Art in the architecture

A dialogue with Will Bruder, designer of the new Nevada Museum of Art, a building that will keep people talking

Will Bruder designed the new art museum with Reno’s unique needs in mind.

Will Bruder designed the new art museum with Reno’s unique needs in mind.

Photo By David Robert

It’s actually designed to draw you—and visitors to Reno—downtown.

Ground will break in April on the Nevada Museum of Art’s new building, which is meant to be a metaphor for the Nevada landscape. The building could be completed in about a year.

Will Bruder designed the structure, which will reside at the old museum’s location, 160 W. Liberty St. He is, by all accounts, a talented designer of buildings, having won national and international awards for his intriguing materials and unique sense of artistry.

The new museum will be a four-story, 55,000-square-foot facility with more than 13,000 square feet of galleries, a state-of-the-art theater, research library and study center, cafe and rooftop sculpture garden. It will cost more than $10 million to construct.

Bruder has designed more than 400 commissions, gaining particular acclaim for buildings he’s done in the West, especially the Phoenix Central Library.

“I’m interested in buildings that affect the sense of art in a community,” he says. “And I really find cultural buildings to be the biggest challenges and the most rewarding ones.”

With his graying, close-cropped hair and rugged beard, Bruder, 56, could pass as a constructor worker installing tile on a rooftop or a gentle intellectual sipping wine at a gallery.

Among his other accomplishments, he wears really cool eyeglasses. The Reno News & Review caught up with Bruder at his office in Phoenix and at a NMA fund-raiser in Reno.

What were the particular challenges of designing the Nevada Museum of Art?

The particular challenge was to create a 21st century museum in function and dynamic that presents a unique cultural image to the community and becomes a special piece of sculpture in the museum’s collection. It would encourage people to be excited, to come on in, to check it out, and [it would] be a point of pride for the community … a building with strong power in its form and an interesting celebration of space that functions in a unique way to make it a treat to visit.

When you say “unique cultural image,” does that include the landscape?

The building is a metaphor for the natural geologic landscape of the region. In color and form and reaction to the sculptural qualities of it, we have to look at things on the edge of the Black Rock Desert and the foothills and the mountains going toward Lake Tahoe. We look to those places for clues on what the aesthetic of this, the beauty of this, is going to be about.

How does the surrounding neighborhood affect that?

From that standpoint, we were trying to design a building that would integrate the high-rise business district of Reno with the mid-scale, office restaurant qualities that branch into it, and then branch into residential [areas] very quickly.

The building has more to do with sculpture and landscape than it does with the expected image of a “building” that people might have. As it sits there, it’s going to be a big building, a large building to meet the needs of the program. The loft and spaces inside are to have clear space for the freedom to bring all kinds of art to the community that it’s never had before.

We believe, however, by the use of folded planes of antra-zinc, and the textural quality of it and the nature of it, that it’s going to appear mysterious. It’s going to appear elegant. It’s going to recede in size while being a very interesting statement. It’s going to be a beautifully serious building and, on the other hand, it’s going to have a playfulness in its geometry that will cause people to look at it. Between its curves and its angles and its tapering form, it almost looks like a block of stone that was carved by a sculptor rather than built by craftsmen.

You were a sculptor before you came to architecture. How did that come about?

My only formal training is as a sculptor. My work is known for its celebration of materials in unique ways and the honest expression of materials and the whole take on things. I take a lot of pleasure out of that. I’m very interested in the way materials meet and the way voids reframe your view from the inside as well as from the outside. There’s lots of that happening in this building.

Do you see your work as a giant installation, as opposed to a building?

For me, a definition of architecture is a balance of poetry and pragmatism, or function and form. I’m looking for a balance. These are buildings that have that duality about them, so to say they are installations, yes, that’s there on one level for people who know art and installation-type art—that these are sort of permanent installations that occupy and affect neighborhoods and communities. It’s architecture that lets you see the world in a different way after you’ve experienced it. It broadens the way that you look at your world. I guess that’s what installation art does, and what all art does. Art raises questions.

Again, art enhances our way to understand and look at our world around us, while architecture serves the purposes of serving a goal. The goal of this museum is to engage people in the possibilities of art and to the collection inside and to allow [Nevada Museum of Art Director] Steven [High] and his staff to present that art in the finest way. [This building] is going to provide places for social gathering, whether it be the great atrium lobby and social space that soars to the sky or whether it be the auditorium, which is this wonderful amenity that’s as fine as any auditorium that you’d find in any great museum. There’s a cafe, there are the amenities of a shop and a series of art spaces that go from intimate to grand to this wonderful engagement with the sky with the rooftop garden. So it’s going to be pretty nifty.

