loud paper interviews architect Linda Taalman

Dia:Beacon, the new museum designed for the Dia Foundation’s permanent collection, opened on May 18. Located on the Hudson an hour north of New York, the museum is housed in an old Nabisco box factory. Linda Taalman and her partners at OpenOffice, an architectural firm and arts collaborative with expertise in exhibition design, were hired to collaborate with Robert Irwin on the renovation of the building. (Taalman and Alan Koch have since left OpenOffice to start TK Architecture in Los Angeles.)

LP: How did OpenOffice get involved in the Dia:Beacon project?

LT: Michael Govan and Lynne Cooke came to visit us in January of 1999 after learning of a complex conceptual project that Alan Koch and I had developed, with the assistance of Rodney Hill, called Houses x Artists, in which we invited twelve artists to collaborate on designing twelve houses for a book and exhibition project. Some of the artists involved in Houses x Artists were artists that they had worked with in the past. They were interested in how we approached working with artists in making architecture. This was before they had formed a final decision about an architect to work with them on the Nabisco factory building that they also did not own yet. An adjoining property being developed by Scenic Hudson was in the works and Dia thought we might propose a project for Scenic Hudson in tune with Dia’s aspirations.

As we were developing analyses of this adjacent site, Dia began a project with Jorge Pardo for their facility on 22nd street. The project was to remodel the ground floor into a new lobby, gallery and bookstore space with a much more open public façade than the original [Richard] Gluckman design. They invited us to work with Jorge on the project to help facilitate the architectural transformation of the space. After [this], they realized we might actually be the right people to collaborate with Robert Irwin, who they had begun discussing the Beacon project with, in renovating the 300,000 square-foot facility from factory to museum.

When they first proposed this idea we were surprised, and didn’t know how to respond—we said we would need to think about it and develop a team that would be appropriate for the project. At that point we invited another architect, Lyn Rice, who had experience on large scale building projects and had recently left Diller + Scofidio, to collaborate with us on the project. With our combined experience as a team, now comprised of Alan Koch, Lyn Rice, Galia Solomonoff (recently of OMA), and myself, we felt we had a strong capability to execute the project.

LP: In contrast to some of the smaller, temporary exhibitions you’ve designed, how did you approach working on a project of this scale and permanence?

LT: We approached the project from a very pragmatic perspective. Given the scale of the building, there is an economy of means that we recognized as absolutely necessary. Given the strength of the building—already blessed with ninety north-light skylights, beautiful wood floors and some very powerful spaces—and the content of the permanent collection—minimal and early conceptual sculpture from the 1960s and 1970s—the raw industrial character of the space was an asset that made sense to take advantage of.

Early on in the process someone said to us that we had to do nothing with great precision, and we took that to heart. Our role models were Donald Judd, Robert Smithson, Richard Serra, Michael Heizer and the other artists of the collection, and our guru was Robert Irwin. Early on we traveled to Marfa with Michael and Lynne and several others to see the buildings that Judd had renovated to contain his sculptures, and learned how fine-tuning a building to align with its content could be perfected. Alan and I also did a tour of recent museums and buildings in Europe, including a few projects in Switzerland and Germany that dealt with light as an essential substance of the museum architecture, from Peter Zumthor’s Kunsthaus Bregenz to Renzo Piano’s Beyeler Foundation and Gigon & Guyer’s Davos Museum.

Even though the scale of the project spatially and its permanence differed radically from our other projects, the complexity of the collaborative team was not that different from trying to mediate a large group of artists in designing conceptual houses and communicate this to curators, other artists and architects, and the public. We were mediators first and foremost.

LP: What was it like working with Robert Irwin?

LT: Working with Bob was an amazing experience. He is incredibly open to discovery and a teacher at heart, not to mention wise, with 40-plus years experience of practice. We were brats comparatively, and sometimes our role was to be a pain in the ass in making the building work. Bob looked at the project quite differently than an architect would; without the historical background of architecture he saw the space as a phenomenological experience that had to be honed.

In the beginning our collaboration with Bob was long-distance, and we were working on very different aspects of the building. He was coming to the building and looking at the space between the material, and we were looking at the material. We met at the interventions between the new and the old. Bob moved to New York to be able “to run his hands over the place” on a daily level, and we started to see more of each other.

