When Union General Sherman led his troops across Georgia in the American Civil War he was not prepared to be moved from his course of destroy-and-conquer by any resisting faction, let alone by a single town’s charm. However, when he arrived in Savannah, instead of razing its buildings like Atlanta before it, he decided to spare the nation’s last colonial city and gift wrap it for President Lincoln for Christmas. So powerful was Robert Oglethorpe’s 1733 urban plan that the houses and squares were saved from destruction.
With a significant historic preservation society stretching back 60 years and the largest designated historic area in the USA, it is rare for Savannah to watch ground-up design that isn’t either regionally inflected or tentatively secreted into preservation projects. Last month, however, the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) opened its new art museum; it is a building that reverses this process and stitches the old into the new.
‘It is more than architecture,’ says Christian Sottile, the museum’s lead architect, former SCAD graduate and professor at the college. ‘The museum is an ideology.’ Indeed, on one hand it is a physical manifestation of the college’s academic mission: for 33 years the college has expanded its curriculum, to include disciplines as wide-ranging as animation and design management, as well as its campuses – as of 2010 they include ones in Lacoste, France and Hong Kong. The museum includes classrooms and acts as a centrepiece for SCAD: a live lab for research and study.
On the other hand, the new building is in keeping with a long lineage of preservation in Savannah. Its monopoly of art colleges in the South – in 2006 it merged with Atlanta’s College of Art, making it one of the largest American art schools – began when the college channelled its resources into buying and restoring old buildings in Savannah to house its staff and students. SCAD’s portfolio has grown since 1978 to 75 buildings, around 190,000 sq m worth more than £11m, from shipyard storage units to elementary schools, repurposed as dorms, classrooms and studios.
Unlike the renovations of SCAD’s other academic buildings, however, the museum was a blank canvas. At least, there were options in direction the designers could take. The new two-storey building extends more than 150m from the original SCAD museum, a Greek Revival structure, which in its day was the headquarters of the Central of Georgia Railroad – the country’s last remaining antebellum railway complex.
Salvaging all that remained of the Savannah Grey bricks from the neglected and tumbling down depot building on site, the architects designed a building to rise again. Smooth concrete slabs slide out from behind a patchwork of broken brick walls. Fragments of original brick shell form frames around artwork hung behind glass enclosures: ‘jewel boxes’ that offer a street-side gallery. Inside, through the core of the 7,618 sq m, brick arches delineate the three main ground-floor galleries and stretch up to classrooms on the floor above, while reclaimed timber planks from the old depot clad the auditorium walls.
Crediting the contributions of SCAD’s diverse span of disciplines for the museum’s overall scheme, Sottile states: ‘The museum began with art.’ The project harnesses cutting-edge preservation techniques – researched at SCAD – and has integrated them behind the scenes, including the hurricane-resistant C-shaped channel glass in the entrance’s lantern; the delicate stabilising technique which installed a raft support underneath the old leaning walls, and the metal pins that bore through the old brickwork into concrete-cast styrofoam to retain their function.
It is the more visible aspects of furniture design and interactive technology and textiles, however, that rip the museum from the past into the future: Design Within Reach’s illuminated Chester Armchair, Trenton Doyle Hancock’s 3D wallpaper and Pentagram’s digital table make you feel like part of Mission Impossible while navigating the collection and are reminders that the college also exists outside of its historical context.
Perhaps it is impossible to extricate any building from its past. Unlike Moshe Safdie’s 2006 extension to the city’s Telfair Museum, whose stone and glass connector is a parody of classical proportions found in Savannah architecture, Sottile’s design lifts history alongside contemporary design as an equal. He has aligned the art museum with Oglethorpe’s masterplan. Its lantern stands 26mtall and acts as a beacon, joining the landmark spires and clocktowers that make up the skyline. Widely considered to be America’s first planned city, Savannah was loosely based on London’s town plan, and Oglethorpe’s Utopian grid was designed to offer respite from buildings; dwellings were punctuated with open plots of land. ‘Savannah is the most walkable city in America,’ says Sottile.
Nestling within existing parameters, the new building responds to the city’s famously punctuated streetscape and is interupted by a partly walled courtyard, the remnants of the original depot. For better or worse, the art museum’s historical modern design is aligned with the charm that halted Sherman’s March to the Sea 150 years ago.