I’m curious about your leap from sculptor to architect. How did that come about?

By good fortune, or just the way it was when I was studying architecture. I was accepted by a traditional school back in the ‘60s, and I had the good fortune to be working in a really fine studio doing some really interesting work. As that evolved, I decided to stay in Milwaukee at the time, where I lived and had this job, and took courses in the art school, saying, “Well, next year I’ll enroll in the architecture school.”

Well, next year became another experience and another growth factor. And then I came to the desert, and then I went back and finished [school], and at that point it was more important to me to get involved in my art form, which was architecture.

So I had formal training as an artist, and yet I’ve had training equally as an engineer and an urban planner and an art historian and a philosopher. I’ve had a diverse education. When I finished, by interesting coincidence, with that art background, I took a job and was a student of Eero Saarinen, and the first job I worked on was the Contemporary Art Museum in Houston, Texas. So literally, one of the first buildings I was ever involved in was an art museum. And then, recently, I completed the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, as well as the Phoenix Central Library, which has won international acclaim.

I focus my practice now on doing buildings of culture; so I do museums, I do libraries. I’m now working on a competition for a federal courthouse. So I’m interested in buildings that affect the sense of art in a community, and I really find cultural buildings to be the biggest challenges and the most rewarding ones.

Do you still do sculpture?

I work on some furniture, some light fixtures, some items that way. The buildings tend have a sculptural quality about them. My formal training as a sculptor was designed to prepare me to be an architect on one level. So as far as the studio sculptures that I once did, I haven’t had time to get back to [them], but I would like to get back to them. Photography is an art form I enjoy. There have been some recent buildings where I’ve been out on site with the workers and virtually designed in the field with the masons, with the builders. It’s very gratifying.

Where did you get your glasses?

My glasses are Danish. They are called “air titaniums,” and they are really, really, really light. The hinge doesn’t have a screw. They were in the Museum of Modern Art’s materials exhibit about 10 years ago. I went there on a summer weekend, and I saw the show. I immediately called and tracked them down. They’re really good. They’re quite comfortable.

Are you a Westerner by birth?

No, I came from the Midwest.

But it sounds like you’re a Westerner by temperament.

There’s definitely a Western openness of attitude and spirit of adventure in my heart and my mind.

What aspects of the museum are you most proud of so far? I realize it’s hard to say because construction hasn’t begun.

Right now I’m excited about the way that it sort of engages its site. With its curving sculptural form, it leads you from the residential neighborhood to the city. It just draws you into the downtown. It has a really good synergy about it, as far as sculptural form. I’m excited about that.

I’m excited about the quality and sequence of art spaces that we’ve created within it. I think potentially that grand atrium space—this main light well, which is topped by two sculptural skylights and inserted with a really beautiful stair—as well as the auditorium space—are two of the best spaces I’ve designed in 35 years of being an architect. They are strong and simple, and I look forward to the day that I will stand in the bottom of that atrium space and start the journey up through the museum.

I’ve a friend who is fond of saying, “Landscape is character.” Does that resonate with you?

What rings with me, especially in the West, is that our awareness of the world is broadened by the distance of the horizon and further informed by the color of light and its qualities throughout the changes of the year. I don’t know that I would have come up with this scheme or this building in a dense urban mix of Boston. There’s something that’s very free about this building that I hope will [be tied] to people’s memory of having visited the region, not just the town.

What else strikes you as important about this project?

We’ve tried to be quite conscious of the fact that a museum is a very energy-intensive building. The reason for that is that there are standards of expectation regarding humidity and climate control in museums that are as strenuous on a 24-hour basis as almost any building type. We’ve tried to be really responsible with energy systems.

[Also important is] the fact that our dark, antra-zinc skin on the western edge—to some people’s minds it’s going to be, “Oh, my God, it’s going to catch the sun and heat up, and isn’t that strange?” But it’s actually held away from the building and provides a solar chimney to help insulate the building. As the heat draws through the antra-zinc, that heat is evacuated through the void between the weatherproofing of the building and the skin. So that’s a pretty exciting thing.

Going through the museum will be in many ways like an architectural choreography of dance, and so there is going to be a really interesting sense of discovery and flow that will greatly enhance the presentation of the collections that are owned by the museum, as well as the dynamic of discovery with the traveling exhibits that will be attracted by the new building.

How important is energy consciousness in architecture these days?

There’s an awful lot of discussion these days about green buildings. Not totally in this country like in Europe, because we don’t have an ethos yet where we talk about green, although we are starting to get the discussion going. But there are a few architects, a few major corporations that are saying, “We’ll be an example.” Ford, as they rebuild all of their facilities in Detroit, is making that a cause. Hopefully, their cars will follow that.

