The new Rubell Museum, designed by BBB, embraces imperfection
The most recent location of the Rubell Museum is not the clinically sealed man-made environment that so often defines contemporary museum design. Located in the southwest neighborhood of Washington, D.C., the museum’s galleries are entirely within Randall Junior High School, a historically black brick public school renovated by preservation-minded architectural firm Beyer Blinder Belle ( BBB). Visually shaped by exposed solid wood rafters, brickwork – some marked by decades of drywall coverage – iron detailing on the stairs, and terrazzo flooring that is the strongest visual reminder of a public school, the building has a texture and a history.
Don and Mera Rubell began collecting art in the 1960s and had a plethora of connections to the New York art scene as Don’s brother Steve co-owned the city’s famous club, Studio 54. The family opened their first museum in Miami to the public in 1993, showing their amassed private collection of contemporary pieces. In 2010, Don and Mera, alongside a team of developers and the collaboration of their son, Jason, acquired the site which was the former Randall Junior High School. The building had been vacant for several years, and although numerous development plans were launched, including a failed acquisition by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, it fell into the hands of the Rubells.
In a city shaped by its public museums, including Gordon Bunshaft’s Hirshhorn Museum and other institutions run by the Smithsonian, the Rubells commissioned BBB to design a private museum – free to townspeople – that could provide a home to contemporary art like no other in the district. . Although located less than a mile from the Capitol and the National Mall, Southwest DC is far from a tourist destination. The neighborhood has undergone a classic process of post-war urban renewal and has now seen a wave of redevelopment, including the construction of major housing and Perkins & Will’s recently completed South West Library.
Turning the school, which had decayed during its vacation years, into an art museum was not necessarily intuitive. The building itself, with a brick facade, interior brick walls, oak flooring and an exposed hardwood ceiling, was showing its age; the main core opened in 1906 and the expansion wings opened in 1926. Despite its condition, as BBB partner Hany Hassan said A, “the building has stood the test of time.” The question was not whether to hide the old remains of the building for a sleek contemporary museum, but how much of the building to show.
There was no intention for the Rubell to take on the air of the city’s public museums, and they hoped the new building would be able to serve the neighborhood, not just tourists. Unlike museums with a more institutional mass, design decisions reflected the Rubells’ personal demands, alongside, of course, BBB’s own motives. Hassan said A that the design team did not want the architecture to dominate the art in the galleries, but that it was irresponsible to ignore the building’s history.
At its entrance a small glass pavilion has been constructed and upon entering the museum and passing the admissions office, visitors enter a main hall, formerly the school auditorium, and pass through a door which marked the proscenium of the auditorium. Once home to tiered seating, BBB opted to fill the space with a flat concrete floor that would suit a gallery space. The spacious room — almost cavernous when not crowded — shows off the building’s items to guests as they begin their visit. Workers left bricks exposed and re-exposed others hidden by drywall, including a series of Palladian arches that let natural light in on the street-facing facade.
Perhaps the most unique aspect of the museum is its natural lighting. BBB’s design modified the windows to make them less ornate – to keep them from drawing attention to the artwork – and left them in their original location. Instead of tinting the windows, curtains were installed on each window to attenuate the sunlight reaching the mediums that require specific lighting conditions.
Walking through the museum, galleries are arranged on three floors of the old school, including the basement. It’s here that it becomes apparent that BBB isn’t adopting the polished, surgically precise look of contemporary museums. Besides the old auditorium, occasional interventions on the historic oak parquet floor show the building’s flaws from its abandoned life stage. Where new floors have been installed, there is no attempt to blend them with old ones, or to age them artificially. A similar design approach has been taken for the ceiling, where the heavy timber rafters of the original structure are left exposed, and where timber had to be added it is again clear where interventions were made. Newly installed wood sections stand out in the ceiling, with their stamped logos and product specifications left prominently displayed.
Components of the building’s mechanical systems are also revealed on the ceiling, leaving it with an industrial feel. The white spray paint bleeds onto the bricks in places, and the remnants of old drywall haven’t been thoroughly cleaned. Although intentional and boring for perfectionists, they are reminiscent of the manual labor that went into building, both today and a century ago. While these exposed elements contrast with the white plaster walls behind much of the artwork, they also mitigate its harshness.
Walking through the galleries can sometimes feel like walking through a narrow apartment entrance. While some wall sections have been removed from the building’s original plan, most have remained intact and as a result there is no intuitive path through the space. Central foyers direct visitors to each floor, but movement within each level is free.
Visitors can orient themselves to the outside world at most points in the galleries. The experience of being in the museum does not require visitors to fall entirely in love with the world of the gallery – although this is certainly possible – leaving any sense of orientation dependent on a guide map of the museum. While this aspect is the product of the literal adaptation of old classrooms into galleries, it is also a stand against the often distorting experience of visiting a gallery.
For a museum whose intention is to continue to house contemporary art that addresses the points of tension in American society, it was important that it be rooted in a structure that contained the history of its neighborhood. While the art feels safe against bare white walls, walking through imperfect brick archways between gallery spaces is an experience distinct from the fluidity of the Guggenheim or the palatial history of the Louvre. As Jason Rubell said, “art is organs… building is blood and guts”.