Wellington Reiter’s Visitor Station for the DeCordova Museum

Lincoln, Mass.

Frank Gehry started it: an explosion of architectural forms, a divorce between form and function that freed the designer to experiment with sculptural qualities. The new visitor station at DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, designed by Wellington Reiter, is an understated version of Gehry’s modus operandi, but we have to count it in that tradition.
Initially, in profile, the structure looks like a simple fold, a taco shell. In fact, it isn’t so simple.

A walk around it reveals its surprising length—60 feet—perhaps thrice what it needs to be to shelter an admissions-taking attendant and utilities for his/her cubicle. The shell form—you could think of it as a three-dimensional “greater than” sign—is propped up by a couple of struts and by the cubicle itself, glass in the front and matte-gray aluminum, like the rest of the building, in back. From a distance there’s a hint of spacecraft. Yet that idea is countered by the shape of the roof, a gentle forward curve, vaguely aerodynamic, bringing to mind a parasail, an aboriginal throwing stick, a tray that wants to be a boomerang. Nicely contrasting all the gray is the fee-taker’s booth, a glass ice cube caught in the fold of the taco.

Clearly form here does not follow function. Collecting entry fees could have been accomplished by an employee in a shack. Instead Reiter has drawn on his extensive background as visual polymath to see to it that this bit of architecture takes its proper place in the middle of a sculpture park. Not only is it satisfyingly sculptural, the structure has morphing capabilities. Colored lights set into the base of the < sign can light it dramatically at night.

Trained (and working) as an architect, Reiter nonetheless has a track record as a sculptor. He was for 15 years an associate professor of design and practice at MIT before moving to Arizona State University as dean of the college of architecture and environmental design. He comfortably straddles any chasms between sculpture, architecture, and landscape architecture, having designed memorials and commemorative sculpture (e.g., the Wright Brothers Icon at Raleigh-Durham, N.C.), installations (Island Culture at the University of Massachusetts) and regular gallery sculpture. He has not neglected concepts for earthforms, although none has been realized as yet.

Reiter says he intended the DeCordova visitor station to provoke discussion about the relationship among these disciplines. (Indeed, we might add engineering to the mix.) He cites such contemporary sculptors as Robert Irwin, Michael Singer, Jorge Pardo, and Vito Acconci who have gravitated toward architectural idioms. When he presented his idea to DeCordova, he invoked Brancusi, Martin Puryear, Richard Singer, and Jackie Winsor. So intertwined are the skills needed by those who modify our environment that a visual artist like Jody Pinto will collaborate with landscape architects to design structures.

Just as distinctions have become fuzzy between art and craft or between art and landscape architecture, there isn’t much definition any more between a structure and an art object. DeCordova’s visitor station is the latest example. Is it sculpture? Is it architecture? Perhaps the old categories no longer apply.