Foster + Partners Cultivates Sleek Modernism and a Tropical Landscape at Florida’s Norton Museum

A colossal banyan tree careens over a six-lane highway in West Palm Beach, Florida, as if caught in a dance with the razor-thin metal canopy hovering over the Norton Museum of Art. The sun beats down on the building’s white stucco cladding as a handful of patrons mill around the courtyard in search of the museum’s new entrance; others take refuge in the generous shade offered by the building’s 44-foot-tall canopy, the scalloped edge of which bows to the triumphantly taller 80-year-old tree.

Just a few years ago, this glimmering facade was the garish backside of the old Norton Museum of Art. Easily mistaken for a self-storage lot, its hodgepodge of pavilions was confusing for visitors arriving from the South Dixie Highway, not to mention an eyesore for the public. But following an eight-year, $100-million renovation and expansion carried out by London-based Foster + Partners, the museum has finally returned to its roots, re-opening to the public on February 9, 2019 after seven months of closure.

Founded in 1941 by the steel tycoon Ralph Hubbard Norton and his wife Elizabeth, the first iteration of the Norton was designed by American architect Marion Sims Wyeth, who envisioned an elegant Art Deco retreat of single-story pavilions unfurling around a center courtyard. Decades of aimless expansion and some unfortunate dabblings in late Postmodernism meant the Norton had lost itself by the mid-aughts. It was trapped in an exoskeleton of the past, with no clear future in sight.

“When the turret came off the facade, the staff actually went outside and cheered,” recalls Hope Alswang, the outgoing director of the Norton.

Alswang called on Foster’s team in 2008 to conduct a major overhaul of the existing museum while adding a new West Wing, as phase one of a 20-year plan to redevelop the Norton’s 6.3 acre campus. The first step was to revitalize the building’s original east-west axis, moving the main entrance to the highway and opening up the Norton to Florida’s greatest natural architectural quality—light.

A 210-seat auditorium, event space, restaurant, and sculpture gallery are among the major additions. But phase one has proven to be “more like surgery,” explains project architect Björn Andersson, who relocated to West Palm Beach four years ago to oversee the renovation. “We peeled back decades of bad design and aimless expansion to transform the Norton into a community-oriented space.”

Inside the main entrance during the pre-opening ceremonies, a horde of immaculately dressed VIPs mingle with champagne flutes in hand. Light streams in through the hurricane-proof glass doors and into the Grand Hall, where a trippy mylar tapestry by artist Pei White hangs over the entrance to the converted galleries. The massive tableau is flecked with sparkling green, a reflection from the great banyan outdoors that generates a sense of vibrancy that contrasts with the business-cool aesthetic permeating the hall. Peppered with midcentury modern furniture, art books meticulously displayed on magnetic disappearing shelves, bowls of fruit atop long tables, and even a grand piano, it seems to be made for a very particular kind of community.

Moving into the palm-filled courtyard in the center of the museum, a variety of different paths through African, American, Chinese, and European art galleries awaits, sort of like a choose-your-own-adventure game through art history.

“We wanted the museum to have a labyrinthine feel,” Andersson tells Metropolis, “with multiple small openings that encourage people to find their own paths.” But the architects might’ve pulled this off a bit too well, as our tour is interrupted more than once by lost patrons asking for directions.

This porous plan allows white sunlight to pour into the galleries, where the only distinguishing factor between old and new is the floors. New galleries get a smooth micro-terrazzo in a classic shade of gray, whereas the converted galleries are much jazzier: Garish original carpeting has been removed to reveal hidden worlds of parquet and marble (no joke).

The bedazzled Soundsuits of American artist Nick Cave form a phalanx in the Special Exhibitions galleries; they seem to guard the entrance to the new Sculpture Gallery, a 150-foot-long colonnade that straddles the line between indoor and outdoor space. It faces the museum’s new Sculpture Garden: once 24,000 square feet of asphalt, now a verdant sub-tropical jungle spanning over 37,000 square feet and home to some 200 trees. Birds of Paradise poke their fluorescent heads above waxy rows of Elephant Ears, while Ugo Rondinone’s grinning gremlins are flanked by rows of palms; it’s an art experience quite unlike any other.

Although the rumble of car engines nearby is an occasional reminder of reality, it’s easy to get lost in the multitude of colors and textures, all hand-picked by Andersson, Foster, Foster + Partners’ landscape architect Neil Bancroft, and a team of expert botanists and arborists. Searching high and low in local nurseries for the perfect specimens, a highlight is the ultra-locally sourced Gumbo Limbo tree cozying up near a marble bench by Jenny Holzer. “We went to about ten nurseries before we realized the one in the parking lot is nicer, so we moved it over,” chuckles Andersson.

Running parallel to the Sculpture Garden, the Great Lawn lies in wait for next Friday night, when the Norton’s weekly Art After Dark program will see the field overtaken by performances, film screenings and other events. The new restaurant overlooks the lawn; its outdoor terrace features tables and chairs from Knoll’s 1966 Collection, which was expressly designed to survive the tough Florida coastal climate. Al fresco diners receive shelter from the sun by a steel cantilevered canopy, but remain cut off from the minimalist concrete dining space indoors by floor-to-ceiling glass windows; it feels something of a missed opportunity to fully blur indoor-outdoor space.

Exiting the balmy jungle and traveling up the angular gray staircase, the corporate-cool feel of Foster’s modernism grows on the second and third floors, which are home to more galleries, the Education Center, and offices. The Museum’s Education Center has grown to 4,000 square feet—more than 1.5 times its original size—though it might be hard for visitors to tap into their creative side in a space that at times can feels like an office.

For all their aesthetic appeal, Modernist-style art museums can come with the caveat of sophisticated indifference. As the art world pivots toward more immersive and multisensory experiences, the most engaging and unique spaces, not those most passive and minimalist, will come out on top. As the Norton Museum continues to expand, one hopes it won’t just see the jungle for the trees—and that Foster’s muse, that defiant and spectacular banyan, will keep up the dance with nature that the museum has stepped into.

(Published on: Metropolis Magazine )