There’s a much stronger ethos in Europe. They’re building high-rises that are 70 stories tall that don’t need air conditioning, that are naturally ventilated, that have gardens 50 stories in the air. That’s just part of the sensibility. You either build that way, or you don’t build. There’s no choice.

We have some energy laws in California and a few states, but it isn’t a greater spirit of an idea—energy consciousness—that we share yet. It needs to come from the public sector. The government, in new building programs, is starting to stress it, so that’s good. But it’s a man’s vision, the one who’s in charge of what the government builds, rather than a bureaucracy’s vision. So that’s cool, but you need a president, you need a leader, you need somebody to stand up and say, “This makes sense,” set some examples, and really make a big hoopla about it. I don’t see that happening yet. But when you look at a smaller example of a state or a city, the resources and funds are not there right now, even if there was the vision.

As we get more examples of good buildings, we’ll be more aware of them. The public can see that if it saves energy, then it’s cool. People would like to be led there, but there’s nobody to lead.

Does the new awareness of terrorism affect your building designs?

Right now I’m pursuing some federal courthouse work. There are certain things that you’re concerned about. I heard a security expert in the federal system who is knowledgeable about federal courthouses. His basic statement to an architect friend of mine was, “Just make a nice building, because if I want to get you, I’m going to get you. You can’t do anything beyond that, so use common sense. Don’t make it obviously easy.”

What do you think of Reno’s architecture in general?

The architecture in Reno is not unlike most of the New West. It has gotten caught up in the automobile and distance. There’s too much space between the architecture that exists in these communities, and the cities take over the landscape. Maybe the spaces in between the buildings in our cities are more important than the buildings themselves. And that goes back to your mention of landscape. Somehow the spaces in between buildings are some of the most beautiful spaces, be it on campuses or in downtowns. The buildings are not nearly as vibrant as the landscape they occupy.

The museum has a lot of metaphor from the Black Rock Desert to some of the basaltic shifts and forms, and my library in Phoenix is all about a mesa, very abstract, almost like some of the land sculptures of the late 20th century that I really enjoy and admire.

In Phoenix, we don’t talk about buildings; it’s the same in Reno. You talk about features, like in Phoenix it’s Camelback Mountain, South Peak and South Mountain. We talk about the geologic landscape of mountains and peaks and mesas and ridges. We don’t talk about buildings in the West like they do in the Midwest or the East.

Are there solutions to the urban sprawl that we are experiencing in the West?

There is a contradiction with cities in the West. People are drawn here because of the vastness of the landscape that is totally compelling. There’s this love affair and infatuation with it. The access to that landscape is the automobile. It seems that our cities are developing with the individual in mind—individual property, individual acres, individual developments—and yet we really have this desire to go to the undisturbed landscape. It’s a contradiction at one level that we’re letting our cities sprawl. We’re escaping from our cities every weekend, every time we can.

If we design more compact, more efficient and more intelligent cities, they would be more functional and more efficient to live in. They wouldn’t consume as much of that landscape. We could have a better lifestyle.

The last 20 years for this region have just been over the top. Cities are so young, they are filled with a lot of buildings that are very temporary in their appearance; they’re very standard. They’re franchise restaurants. They’re the Home Depots. They’re the Lowe’s. They’re the gas stations. If you drive around one of our cities and you look at the horizons, you don’t know where you are.

There is a phenomenon of medium density—four and five stories high—starting to develop. That is exciting. Neighborhoods are starting to develop with some reasonableness. There’s a look at old things, as far as gentrifying neighborhoods. A perfect example of that is the neighborhood where the museum was and will be in its new configuration. It’s a nifty little neighborhood. There’s a real sense of walking and living and eating and enjoying yourself … you could live in that neighborhood and probably bike or walk to every situation around there. So it becomes: When do we reach critical mass with those kinds of environments, [becoming] something that people are really willing to buy into?

Who are your influences?

I’ve had many, many mentors. I guess that I’m influenced by nature; influenced by the vernacular. I’m influenced by history, and I’m influenced by my contemporaries as architects. I’m influenced by the landscape architect [Frederick Law] Olmsted, who did Central Park. I’m influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Kahn. I’m influenced by a myriad of architects and experiences. I’m a perpetual student—always will be. I’m a very curious person. I ask lots of questions.

My goal was to come to Reno, not to bring myself there, but to bring a style of asking questions that result in a language of the place, and so I’m trying to create a uniqueness that has ownership and resonance in the place it was created for.

So you came to Reno to present Reno with itself?

Exactly. That’s it. You got it.