Concrete oasis: Glenstone Museum by Thomas Phifer and Partners


Nestled in sleepy Maryland, the new Glenstone Museum, designed by Thomas Phifer and Partners, harnesses nature and concrete to create an immersive, sensory experience blending art and architecture. Far away from crowds and city stress, does ‘slow art’ and silence make for a better museum environment?


Words by Francesca Perry

Just outside Washington DC, in the Potomac area of Maryland that is part-countryside, part-suburbia — home to verdant woodland and showy mansion homes with white wooden fences — lies the Glenstone Museum. Set in 93ha of landscaped grounds, all abuzz with the sound of cicadas, the museum first opened in 2006 to house the private collection of billionaire businessman Mitchell P Rales and his wife Emily Wei Rales, an art historian and curator. But now, after a five-year, $200m (£153.5m) process of transformation, it has increased exhibition space six-fold (from 836 to 5,481 sq m) and created a new immersive visitor experience knitting together art, architecture and landscape.

The heart of this is a new 18,952 sq m complex of 11 minimalist pavilions — made of 26,000 stacked, precast, concrete blocks — designed by US practice Thomas Phifer and Partners. Named simply the Pavilions, these are approached via a new, cedarwood-clad Arrival Hall (also by Phifer) and a carefully curated pathway through the undulating, meadowlike landscape, designed to a masterplan by PWP Landscape Architecture and led by Adam Greenspan and Peter Walker, who have worked with Glenstone since the very beginning.

The Pavilions are embedded into the 93ha landscape, designed by PWP Landscape Architecture. Image Credit: Iwan Baan, Courtesy Of Thomas Phifer and PartnersThe Pavilions are embedded into the 93ha landscape, designed by PWP Landscape Architecture. Image Credit: Iwan Baan, Courtesy Of Thomas Phifer and Partners

Glenstone’s original, 2,787 sq m museum building, known as the Gallery — which is still in use today, albeit as a strange accompaniment to Phifer’s new pavilions — was designed by Charles Gwathmey of Gwathmey Siegel Kaufman Architects, in a sculptural, modernist style of zinc, granite, stainless steel and teak. Locally born Mitch Rales had already bought the grounds — 40ha of them at least — to live on back in 1986, at which point roads were ‘only just beginning to get paved’, he recalls. In 2006, a year after Mitch and Emily met, the two opened the museum on the grounds.

Within a few years of opening, the directors decided to undertake the ambitious expansion in order to show much more of their growing collection of post-war and contemporary art (which now numbers over 1300 works) and fully realise their vision behind Glenstone (Mitch Rales refers to Gwathmey’s building as ‘our starter museum’), including more than doubling the publicly accessible grounds.

Phifer was commissioned in 2010, and soon after, Glenstone took the design team on a world tour to see selected cultural institutions in the flesh to help inform the vision. Emily Rales mentions the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark, the Menil Collection in Houston and the Fondation Beyeler near Basel as particular inspirations.

Each element of the project is designed to imbue the visitor experience with a sense of tranquility. Image Credit: Iwan Baan, Courtesy Of Thomas Phifer and PartnersEach element of the project is designed to imbue the visitor experience with a sense of tranquility. Image Credit: Iwan Baan, Courtesy Of Thomas Phifer and Partners

The original aim behind the visitor experience of Glenstone, which has been significantly enhanced through the transformation, is the consumption of art in a peaceful, contemplative, natural setting — far away from the crowds, noise and freneticism that defines cities (and their museums). Emily Rales refers to this as the ‘slow art approach’ — and every element of the new Glenstone is designed in this spirit.

‘We don’t want you to feel rushed or crowded,’ she says. ‘We hope that you will slow down, that you will start to become aware of your breath, of the changing light levels of the galleries. We designed the experience for a slow encountering of the art.’ In addition to the setting, this experience is ensured through the requirement for scheduled visits, allowing the museum to space out visitors and avoid crowding.

