PRINT February 2003




The big new space for big newish art that the Dia Art Foundation will open this May in Beacon, New York, should be a very big deal. Dia:Beacon’s impeccably renovated industrial building, designed by Robert Irwin and OpenOffice architects, makes 240,000 square feet of gallery space available to Dia’s curators to arrange their seldom-seen trove of oversize installations and comprehensive series. This embarrassment of elbow room has been tailored to the biggest works of Dia’s big collection of big-impact artists, including Dan Flavin, Joseph Beuys, On Kawara, Hanne Darboven, Agnes Martin, Robert Ryman, Michael Heizer, Fred Sandback, and, of course, Richard Serra. And that’s just the ground floor; there’s an attic for Louise Bourgeois and a moody half-basement that will be given over entirely to temporary shows. If just that space were opening, it would have been enough.

With the big names and big building there will inevitably be big buzz, and with Dia:Beacon only an eighty-minute train ride and a short walk away from Grand Central, big, big crowds. Bring them on. For when they get to the art-world outpost on the Hudson, just past the funky main streets of a former mill town that was until recently another upstate casualty, visitors will also get a much-needed dose of architectural restraint.

At Dia:Beacon, mass art consumption has at last found a vital alternative to the quickly fading glories of the marquee museum. That whole cycle of high-flying form that might be said to have started at the new Louvre and certainly found full flower in Bilbao, that look-at-me impulse that set all jaws to snapping about commercial ambitions and the friction between architecture and art, that indulgent movement that now looks like nothing less than creative culture’s own bubble-era fling, is here brought down to earth with a resounding and welcome thud.

It all starts at the approach. As you walk from the train station, a slight rise provides a vantage over the pancake expanse of the brick-and-steel shed, a circa 1929 Nabisco box-printing factory. Don’t expect to be awed; apart from a tiny, tacked-on entrance and a general scrub, the outside of the building has not been changed. Next, one descends into a parking lot that distills the best of what Robert Irwin learned from his Getty Center gardens: canny use of Cor-Ten steel and deliberate placement of trees. It’s perfect. Elsewhere, in a side garden that leads to a must-see Temple of Serra, Irwin seems to have veered back toward the awkward glam of that other design. In the building proper, Dia benefited from the moderating intelligence of OpenOffice, a young New York firm wise enough to skip gewgaws and pretension. The entry, tomb-dark and only ten strides deep, sets the stage for a shockingly abrupt step into the beinahe nichts of the galleries. There is no traffic control and no fuss, just a threshold beyond which all is white walls and soaring ceilings, a space lit by 30,000 square feet of north-facing skylights—and, of course, the art. An immense stainless steel Walter De Maria floor piece will be the only thing on anybody’s mind right there. Andy Warhol’s “Shadows” (all 102 of them) are to the left, a landscape of plywood Judds around to the right. Michael Govan, Dia’s director, calls this point “the moment of mock-ethical decision.” With no imposed routes, from here on, you’re in an architectural authorship–free zone.

Dia:Beacon is no ascetics’ retreat. But the whole experience is shot through with the Foundation’s trademark sobriety. Ticketing, feeding, and museum shop mammon have all been relegated to a wing on the margins; as at Dia’s Chelsea space, gallery signage will be spare, with interpretive language out of sight in take-one brochures. Looking at Dia:Beacon, most will assume that the old factory just got a new coat of paint. The genius of the design is that it will leave visitors to wallow in that ignorance—and revel in the art.

Philip Nobel is a Brooklyn-based architecture and design critic.