The interesting thing about working with Bob is how much faster he could work than us. We had a team of four-plus architects who had to reach consensus before a design could be presented; he only had to make the decision himself. We had hundreds of AutoCAD files and renderings, and he had a dozen hand-drawn pencil sheets. Bob was involved in every major decision about how to organize the building and how it related to the garden and exterior spaces. He was involved with the flows through the space, of people and of light. Once the building schematics were finalized, we focused on realizing the project as a functional and economical museum building, and Bob focused on the gardens.

LP: What kind of challenges did you face in transforming a factory space into an art space?

LT: The challenge in transforming the space was how to do it with the least amount of material and most amount of effect, and keep it in tune with the art that would be housed there and make it all look like it had always belonged there. As Bob put it, we had to make sure “not to wreck the building”—it was already such a great space.

The building had been designed in 1929 to have natural light evenly distributed in many of the spaces, to facilitate the printers’ judgment of the color of the Nabisco boxes they were printing. So it was designed for the best possible viewing conditions already. There were demands placed on the building design to facilitate the curatorial layout of the art and to marry the art with the architectural experience.

The building design also had demands placed on it in terms of the code and life safety. We had to place new exits, new stairs and elevators, and fire systems to meet the requirements. But most of all the challenge was in getting the subtlety exactly right. We spent hours contemplating what type of glass should be used, should this glass be clear or translucent, should the wall end at this beam or the next beam, should the new floor for the Serra be at this level or another, etc. The aesthetic decisions were dominated by the phenomenological and the subjective—in the end we had to trust our feelings.

LP: What is it about a former industrial space that seems so fitting for this particular museum and these artists?

LT: When much of this art was being made there was a questioning of both the museum-gallery complex and artists’ living and working spaces. Artists of the 1960s were moving into loft buildings in Soho and transforming the spaces into live/work lofts. That in turn inspired a rethinking of the relationship of the work they were creating with the spaces the work was created in. Simultaneously works were being created that were active within the gallery space, destroying its invisible and neutral quality. Richard Serra’s lead Splash pieces asserted that the gallery space was not only essential to the work’s presence but inseparably part of the work.

There was also an investigation into materials and techniques of mass production in art practice—the silkscreen technique of Warhol or the fluorescent lamps of Flavin, for example—that is echoed in the industrial. The process used to print Animal Cracker boxes is the same used to produce Warhol’s Shadow painting series, now at Beacon. Excepting some of the paintings, drawings and photographs of the collection, the works are also extremely durable, from Serra’s Torqued Ellipses to Michael Heizer’s North, East, South, West. The works have been or might easily be installed outdoors and therefore can endure the raw climactic conditions of industrial architecture.

LP: Given that all the specific decisions about placement of art were left to the museum staff (and the artists), how did you go about creating appropriate spaces for the art?

LT: Creating the layout of the galleries and detailing the spaces was driven by the curatorial decisions that Lynne Cooke made, and the artist’s responses to the spaces that they were given or had chosen. The space is not a neutral field that could receive any art; it is a custom-designed field that responds to the work.

In treating the spaces there were several critical steps: stripping back the space to the pure structure and material; removing it only where openings or radical spatial change was required to accommodate the art (as in the case of the Heizer, Judd’s plywood boxes, or Serra’s Ellipses); creating the limits of the gallery space and defining the amount of exposure each artist had to the other galleries or the outside views; and finally, adjusting and tweaking the standard details to complement the works installed. In the end, the reading of the space is more literary than mathematical and changes according to the script of the curated installation.

LP: New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman said that one experiences most of the art at Dia:Beacon as being “bound up with the building.” Does this mean the architecture is never a neutral presence? Does the building end up competing with any of the artworks?

LT: The building is now inextricably linked to the art. Our entire purpose in designing the building was to disappear, and make the art seem like it was made for the building and vice versa. The architecture is not a neutral presence, it is an active presence—but it is a stealth active presence.

LP: Dia:Beacon divides a very large amount of space among a very small number of artists. Yet Dia founder Heiner Friedrich calls even this extravagant ratio of space a “compromise” of his original mandate. What do you think about that?

LT: I found this to be a very interesting proposition. After Dia:Beacon it is very difficult to view other contemporary museum spaces in the same way. They all seem very crowded to me. After seeing Marfa and the Lightning Field, two of Heiner Friedrich’s major projects in his foundation of Dia, this is actually a rational statement. I can see how he might have dedicated the building to a couple of artists to transform it into a total and singular experience. Judd could have done the building alone. The vision Heiner has of art is so big, it does not respond to the demands or concerns of the museum space. Dia:Beacon is definitely a museum, albeit a new model of one.