The central water courtyard, viewed from the connective, glazed Passage, is planted with irises, lilies and rushes. Image Credit: Iwan Baan, Courtesy Of Thomas Phifer and PartnersThe central water courtyard, viewed from the connective, glazed Passage, is planted with irises, lilies and rushes. Image Credit: Iwan Baan, Courtesy Of Thomas Phifer and Partners

Thinking particularly about the approach to the museum through the landscape, Phifer echoes this notion of designing a sensory, slow visitor experience: ‘You begin to feel your footsteps, feel your body move. The daily worries drop away and you start to find that spirit where you can get lost in the work.’ The path of approach to the museum is used as a design tool to choreograph the overall experience. This is the US, of course, so actually making visitors walk for five minutes from the car park to the museum has been hailed as a radical move.

Well, it may not be radical, but it does achieve the desired ambition. The act of walking along a meandering path, past the simple, pale grey Arrival Hall, through a grove of young trees, over a bridge crossing a rocky stream, past an old sycamore tree (moved strategically to frame the approach, admittedly), across an undulating field crowned by a large topiary Jeff Koons sculpture (Split-Rocker, 2000), certainly leaves you feeling more peaceful than you would entering a busy urban museum.

The approach to the museum via a pedestrian walkway is carefully choreographed to connect the visitor to their senses. Image Credit: Iwan Baan, Courtesy Of Thomas Phifer and PartnersThe approach to the museum via a pedestrian walkway is carefully choreographed to connect the visitor to their senses. Image Credit: Iwan Baan, Courtesy Of Thomas Phifer and Partners

Nature is central to the entire Glenstone concept. ‘We really thought of nature here as the first material,’ says Phifer. Landscape architect Adam Greenspan, describing the project as ‘the restoration of an ecology’, explains how the entire landscape surrounding the new museum was shaped for both optimal natural and experiential conditions. ‘What we’ve done is move the earth around to create the smoothest, most natural, undulating meadow,’ he says. ‘We have graded the landscape for optimal water management and drainage, so that water flows evenly and naturally, and everything connects in a comfortable and smooth way.’ Mitch Rales echoes this, explaining: ‘The aim has been to bring the site back to nature.’

Streams and woodlands have been restored, 6,000 trees planted and 13ha of pasture land developed into sustainable meadows with indigenous flora. In 2019, a centre to highlight environmentally sustainable practices at Glenstone will open in the grounds. The educational facility will help visitors learn about on-site composting, natural landscape management, materials recycling and water conservation.

A woodland trail has been designed taking visitors through the natural woodland on site, with artworks visible along the way. Image Credit: Iwan Baan, Courtesy Of Thomas Phifer and PartnersA woodland trail has been designed taking visitors through the natural woodland on site, with artworks visible along the way. Image Credit: Iwan Baan, Courtesy Of Thomas Phifer and Partners

This immersive natural setting and unfolding scenery certainly heightens the initial encounter of the Pavilions: what starts as a slim grey line on the horizon, becomes a series of concrete blocks seemingly emerging from the ground. On the day we visited, just ahead of the early October public opening, the overcast sky was somehow the same colour as the concrete, giving the pavilions the appearance that they were dissolving into the air; a mirage.

The sensory, slow art approach continues inside. Upon entering, you find yourself in an empty, light-filled, grey concrete box — the first of the 11 pavilions. The only intervention in the space is a wall text artwork by Lawrence Weiner, made in 2002 but specially adapted for the museum. A flight of stairs takes you to the lower level, the heart of the museum. The complex — 10 additional pavilions of varying sizes connected by a spacious walkway called the Passage — is set around a 1,672 sq m water courtyard, a central pool planted with various aquatic plants, including lilies, irises and rushes, and featuring a sitting deck. ‘It’s our mini-Giverny,’ jokes Emily Rales; Phifer and Greenspan had another reference in mind, though: Carlo Scarpa’s Brion Cemetery in northern Italy, a peaceful, minimalist complex of concrete set aside planted pools. ‘It’s that idea of a planted pool being so quiet, and yet so alive,’ comments Phifer.

