car extending southward along the straight line of Pacific Avenue. The Predock site is shaped like a grand piano, and includes a hillside—tricky compared to this new linear slot.

Silver and brown: This is where the two buildings meet, one by the desert spiritualist, one by the Northwest materialist.
  • Olson Kundig Architects
  • Silver and brown: This is where the two buildings meet, one by the desert spiritualist, one by the Northwest materialist.

About that front door: Kundig removed the darker glass at the entrance and replaced it with more transparent glass, like exchanging sunglasses for regular specs. Kundig added a red box around the door. It sucks you in, or it would, if you didn't park in the garage and ride the elevator up like everyone else.

  • JG

Kundig erected a canopy made of metal that juts out over the entrance from the roof and extends all the way to the sidewalk. Its upper section is a screen that's big enough to play drive-in movies on. Underneath the canopy, there's a whole semi-covered area for shelter from wind and rain. A place to see and be seen. It reminds me of the golden-lit overhang at the nearby jewelbox Rialto Theater, where the shelter always feels too small but precious and wonderful. I haven't been under this one at night, but I hope the effect still resonates.

If you approach from the side, you can stroll under a covered walkway. It's a bit like a long carport.

Kundig reused Predock materials where he could. When you see silvery stainless steel, you're with Predock; when you see matte dark brown ("I prefer to call it bronze," Kundig says), it's Kundig and the new old West.

How did this whole expansion/graft happen? Erivan and Helga Haub, a couple of German art collectors with deep ties to Tacoma, heard the museum was kicking off a capital campaign to create a new entrance, and offered to fill and endow an entire wing instead. The Haubs gave some funding to build it, but TAM won't say how much.

"I thought I was taking a job where I didn't have to do a building!" director Stebich told me the other day.

She arrived in 2005, two years after the opening of the Predock building, which was TAM's first-ever dedicated museum facility and a great matter of civic pride. The museum was founded in the 1930s and spent decades in unfitting spaces. The last one was a narrow bank building where art was stored in the vault in the basement.

Was the Predock building really "unfinished"? Well, it was finished but unsettled. I happened to like that. I loved its total psychological reversal, from the laconic gray-silver exterior—meant to melt into the sky, as it does, disappearing right in front of your eyes—to the endless sparkle of the interior, flooded with light and marked by cut-out details, long vistas that extend into the outdoors through well-placed windows, and strong, unusual angles. It's as irregular as a rock formation, and really, that hasn't changed. The galleries are still the most beautiful in the Northwest, and the finishes are still gentle and muscular at the same time, blond wood to stone and concrete. The circular layout centered on an atrium with reflective walls and a cresting wave made of stones is an eccentricity I'm happy to indulge.

Predock's TAM opened less than one year after the Museum of Glass across the street, where everything is photogenic and adventure-based: the working hot shop, the soaring lobby, the waterfront sculpture. Everything, that is, except the art galleries, which are low and dim, like a segmented silverware drawer cut out of the ground. I'd rather have a good surprise when I reach the core of something than a bad one. But that's not how advertising works, and if I'd been in charge of making TAM an attraction, I'm sure I'd have been frustrated with Predock's ambiguous exterior on Pacific Avenue.

The real door. TAM director Stephanie Stebich with Julie Speidels sculptures in the parking garage, with the new glassed-in lobby.
  • JG
  • The real door. TAM director Stephanie Stebich with Julie Speidel's sculptures in the parking garage, with the new glassed-in lobby.

Kundig's new railroad-car wing adds 16,000 square feet to TAM's existing 50,000. Its brown matte cladding is a material called Richlite, manufactured in Tacoma and recycled. Richlite is practically a sourcing miracle, made of a conglomeration of paper and resin products that was first developed for laboratory countertops after World War II. Kundig says casually at the press preview, "It's used as the skin in all the BMX and skate parks."

Kundig describes his wing and Predock's wing as together but separate. He used the analogy of Adam and God reaching toward each other in the Sistine Chapel. "You know, the fact that they don't touch is more important than if they did touch," he says.

It almost makes you wonder whether he means that he represents the first man or the benevolent creator of all things.

