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Florida Art Museum Master Plan Unveiled

Interior rendering of the Norton Museum of Art, located in West Palm Beach, Florida, which displays a grand new entrance
The Norton Museum of Art, located in West Palm Beach, Florida, has unveiled a master plan created by London-based architecture firm Foster + Partners. The plan, which creates a grand new entrance for the museum, will provide expanded gallery space, educational facilities, and gathering areas. Foster + Partners

The Norton Museum of Art, in West Palm Beach, Florida, has unveiled a master plan outlining its next 20 years of growth.

January 7, 2014—Last month, the Norton Museum of Art, located in West Palm Beach, Florida, unveiled a master plan created by the London-based architecture firm Foster + Partners that is expected to guide the art museum’s next 20 years of growth. The highlight of the design—which offers expanded gallery and meeting spaces—is a striking new entryway that not only offers three pavilions that will provide gathering and educational space for visitors, but does so while incorporating an aged ficus tree located on the site into the museum’s grand entrance.

The museum’s original building, designed in the late art deco/neoclassical style by architect Marion Sims Wyeth, of the Palm Beach-based firm Wyeth, King, & Johnson, opened in 1941. Wyeth designed the original building on an east-west axis, surrounding a central courtyard, notes Spencer de Grey, RIBA, the joint head of design at Foster + Partners. The design for the current master plan was spearheaded by Michael Wurzel, RIBA, a partner in the firm.

In the original design, the museum’s entrance on the western end of the building offered unhampered views of the Intracoastal Waterway, which runs parallel to the Atlantic Ocean. Over the years as additions were undertaken, the entrance was relocated to the southern side of the building, nearer to a dedicated drive offering access and limited parking spaces. “Inevitably, as can happen in the process of expanding the museum over the years, the clarity of the original design, I think, has been lost,” de Grey says.

The new master plan design, de Grey explains, creates a grand entrance that restores the museum’s original east-west axis design, albeit one with an entrance located on the eastern side of the building, opposite the original entrance’s location. “Because the use of the roads around the site [has] changed rather significantly since the 1940s, we’re moving the entrance diametrically opposite the original entrance and off the [current] main street, which is South Dixie Highway,” he says.

Exterior rendering of the Norton Museum of Art which displays a thin, cantilevering roof

Three pavilions, part of the new grand entrance to the museum,
will be unified by a
thin, cantilevering roof that will provide solar
shading and rain protection for a new outdoor courtyard and
reflecting pool.
Foster + Partners

The three pavilions that will form the grand entrance to the museum will be linked to the museum itself, but each will offer separate entrances so that they can be used individually for special events. The pavilions are “united by a single all-embracing roof,” says de Grey.

The thin, cantilevering roof that unites these pavilions will have a partially reflective surface and will be bookended on one side by an existing three-story addition, known as the Nessel Wing. On the other side, the entrance will be anchored by the ficus tree, which dates back at least 150 years, according to de Grey. An oval cutout in the roofline will partially encircle the span of the tree, welcoming it into the grand entranceway as an architectural focal point.

“The goal was to have a master plan [that] would help us to grow in a considered and rational way,” says James Brayton Hall, the deputy director of the museum. Because the museum is one that continually adds to its collections, “We have to plan for the future,” Hall says. “Because not only the amount of art we collect, but the sort of art we collect changes and grows and the museum [building] is meant to respond.”

Over the last few decades, the mission of museums as public spaces has expanded, says Hall. Museums now typically include space that can be used for gathering, discussions, and entertaining, as well as for educational purposes. “The way that museums are used nowadays has changed substantially and museums have functions that relate to public, nonart presentation functions,” Hall says. In total, the new entryway will include approximately 25,000 sq ft of space that can be used in various ways to expand the museum’s mission to open its doors to the community and visitors.

Of the three new spaces, the central pavilion will be used as a large-scale gathering space, much like a 19th-century salon in which people gathered for informal discussions of art, de Grey notes. Hall adds that while it will not be dedicated gallery space, the 4,800 sq ft central pavilion will potentially include site-specific temporary installations. To the north of this central space will be an auditorium pavilion; to the south will be a pavilion that will be used for dining functions and the museum shop.

An exterior rendering of the Norton Museum which displays the grand entrance that will integrate two existing elements of the museum site

The grand entrance will integrate two existing elements of the
museum site. The three-story Nessel Wing will bookend one side
of the new entrance and an aged ficus tree will anchor the opposite
side. An oval cutout in the roofline will partially encircle the span of
the tree, integrating it into the design.
Foster + Partners

The overarching entrance roof will also cover a new outdoor courtyard, offering both solar shading and protection from rain for visitors. A reflecting pool will also be added as part of the new entrance, according to de Grey. The new, expanded entrance “will be quite a dramatic change to the whole public image of the Norton,” de Grey says. “It will, I hope, have a sort of timeless elegance about it.

“I think that you can create a completely contemporary new image for a building that fits happily within the basic geometry of the original,” de Grey says. By offering an architectural counterpoint to the original design and building on the east-west circulation patterns established 70 years ago, the new entryway fits in with the existing museum structure, “but also provides a radical new image,” de Grey says. “I think that the two work very well together.”

Additional land purchased by the museum over the years includes a parking lot located across the main highway from the museum, which allows the master plan to reimagine how space is currently allocated on the museum’s campus, de Grey says. The new grand entrance will be located across from the existing parking lot, creating a more natural pedestrian access route to the museum’s entrance, he says.

The museum’s current driveway, which is located alongside the building and its current southern entrance, will be reclaimed and turned into a garden space, “which will then strategically allow us to develop an idea of a museum in a garden,” de Grey says. “Given the climate in Florida, that will allow us to use outdoor gardens for display, particularly of sculptures, in relationship to the internal displays, and allow us to develop outdoor activities including eating areas…to make a much better relationship between the interior spaces and these new gardens.” 

The ground floor of the Nessel Wing will house a café/restaurant, opening up into the garden, that can operate independently of the museum, supporting after-hours events.

While plans are still preliminary, Hall notes that the museum’s board of trustees is currently discussing a three-phase implementation of the project. The first phase will include the grand entrance, construction of which could be tied to the museum’s 75th anniversary in 2016, Hall says. The second and third phase would potentially include two symmetrical gallery spaces to be located on either side of the existing museum building, opposite the new entrance.



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