A wall text artwork by Lawrence Weiner, specially adapted for Glenstone, welcomes visitors in the entrance pavilion. Image Credit: Iwan Baan, Courtesy Of Thomas Phifer and PartnersA wall text artwork by Lawrence Weiner, specially adapted for Glenstone, welcomes visitors in the entrance pavilion. Image Credit: Iwan Baan, Courtesy Of Thomas Phifer and Partners

The Passage has floor-to-ceiling glazing facing the water courtyard, so that the visitor is always connected to this tranquil, reflective heart between pavilions. ‘The Pavilions are deliberately separated by this walkway,’ says Phifer, ‘which creates time and distance between each experience of the artworks, almost like a cleanse for the visitor.’ Phifer has designed with natural light levels in mind to enhance the sense of journey: ‘As you move around, you have this journey with light and shadow. You let the light guide you, move you forward.’

Each pavilion, too, has its own relationship with natural light, with variously sized and arranged clerestories and laylights in every one. There are carefully designed moments of connection to the wider landscape, including inside Room 7 (all pavilions are referred to as numbered rooms), marked out in mood and material by a white maple interior finish. Functioning as a viewing gallery, there is a showstopper, full-width glazed wall looking out onto the rolling scenery. A long bench, designed by Martin Puryear and Michael Hurwitz, is positioned facing the window, inviting visitors to sit and contemplate the framed nature, as if observing a living, breathing landscape painting.

The Passage, with poured-in-place concrete ceilings and terrazzo floors, is designed with floor-to-ceiling glazing, enabling constant views on to the water courtyard. Image Credit: Ron AmstutzThe Passage, with poured-in-place concrete ceilings and terrazzo floors, is designed with floor-to-ceiling glazing, enabling constant views on to the water courtyard. Image Credit: Ron Amstutz

The timber materiality in this room certainly breaks from the norm. The palette of the minimalist pavilions is entirely dominated by the pale grey of the concrete blocks, precast and individually poured using treated plywood formwork to create crisp, sharp-edged, smooth-planed blocks that allow the material to speak, albeit within a highly controlled framework.

This control did not come without effort, though. ‘We experimented and learned to trust the process,’ says Phifer of the casting, undertaken over the course of two years in North Carolina and Tennessee. Each block is unique. On the days they cast in the rain, the moisture left the concrete darker, while undertaking the process on hot dry days resulted in paler tones. ‘The blocks form this tapestry of what the material is,’ says Phifer. And why concrete? ‘We wanted to find a material that was not precious, but also a material you understood as handmade and expressive of what it is,’ he adds. Mitch Rales agrees: ‘The idea was to take a very ordinary material and make something extraordinary.’

The viewing gallery, Room 7, breaks with the concrete aesthetic with its white maple interior finish. A long bench, designed by Murtin Puryear and Michael Hurwitz, invites visitors to sit and contemplate the landscape. Image Credit: Iwan Baan, Courtesy Of Thomas Phifer and PartnersThe viewing gallery, Room 7, breaks with the concrete aesthetic with its white maple interior finish. A long bench, designed by Murtin Puryear and Michael Hurwitz, invites visitors to sit and contemplate the landscape. Image Credit: Iwan Baan, Courtesy Of Thomas Phifer and Partners

The material’s aesthetic permeates Glenstone — even the staff guides, who double as security, are dressed in a uniform of pale grey. (Does it sometimes feel as if you are at an expensive psychiatric facility in the countryside? Yes — but a very beautiful one.)

Separate to the main 11-pavilion gallery complex, further along the outdoor pathway, lies the cafe pavilion. Like the Arrival Hall, this structure has a cedarwood exterior and white maple interior, with a glazed wall again providing a powerful, experiential connection to the nature outside — this time, dense woodland. After the cafe pavilion, the pathway takes visitors to the original Gallery building, now used for temporary exhibitions; after that, there is another new cafe building, the Patio — this time in zinc, granite and teak to complement the Gallery, with a terrace attached overlooking the landscape. This is followed by a woodland trail and set of pedestrian footpaths leading you throughout the extensive grounds, dotted with site-specific artworks: Richard Serra’s corten steel Contour 290 (2004) slices through a field of tall grass; Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s sound installation FOREST (for a thousand years…; 2012) positively shakes the trees of the woodland it’s installed in with loud, overwhelming noises of explosions, gun fire, screams and choral song.

