Hoping glass pavilion becomes a portal to the arts

Posted Jan. 28, 2009, at 10:13 p.m.

The idea that a major glass component to an architectural design adds symbolic transparency to a building — and by extension — the work of its inhabitants is not new. In the 1990s, the great British architect Norman Foster replaced the bombed-out top of the Reichstag in Berlin with a glass dome. The 360-degree panoramic glass cap was a sign of Germany’s new democracy, its commitment to work in view of the people.

A few years ago, the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York City engaged the skills of American architect James Polshek to replace an augustly beaux-arts entry with a tiered glass front. Though controversial, the alteration brightened the face of the building and created a public area with fountains, green space and a giant shift in sensibility for the neighborhood.

The Collins Center for the Arts joins the company of these buildings — and there are many others — whose designers choose glass architectural elements to support a mission of more friendliness, less intimidation, a better sense of themselves as agents of action and business partners in a larger society.

As the arts reporter covering the Maine Center for the Arts for the last 20 years — and as a University of Maine graduate student before that — I’ve attended hundreds of events in the building. I cherished the mahogany doors, the vaulted ceiling in the grand foyer and Clark Fitz-Gerald’s opulent sculpture that, for me, repre-sented the arts rising on campus and the flame of hope that each moment spent watching live performance would be one of burning inspiration and transportation, if not transformation.

While some may have found the glaring red carpet and dark-wood embellishments off-putting, I delighted in the grandeur and elegance, especially since no other local venue offered anything even close to that classic sophistication. I cannot lie: I will miss every bit of that.

And yet, I see the new Collins Center for the Arts as a moment of “glass.” If the university and the leaders at the Collins Center — the administration, the board and patrons — are to succeed in participating in a creative economy that prizes both relevance and sustainability, they will have to embrace the transparency of the glass pavilion to project themselves even more rigorously into the lives of both the young people and the arts-dismissive crowds around them.

An arts center is only as vital as the people who sit in its seats — whether at the board table or in the heart of Hutchins Concert Hall. Perhaps the shimmery glass design will be a new portal, one in which the arts, our shared culture and community life, create a brilliant sense of connection, desire and dreams between the arts center and the global neighborhood of citizens and artists.

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