Model Museum

How do you add new buildings to an old campus? The changes aren t always easy.

November/December 1998

Reading time min

Model Museum

Courtesy Cantor Center for the Visual Arts

“Watch your heads,” warns Tom Seligman, and a half-dozen hard hats bob up and down, ducking a tangle of cables hanging from the ceiling. “Over there will be the 19th-century European and American collection,” he says, gesturing to a room painted seafoam green. We follow him down a staircase, past a crew of welders at work on a railing. As he passes through an oversized doorway, Seligman announces triumphantly, “And now we are entering the new building.”

I look around. The old space -- the original Stanford Museum building -- has a neoclassical design, with a concrete exterior, marble veneer walls and a stately feel. This huge new addition is sleek and contemporary, with long halls, massive windows, walls of stucco and a bit of attitude. Even so, as I tour the complex with other writers and editors during this final stage of construction, the transition seems more subtle than stark.

When the museum reopens in January, both buildings will house paintings, sculptures and artifacts drawn from the University’s collection of 30,000 pieces. Renamed the Cantor Center for the Visual Arts, the complex, as Diane Manuel reports in our cover story, will have 18 galleries, a room of Stanford family memorabilia, a gift shop and a cafe. (I’ll have the cheeseburghers of Calais, hold the onions.)

The challenge for campus planners was to find a way to fuse the old and new into a coherent whole. “We wanted an addition that was sympathetic to the original building but didn’t just imitate it,” says David Neuman, the University architect. To generate options, Neuman staged a design competition in 1994, inviting 18 firms to submit proposals. The work was reviewed by a committee that included Neuman, museum director Seligman and several members of the Board of Trustees. The panel was chaired by University President Gerhard Casper, who a few years earlier had urged Neuman to institute design competitions for all major construction and is, says Neuman, “very much a student of architecture.”

In the end, three finalists submitted detailed models. Architect William Turnbull suggested an addition that, by using columns and other historical features, flowed almost seamlessly from the old building. James Polshek proposed a modern structure, with plenty of glass, steel and right angles. Arata Isozaki’s plan was more modern yet, combining flat planes of concrete and a curving skylight. The committee chose Polshek’s design, believing it complemented the old building without upstaging it.

Adding new buildings to an old campus is always tricky. That’s especially true at Stanford, where the original structures are architecturally distinctive. If planners slavishly insist on historical consistency, they could turn the campus into a “theme park,” says Seligman. But if new construction goes unmanaged, says Neuman, Stanford risks becoming “like Houston” -- as he says it did in the 1980s.

Neuman was hired a decade ago to apply some discipline to campus growth. His credo: use colors and materials that are harmonious with the current buildings, and return to the drawings of the original planners to determine siting and landscaping. “We want buildings to be of Stanford, not simply at Stanford,” he says. “We don’t want the huge glass box. That wouldn’t be fitting.”

What is fitting is that the museum will open with an exhibit devoted to its design. Called “Three Models: Building on the Past,” the exhibit will sit in the main gallery of the new building, next to the visiting Picasso show. Now you can study the models and play campus planner. Just don’t turn the place into Houston.

You can send e-mail to Bob at

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