A large-scale work by the sculptor Richard Serra has just been exhibited in a very specific space. Designed in collaboration with the artist himself, a new building has been built with the sole purpose of displaying this sculpture.
The artwork is Four rounds: Equal weight, unequal masscompleted in 2017, which features four massive forged steel cylinders of varying heights and diameters weighing 82 tons each.
Its specially designed building was commissioned by the Glenstone Museum outside Washington, DC, which focuses on contemporary and modern art on a 300-acre forest campus. The new building is nestled among the trees along a winding path that leads to a series of outdoor pavilions. Designed by New York-based architecture firm Thomas Phifer and Partners, the building is a 4,000-square-foot concrete block that looks from a distance almost like a polished marble cut.
Serra is known for his large steel sculptures reminiscent of canyons – and his work has been shown around the world. Phifer worked closely with Serra, now 82, to design what has become a showcase for his work of monumental proportions. “We joined at the hip and did this building together,” says Phifer. “I really wanted to see this building with his eyes.”
Early on, Serra made it clear that he wanted the building to be a simple form made of simple materials to complement and highlight the simplicity of the all-steel sculptures inside. Phifer was totally on board. “We both wanted it to be concrete so it wasn’t pretentious [but would] to somehow relate to the directness of the sculptures he proposed to place inside the room,” says Phifer.
The building is perfectly square, 64 feet long on each side and 28 feet high. Given the weight of the sculptures, the floor had to be particularly strong: It is a 4-meter-deep slab of solid concrete.
Light was especially important to the artist. “Richard was convinced that there was no direct light in space,” says Phifer. “He didn’t want any shade, so as you looked at these round shapes, he didn’t want one side in the shade and the other in the bright sun.”
To make this possible, the building is topped with four large white glass roofs sunk into deep wells. “It diffuses the light so it casts completely even light on the space and the works themselves,” says Phifer.
Phifer calls Serra one of the most important sculptors of our time and says working directly with the artist was a privilege. “I’m not sure my enthusiasm and work ethic here could have been higher,” he says. “I have never had such an experience.”
But he notes that the work was not focused on the artist or his reputation, but on creating the best possible space to display the sculptures. “Every decision we made and every choice he made was in direct service of that work,” Phifer says.
The building is now open; entrance to the museum is free.