Archive for the ‘Lobbies Stairs & Transitional Spaces’ Category

National Museum of the American Indian

April 7, 2014



NMAI exterior

The National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC is housed in a large, impressive building on the National Mall.


NMAI exterior detail

The “sweeping curvilinear architecture,” according to the NMAI website, is meant to help give visitors “the sense and spirit of Native America.”


NMAI atrium dome

The interior is dominated by a soaring atrium that, whatever its Native associations, puts me in mind of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum.


NMAI atrium floor

As in the Guggenheim, the atrium floor has lots of space for sitting down, stretching out, and/or attending a lecture or performance.


NMAI cafe

Unlike at the Guggenheim, with its gently sloping spiral ramp, visitors at NMAI have to change floors using either the stairs or the elevator. The first floor is dominated by the restaurant/cafe.


NMAI gift shop

On the second floor, the first thing you see is the large museum store.


NMAI gallery 1

Thanks to the dominance of the atrium, the galleries are relegated to the back half of the museum. In terms of visitor experience, they are nothing to write home about.


NMAI gallery 2

The permanent exhibitions include a standard mix of images, (lots of) text, electronic media, and life-size or semi-immersive exhibit components.


NMAI gallery 3

Traveling and temporary exhibitions tend to rely on traditional vitrines and wall displays.


NMAI wall text

Generally speaking, text is reasonably accessible — large enough and high contrast.


NMAI text 2


One very enjoyable feature of NMAI is that there are lots of places to simply sit, relax, and reflect…

NMAI sit space 1


NMAI sit space 2

… Many of them looking out a window, offering valuable relief to the eye and the spirit.


NMAI window

On the plus side, there is lots of natural light. On the minus side, there is lots of wasted space — empty areas that add nothing to the visitor experience.


Since the museum opened in 2004, much has been written about how successful NMAI is or is not in presenting the “American Indian experience” (if such a thing can be presented in a museum) — not to mention the Smithsonian’s vast holdings of Native objects. Speaking personally, I leave disappointed every time I visit. Too much space, too many bells and whistles, not enough objects, not enough tribes represented. For all the good will that went into its creation, there should be more.


Freer Collection, Washington, DC

April 5, 2014


The Freer Collection is one of the smaller, quieter museums in the Smithsonian complex. The galleries are refreshingly uncluttered.


Freer gallery with seatingq

 Some have seating.


Freer no seating 

Many do not.


Freer courtyard

The museum is built around a graceful courtyard, which offers eye relief as well as a tranquil outdoor space in good weather.


 Freer bench with arm rest

A few galleries have benches with arm rests — a feature that enables visitors to stand up and sit down more easily.


Freer wall label

Wall labels are adequate, for the most part, although the body text size should be larger for true accessibility. The labels should be more brightly lit too.


Freer bad label

One gallery had labels that were designed and hung in a truly maladroit manner — small type, low contrast, poorly lit, and well below eye level for most visitors.


 Sackler label

Meanwhile, an exhibition in the adjoining Sackler Gallery had well-lit, high-contrast labels at a good height. There is no reason the Freer could not do the same. 

Pedestrian Arcades: Good enough for the Renaissance

September 14, 2012

Summer here in San Francisco has been foggier than usual, which gets me thinking of our looming rainy season–which in turn puts me in mind of a great idea from the Renaissance that we encountered on a  visit to Italy a couple of years ago: pedestrian arcades.

They are a common feature in public buildings from that era, and work very well at their intended function of protecting people from harsh or inclement weather so that they can go about their lives, errands, and business in comfort. They function in rain, in sun …

… and often come with built-in seating. A brilliant example of human-scale design. I often wonder why more buildings in the Bay Area don’t have them. After all, it rains here about half the year, and at other times it can get quite hot and sunny, especially outside of San Francisco proper.

Instead, we have overhead structures that don’t effectively keep off the elements, such as this porous faux-overhang at the De Young Museum (viewed from beneath):

Union Square in SF also has shelter-like structures that provide no actual shelter. Puzzling.

Calif. Academy of Sciences: Everybody Line Up

September 14, 2011

I visited the California Academy of Sciences earlier this year for only the second time since the old complex of buildings was torn down and replaced with a new edifice designed by Renzo Piano, which opened in 2008. This visit confirmed my earlier first impression: the new Academy is long on crowds and, unlike the old Academy, short on absorbing exhibits.

It’s also a place of lines. Lines to get in the building…


Lines to get into the famous Rainforest exhibition…

Lines to get into the planetarium…

lines in the aquarium…

and lines to eat in the overpriced cafeteria…

It’s a huge building, but relatively little of it is given over to exhibit space. There’s a lot of open floor with high ceilings where visitors wander semi-aimlessly.

On the other hand, the new Academy is very popular – the lines are there not just because of poor design but because there are lots of visitors. Most of them, I suspect, are from out of town or moved to SF after the old Academy was torn down, so they have no basis of comparison. In any case, they seemed to be enjoying themselves.

For contrast, here is a Peter Hartlaub SF Gate blog entry, with photos, on the old Academy.


Citigroup Center, Los Angeles: A respite from the cubicle

April 27, 2011

We didn’t evolve to sit in cubicles. Every hour we spend staring at a screen, surrounded by beige walls and taupe carpet and khaki co-workers, is a stress. We need green, open spaces in which to momentarily reconnect with our primate selves.

One of the more pleasant retreats for the office workers of downtown Los Angeles can be found at Citigroup Center, a the corner of West 5th and South Flower.