Predock lives in Albuquerque. He is a desert spiritualist. Kundig is a Northwest materialist. For flair, he doesn't make buildings dissolve into the sky or zoom toward distant mountains. Kundig's flair here is heavy machinery: movable solar window shades resembling slats on an oldtime boxcar that are operated, opening and closing, by someone putting an actual shoulder to a steering wheel inside the museum. (There's an essay to be written here about this new wing and manliness, or maybe it's all in the open and nothing more needs to be said.)

TAM curator Rock Hushka turning the wheel that controls Kundigs solar shades.
  • JG
  • TAM curator Rock Hushka turning the wheel that controls Kundig's solar shades.

The artists inside Kundig's wing painted and sculpted their fantasies of a West many of them never visited. (Here's my review of the art.)

But Kundig is from craggy Eastern Washington. He grew up far inland, around old mines, sawmills, barn doors, "the levers, the screws, the ramps," he told me as we wandered through his first completed museum. He's known for his exquisite residences, which also contain simple-machine references. Kundig prefers things done by hand. As a young man, he was assistant to the Spokane artist Harold Balazs, a voracious maker in all materials, and that kind of bodily forging probably felt better to Kundig than drafting blueprints and overseeing processes, as architects do.

"I didn't want to be an architect," Kundig admitted as we passed a bronze bison on our way toward a painted chief.

Kundigs inspirations.
  • JG
  • Kundig's inspirations.

To prop up the canopy on the exterior of TAM, Kundig used burly I-beams. And the Richlite cladding? It looks a lot like animal hide.

Thanks to the Predock-inspired blond flooring and wall cutouts, the interior galleries behind the solar-louvered bronze gallery are bright. But they're small. The proportions are almost meager. Kundig does his best. At least one corner is thoroughly irregular, and if you notice it, you will be rewarded. But in the end, these galleries are just...okay. The accent walls in colonial colors make them the tiniest bit starchy.

TAM has spent nearly a million dollars on public outdoor sculpture, Stebich says, all of it "high-touch," meaning go ahead and touch. Julie Speidel's shiny, colorful crystals modeled on glacial leavings—reminiscent of Tony Smith's 1967 Wandering Rocks at the Olympic Sculpture Park—tumble in a row that forms a pathway from your parking spot into the museum. It's still a parking garage, but the expanded, glassed-in foyer Speidel's sculptures lead into is far more inviting than the former concrete wall. Now, you wait for the elevator indoors.

The most prominent of the new outdoor sculptures is out front on Pacific Avenue: two tall, curving stacks of blankets cast in bronze by Marie Watt. Each blanket (the originals were destroyed in the casting process) was donated by someone along with its story, and the stories are on TAM's web site as part of the art. It's moving to see the tassels and folds of blankets rendered in bronze. They're cold to the touch but lose none of their power to convey the idea of warmth, the promise and the prospect of it. The surfaces are as detailed as wrinkled faces.

But the blue paint that coats those bronze stacks is the color of tarps. Tarps are the anti-heirloom-blanket. It's a little devastating. Stebich said the color is supposed to evoke water and sky. Tarps, I say.

A detail of Marie Watts tarp-colored blankets sculpture on the exterior of the new wing at TAM.
  • JG
  • A detail of Marie Watt's tarp-colored blankets sculpture on the exterior of the new wing at TAM.

More sculpture is to come by Scott Fife, involving eaglets and bears. I've heard talk that Jim Hodges may contribute something to TAM's campus.

Or is TAM a "campus" now? It's hard for me to say whether you'd even know there were two separate buildings if you hadn't been here before. The lobby between them is glorious and seamless, long and double-height and with floors streaked with shadows. On the first floor, it's a promenade like a shopping mall (but in a good way). You will not miss the education room, whereas you could before. The cafe and the store open out onto the promenade, too.

The second floor is an apotheosis of light and views—poetic-Predockian. You can miss it, too, in Predock fashion, because there aren't galleries here, only a library, a school room, and a whole side of what some people might call wasted space. Rather, it's a bank of windows framing a shape that resonates in various forms across the landscape outside, like a musical chord with many parts. They are: Rainier, the Tacoma Dome, the I-705 suspension bridge, the dome of Union Station, and the cone of the hot shop at the Museum of Glass. Predock framed them all in a single bank of windows.

"Now we really are on the main drag," director Stebich said, referring to the new wing's straight line down Pacific Avenue. The loop-de-loop of the Predock building remains the best part.