The outdoor ‘Room 5’ contains Michael Heizer’s Collapse (1967/2016), a 5m-deep pit full of huge corten steel beams. Image Credit: Iwan Baan, Courtesy Of Thomas Phifer and PartnersThe outdoor ‘Room 5’ contains Michael Heizer’s Collapse (1967/2016), a 5m-deep pit full of huge corten steel beams. Image Credit: Iwan Baan, Courtesy Of Thomas Phifer and Partners

And this really is the purpose of Glenstone, inside and out: the art. Emily and Mitch Rales wanted a setting befitting of their collection, which forms an impressive body of modern art — from Marcel Duchamp and Jackson Pollock to Yayoi Kusama and Roni Horn. ‘The building came alive when the art was installed,’ Phifer says, whose practice is also now working on the Museum of Modern Art Warsaw. Considering just how integral some of the architecture is to the presentation of the art, there’s little reason to doubt the sincerity of this lofty statement. Part of the Glenstone ‘slow art’ approach involves longer-term installation of works, so that certain pieces are in situ over years rather than months. ‘It was somewhat of a unique brief,’ explains Phifer. ‘It seems museums today are organised around flexible space, but here the building was borne from the brief. The rooms are designed to have particular proportions, particular qualities of light, to suit the artworks.’

The outdoor ‘Room 5’ contains Michael Heizer’s Collapse (1967/2016), a 5m-deep pit full of huge corten steel beams. Image Credit: Iwan Baan, Courtesy Of Thomas Phifer and Partners

In the tallest of the pavilions, the 12m-high, tower-like Room 3, just three pieces are installed: On Kawara’s Moon Landing paintings (1969). The soaring nature of the space enhances this contemplation of space travel. Room 5, meanwhile, is not really a room at all; it is an enclosed outdoor courtyard, dominated by Michael Heizer’s Collapse (1967/2016), an arresting work including a 5m-deep pit full of 15, seemingly disarrayed, corten steel beams. There is no barrier, rendering the pit a potential danger to visitors — as such, only three people are allowed out into the courtyard, per invigilator, at a time; inevitably heightening the experiential quality. ‘We thought about installing a fence but then decided it was important not to,’ says Emily Rales. ‘With Tom [Phifer], we also decided to remove the roof, leaving it open to the sky and making the art feel part of the earth.’

Phifer’s buildings have an ethereal presence that belies their materiality. Image Credit: Iwan Baan, Courtesy Of Thomas Phifer and PartnersPhifer’s buildings have an ethereal presence that belies their materiality. Image Credit: Iwan Baan, Courtesy Of Thomas Phifer and Partners

Unusually for a private collection, Glenstone is free to visitors. Emily Rales describes this as a guiding vision of inclusivity that aims to bring great art to all; local residents I know comment that if it weren’t free — like most of DC’s museums — ‘no one would bother to go’. Still, it brings home the fact that such an extensive collection and impressive setting has only been possible thanks to the extreme personal wealth of the museum’s founders. This is what a project looks like without budgetary restrictions.

Phifer’s pavilions are immersive, transportative, contemplative, and rooted in raw, minimal materiality. There are echoes of Tadao Ando, Peter Zumthor and Carlo Scarpa, clear influences, but Glenstone doesn’t feel like copycat architecture. For those that choose to make the journey to this sleepy, wealthy, verdant part of Maryland, they will be rewarded with a beautiful — and peaceful — experience of art, architecture and landscape.

This article was published in Blueprint Magazine Issue 361. Buy the issue here, or subscribe to Blueprint





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