There’s a pleasant mix of open and closed spaces, closed corners and wide views, trees and sun. Plus the refreshing sight and sound of water.

Follow the steps or escalator down, and you discover that it is in fact a waterfall.

This area would be especially cool and refreshing on a hot, sunny, smoggy day.

I like this space not because it is special, but simply because it’s an area of very expensive real estate that was creatively and thoughtfully designed to make people comfortable while they take a break from their jobs. Yes, legally mandated to be set aside for that purpose, I know – but better than it has to be.

LACMA: Outside looking in

March 29, 2011

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is a mixed experience for the visitor, or at least this visitor. It’s a jumble of art and architecture, with no real physical or emotional center. But they’re working on it.

A recent visit on a sunny day in mid-March helped me to appreciate different aspects of the Grand Entrance Pavillion, situated between the Ahmanson Building (on the left) and the Broad Museum of Contemporary Art.

Looking to the north – 180 degrees opposite the view above – the broad expanse of lawn and sky invite lounging and sunning.

In fact, sunning is encouraged by the presence of concrete chaise lounges.

Even on a late winter day with relatively low sun, the lounges and the lawn were bathed in warmth.

The pavillion now has two new places to eat and drink – Ray’s, a restaurant, and the Stark Bar, both run by Patina, purveyors of museum food seemingly everywhere you go.

The good part is the presence of two outdoor establishments. The bad part is the pricing, which is not exactly populist: for lunch at Ray’s, sandwiches are in the $11 to $15 range, and main courses go for around $20. So-called bar bites at the Stark run $8-ish to $15-ish; the bar also offers an encyclopedic selection of small-batch handcrafted liquors and cocktails from $10 up. All fine and good if you’re relatively well-to-do and/or able to spend a lot of disposable income on food and drink. Not so accessible, financially speaking, if you’re not.

Venice, Italy: City as Museum

October 5, 2010

The city of Venice can be overwhelming. It’s visually stunning in ways I did not expect from descriptions and photos.

Its setting on a lagoon lends it a downright luxurious sense of light and space.

And, with no motor vehicles or even bicycles present anywhere, it’s a city made for walking, strolling, and sitting.

Of course, tourists are everywhere, crowding the ancient streets, many of which are now lined with tacky shops rather than practical stores selling day-to-day goods for the vastly outnumbered residents. And from an accessibility perspective, Venice can be tough.  There are countless bridges crossing canals of all sizes, which means you’re out of luck if you are mobility impaired. 

However, one thing Venice does have is places to sit. Plenty of them.

There are church steps everywhere, and benches, and wharves, and steps leading down to water, and just plain inviting spaces with stunning views (and quirky contemporary art).

Turn a corner, and you’ll find yourself in a small, quiet square.

This particular square, like many Venetian spaces, featured a lovely public amenity: a fountain with drinking water.

With its layout and most of its architecture basically unchanged since around the 18th century, Venice gives meaning to the overused term “human scale.” It simply feels good (of course, we were there before the winter rains began). From a visitor’s perspective, Venice is in many ways one of the most comfortable cities I’ve ever been in.

High Line, New York City: 10th Avenue Square

July 4, 2010

The High Line has quickly become one of our favorite spots in New York City. In a city that likes to walk and schmooze, it’s where New Yorkers and visitors of every stripe come to hang out, catch a breeze off the Hudson River, and promenade.

One particularly comfortable spot, physically and socially, is 10th Avenue Square.

It’s a kind of amphitheater with 10th Avenue, directly below, as the focus. You can sit at deck level or choose a spot farther down. Viewed through a series of huge windows, the parade of cabs, trucks, and other vehicles accelerating away north on the avenue becomes strangely compelling. You feel sheltered, and yet have a great view of the people and the city around you.

What’s really cool is that this multi-layered space has been designed to be highly accessible. There are stairs, but the floor is actually a gently graded ramp that goes all the way to the bottom level in a series of wide turns.

The wood floor and benches – are they teak? – are friendly too, and pleasantly warm in the sun. The result is a wonderful public square where people go to read, socialize, hold hands, and enjoy the city – in it, yet above it. 

Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University – Part II: Light & Space

March 14, 2010

The Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University is filled with light and a sense of space that is apparent from the moment you enter the main lobby.

The original late-19th century building features skylights that bring in direct natural illumination without washing out or upstaging the art..

The late-20th century addition features a long, light-filled corridor that looks out over an interior courtyard.

There’s a corridor right above it on the second floor as well.

Both corridors have places to sit and look out into the courtyard: wonderful relief for the eye and spirit.

The second floor features an outdoor sculpture terrace.

The grounds offer a spacious and inviting sculpture garden… 

… that is visible from an interior staircase (along with the mountains, on a clear day):

Altogether, the Cantor is extremely successful in bringing the outside inside, and thus providing the mental and spiritual refreshment that is such an important component of comfort in public spaces.

Cantor Center for Visual Arts, Stanford University – Part 1: Seating

March 9, 2010

The Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford is one of our favorite art museums in the Bay Area. For starters, it’s free. It’s in a beautiful location. The building is great – a successful late 20th century updating and expansion of a lovely early 20th century classical temple of art. And it’s got seating everywhere. Atrium and lobby benches…


Chairs to lounge in and look out over campus…

Gallery seating that’s appropriate to the art (i.e. Barcelona chairs in with 20th century art)…

Comfortable sofas with arms…

Small benches placed here and there, making best use of limited space…

And places to hang out outside in the abundant Palo Alto sun.

Altogether a most comfortable, welcoming space.

Next up: Cantor Center’s use of light and space.