The complex has been renovated and extended through an eco-friendly project that reconnects the museum with its surrounding landscape, strengthening its role as a cultural center for the city
We're in Little Rock, on the southern bank of the Arkansas River, in the heart of the United States, where humans have, over time, managed to claim their spaces while still depending on a natural environment that shows itself here to the extremes of its powers. Setting out from these foundations, Studio Gang ‒ in its first design for an art museum ‒ decided to rethink Little Rock's Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts not only in terms of architecture but also involving the whole of its surrounding context in the extension and upgrading works. The center reopened on 22 April.
The project provided an opportunity to strengthen the museum's role as a cultural center for the city of Little Rock, bringing together various volumes in an ecosystem where the landscape itself is also an element. The complex now opens towards the city and the surrounding nature: it connects up, by means of new sculptural pleated concrete roofing, the eight pre-existing units built in different styles after its initial 1937 inauguration. The roof idea immediately brought new potential to the complex, opening up multiple prospects for using spaces for the activities the center offers visitors and residents alike.
Grouping together, reorganizing the various museum purposes, linking up and reconnecting: these were the goals set by Studio Gang, which explained how the complex was designed above all to involve the local community and the surrounding landscape in the life of the cultural center, enabling interaction and a constant flow of movement.
"The Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts has been a beloved community anchor since its founding, but over time its main additions had resulted in a building that was isolated from the neighborhood and park. We saw the design as an opportunity to reconnect the building with its surroundings and to reimagine the existing structures in ways that would welcome visitors, and all of the vibrant, creative activities going on inside would be supported."
Jeanne Gang, Studio Gang founder and partner
The central extension to Arkansas Museum is a mega-project, given the amount of floor space involved: 44,333 m2 that expands on the exhibition gallery spaces and those for events, making it a single complex accessible from each end.
The new concrete roof narrows and widens as it crosses the museum hub ‒ a feature that has prompted its description as a structure "similar to a stem that blossoms outwards". Built with slim plates cast on site and arranged at angles, the concrete roof and its pleated effect pick up on the surrounding nature and vegetation. Besides its aesthetics, the roof shape has been designed in this way to accentuate the natural light effect in the interiors and to best drain rainwater, which can be particularly heavy in Arkansas in spring and autumn.
As well as the large spaces for the contemporary art gallery, which houses an important permanent collection, the museum also includes a library, a 350-seat theater, the Windgate Art School rooms and workshops for courses and research, a store centering on the museum works, and the Cultural Living Room ‒ a spacious glass-walled area serving as venue for temporary shows, conferences and social events. On the south-facing side, the roof's deep recesses create a covered terrace for the new Park Grill restaurant, fully immersed in MacArthur Park.
The project is made eco-sustainable not only by the structural aspects that the architects have introduced to increase energy efficiency: Studio Gang's supervision has also transformed the neighboring MacArthur Park, with this part of the works entrusted to the studio SCAPE.
This landscape design in fact provides 700 linear meters of new pathways, bespoke concrete benches and a new woody glade on the western boundary of the museum site. This is found alongside a sizeable planting of 250 new trees in the oldest section of the wood, where roughly 50 species of perennials, shrubs and ornamental grasses can be found. Besides these larger features, the SCAPE studio has also focused on smaller details, such as flowerbeds created with slaps of local sandstone to echo the shape of the museum's pleated roof.
The system for collecting rainwater for irrigation use is innovative in sustainability terms. This is paired with a bioswales system ‒ channels to direct and carry stormwater runoff while removing debris and pollution ‒ which brings the added advantage of recharging groundwater.
Location: Little Rock, Arkansas, United States
Client: Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts (AMFA)
Size: 12,360 m2
Architect: Studio Gang
Associate Architect: Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects
Structures: Thornton Tomasetti
Civil: McClelland Consulting Engineers
Cost Estimator: Venue Consulting
Lighting: Licht Kunst Licht
Project Manager: Ascent
General Contractor: Nabholz Construction, Pepper Construction and Doyne Construction Co.
Photography by Iwan Baan, Courtesy AMFA/Studio Gang