Sunday, May 31, 2009

Grand Opening of Anchorage's Newest Stairwell

There's been a lot of hoopla about the grand opening of the new addition to the Anchorage Museum. We've been watching the building take shape for a couple of years now. And you can probably tell from the title that I wasn't captivated.

It was a chilly, blustery day, but people swarmed all over the outside and inside of the museum. There was entertainment out in the street and in the auditorium.

And some people were outside eating despite the chill.

Here's where you go in. OK so far. On the left of the front counter you can see the Library and Archive. Unfortunately, that wasn't open yet. Behind me are the Muse Cafe (I wonder how many museums have cafes with that name - [the first ten pages on google only found one at the Palm Springs Museum]) and the gift shop. We didn't look at them until later. But then you go into the museum. Or so I thought.

The first gallery you enter features a four story stairwell. The room is windowless, with dramatic lighting so that you get the full effect of this grand work of art.

The stairwell!! This is positively and totally avant garde. And you thought we were some hicktown whose museum would feature items of local artistic and historical significance. No way. Our grandest new work of art, with a four story gallery all to itself. is an homage to Anchorage fitness - a stairwell. No wimpy escalators for us.

The second floor galleries were closed off still. Who needs a gallery when we have this incredible stairwell?

There was a traveling Gold exhibit on the third floor to the left. But fortunately, the tickets had all been given away so we didn't have to get off the stairwell.

It seemed a bit strange that they had such a nicely printed sign to tell us this. If they knew in advance, why advertise it in the newspaper? It wasn't just this sign, there was another one behind the front desk that said it was sold out and that sign wasn't one you could easily get reprinted the last day.


Looking away from the gold exhibit, you could see these frosted windows. When we got to the fourth floor, we got a possible reason for the frosted windows.

The stairwell ended on the fourth floor.
I think there was another closed gallery to the left as we reached the top of the magnificent stairwell. To our right we saw that the fourth floor windows were clear.

Looking at the view - the roof of the existing museum building, a roof that doesn't fit the glitz of the new addition - offered a possible explanation for the opaque windows below. How about a roof garden? I know, I know. All these clever ideas cost money. And if I donate $5 million they would be happy to put in a roof garden with my name on it.

But there was a small gallery on the fourth floor. Appropriately, it was dedicated to the new addition to the museum.

And here is where my sense of the importance of the stairwell was confirmed. There, in blood red, was the stairwell marked out on the sketch of the museum. It is the centerpiece, the masterpiece, the piece d resistance, of the addition. I always allow for the possibility I'm wrong. But what else could that red zigzag be?

In this gallery you can learn about the architect, David Chipperfield, stairmeister.

Unfortunately, all these descriptions are in the laudatory tone of book jacket covers. Usually museum curators are more objective, but I guess this is their baby, not their exhibit.

Now really what does this actually say? I'm starting to feel bad now. I sat next to the author of these words at the Tuesday Dr. Brokenleg breakfast. It's much easier for me when I don't know the people I write about. I wish, though, that I'd seen the museum before the breakfast. Then I could have asked the director some questions. But these words could be written about any museum anywhere. There is nothing specific about Anchorage or the building here.

Function, in the shape of a stairwell, absolutely drives form, but they don't mention that. And now back to the centerpiece of the new addition. This stairwell isn't just on the left and the right, part of it goes up the middle too.

There was also a choice of an elevator. An elephant sized elevator. I understand they need a giant elevator to get crates with large pieces up to the galleries. Probably there was another elevator somewhere. I didn't see it. But no one would build a wing with just one elevator for four stories. I know we Alaskans are tough and will want to only take our magnificent stairs to get to the galleries. But some of the tourists are a little older and they might appreciate an elevator. But if there were only one, how long would they have to wait?

Once we got back down to the bottom and marveled anew at this spectacular new piece of functional art, we wandered to the old section of the museum and into the theater where we were just in time to hear Gabriel Ayala of the Yaqui people of southern Arizona. The video is short, and the audio is from my pocket Canon Powershot, but it will give you an idea of how sweet his sound is.

We then went back out the new main entrance. On the way we checked out the new cafe. There were about five items for eating and about five pages of wines, beers, and other alcoholic beverages. There was no shortage of $40 and up bottles of wine. When we finally got to order, it turned out they were out of what we wanted. No problem. This was their first day with real people and will probably be the busiest day they will have for the next five years at least.

I got the basic overview of the new addition and the park from the fourth floor gallery. I've added a bit to help flesh it out. I was really looking forward to all the birch trees, but at this point there's nothing there but dirt. Somewhere I read it would be landscaped this summer.

OK. I'm a bit taken aback by what's inside the museum. I recognize that the second floor and fourth floor galleries aren't open yet and we couldn't get into the Gold exhibit because the tickets were snapped up already. And presumably there will eventually be art pieces in the lobby. But to walk into a room that has nothing but a giant staircase left me feeling flat. There's an awful lot of space taken up by stairs. And there is nothing to see from the stairs. No view outside, no overview of a gallery. You really have to hike a bit before you ever see anything that resembles art (ok, it is a very nice staircase) or history or science. And today, if you didn't have a gold ticket, there was no art to see in the new building, unless you count the drawings of the building on the fourth floor. A little history in there too.

Unlike the last museum addition which is human scale and whose stairway (on right) complements the room, the new stairwell exists in isolation and the size dwarfs humans. I'll withhold further judgment until the other galleries are opened up, but I still don't see how they will get around having this giant stairwell at the center of the new addition.

The outside of the building looks fine. Though this picture of the Figg Museum in Davenport, Iowa shows that Chipperton used leftover ideas in Anchorage.


  1. Another place in Anchorage my mobility impaired family member will not be able
    to comfortably access. Add this to Performing Arts Center & the Library. Been there, tried both. She was so distressed by the experience of getting in, out etc., that she
    refused try again.

    Steve, did you figure out what made this a so called "green" addition?

    Thanks for posting the tour and photos.

  2. STAIRS.


    As I looked at these pictures, I thought about hwo dated they will be in 10 years. These don't look like they will be a "destination." I almost got married at the Anchorage Museum 20 years ago because of that beautiful staircase and surroundings of the old and new. People won't be getting married on these things or descending them for some elegant presentation. Stairs are a tool for mobility, like a hammer (or other tool) is for constructing a house.

  3. Anon, I think you should give it a try. There is a very large elevator and maybe there's another one I didn't see.

    But wait a while, until the rest of the galleries are opened and there's actually something besides the Gold exhibit and the building itself to see.

    And the gift shop is right at the entrance and worth a peek too. I need more time to see if their book collection has things that Title Wave doesn't.

    Not sure about the green aspects, but one of the volunteers did assure us that there were a lot of state of the art museum features to protect the collection - humidity, temperature, etc. - and enable us to get traveling exhibits. Though it seems we've done ok on that in the past. But I really don't know how all that works.

  4. Ah, the power of the reviewer. I would think it's still better than a hole in the ground. I wish it and all who work with it well.


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