Well, OK, he didn't exactly sleep there, but for Group Goetz Architects (GGA) President and CEO Lewis J. Goetz, making a home at The Wilderness Society, 1615 M Street NW, for 75 of Adams' seminal landscape photographs was a design of somewhat personal proportions.
"I got to meet him once," Goetz said, reflecting on his own interest in black and white photography and what it meant to stand before the iconoclastic naturalist and photographer himself. "Ansel Adams was a hero for a lot of photographers back then,” he affirmed, having purchased his first Nikon with the funds from an architectural award he received in college. "Adams was able to capture pure black and white and every shade of grey in between, not to mention the incredible sights he was able to photograph,” Goetz said.
Because Adams and the Washington, D.C.-based Wilderness Society, founded in 1935 to protect and preserve natural resources and public lands, had confluent missions, it was both fitting and immensely generous that the photographer would have donated what Goetz believes is the largest assembly of his art to any institution. “Every famous picture he’s done is here, which is pretty amazing,” he said. The problem, according to Goetz, was that only about 20 percent of the collection had been displayed in the Society’s dark lobby for many years, with “portable elements” on which they’d hang lights. “The pictures are not that large,” he observed. “They’re 16x20 and some are smaller than that. There is very intricate and delicate detail. (The way they were displayed), you couldn’t see the pictures – this amazing collection.”Citing periodic economic delays and several subsequent efforts to pare down GGA’s initial concept for the gallery space (what should have been an eight-month design/construction effort stretched into 18 months), The Wilderness Society eventually secured the necessary funding to move forward with the gallery design, which complemented a renovation of its existing D.C. headquarters. Supported by art consultant Cynthia Reed and John Coventry of Coventry Lighting, Goetz maintained that gallery space wants to be about the art, not the gallery, noting the great galleries are secondary to what’s showing. “It’s the simplicity of it that sets it apart,” he explained, adding that you don’t want to compete with the subject.
That said, designing for a specific, permanent collection instead of a revolving space that may support many different artists over time had its own set of advantages and challenges. While standard operating gallery procedure is to have a space that is clean and unfettered - a simple box without distractions, Goetz explained, because Adams’ photographs were black and white, it made sense that the space should also be black and white. And because the art reflected different subject matter, though within an environmental realm, the team decided to separate or break down the gallery so that it wasn’t just one 2,900 s.f. room.
In this regard, and with extensive linear wall space, jagged breaks, or openings, were created to bisect the space so that visitors could peer through to other parts of the exhibit. The angular openings, resembling large, rugged faults in Adams’ natural rock formations, serve to mirror and enhance the experience rather than detracting or calling attention away from it. With Ansel Adams’ work, Goetz observed, “It’s not about the space. It’s standing two feet from the wall as you walk through it.” At the end a concealed door leads from the gallery into the Society’s conference room, with the objective that all who enter the building must first pass through its special gallery space, which is open to the public.
With an eye to sustainability and where LED lighting was considered, in the end the team decided that generationally it doesn’t have the right quality for gallery use, though in another year, Goetz speculated, it may be considered.
Occupying the entire second floor of the building, The Wilderness Society’s headquarters also underwent a makeover with an emphasis on sustainable features such as low-VOC paint, water saving fixtures in the bathrooms, recycled drywall and a concrete floor that was made in place, requiring no manufacturing. The mechanical system was zoned to provide a lot of control, according to Goetz, in order to save on energy, with lighting that utilizes motion sensors and controllable dimmers.
With what may loosely be termed more ebullient designs in their passbook, such as Michel Richard’s Central restaurant, Goetz explained the firm has “a very pragmatic approach to design,” which enabled them to create a space that subordinated itself to something else. “To me, design is about solving problems,” he said, “so if we solve the problem, then we did a great job, and if we can do it in a beautiful, poetic way, then we did an even better job.”
A good photograph is knowing where to stand. – Ansel Adams