Emily and Mitchell Rales, the founders of Glenstone, one of the largest privately-owned museums in the U.S., want you to slow down.
As you get out of the car park at their expanded museum in Potomac, Maryland, you embark on a 10-minute journey along a gravel path, over a small creek, and between two large hills. Walking the path becomes an act of meditation, but also a journey of discovery as you come across surreal bits of hyper-nature.
After a few minutes the new pavilions designed by architect Thomas Phifer emerge into view.
The soft crunch of the pale grey gravel, the charismatic trees set in swaying meadow grasses — mostly little blue stem and purple top — are all designed to slow your heart rate and heighten your senses.
At the preview of the expanded museum, which is set within a 230-acre landscape, Emily Rales explained that it’s only when you are most attuned to your environment can you really take in the post-World War II artworks in their monumental new concrete pavilions.
Visitors descend stairs or an elevator to get to the main level of the pavilions where most of the modern and contemporary paintings and sculptures are found.
Pieces include a phrygian cap by African American sculptor Martin Puryear, a calendar of icons by Lygia Pape, an expansive Rothko painting, and epic site-specific installations by land artist Michael Heizer.
Collapse, one of Heizer’s works, called for the special configuration of an entire wing. Only six people are allowed to experience the piece at the same time — a 16-feet-deep hole partially filled up with rusted steel beams, set in a small ocean of burgundy gravel, a rust color made into stone, which creates a Martian monochromatic landscape.
But the building is not only a portal to the art, it’s an entry into a whole other landscape: a water garden.
Adam Greenspan, ASLA, principal at PWP Landscape Architecture, who has been working on Glenstone for the past 15 years, said the “center pool is the culminating moment.”
The entire landscape has prepared you for the moment. “We designed the site as a holistic experience — from the region to the site. We knitted it all together.”
The landscape that leads you to the building was molded from the soils dug up to make way for the pavilions. Hundreds of tons of soil were sculpted into hills. Some 8,000 trees were planted. There are now 40 acres of meadows within the sweeping estate. The early agricultural landscape has been transformed.
There is an underlying Japanese influence to the landscape and architectural design as well with the use of minimal gestures for maximum impact. Greenspan said the water garden is really “Ryoan-ji a couple of steps removed.” (Ryoan-Ji is one of the most famous Zen Buddhist gardens in Kyoto). The water garden itself is partially inspired by an Iris garden found in Hakone. “It’s similar in scale and size.”
However, the water courtyard at Glenstone also differs in some notable ways from its Japanese inspirations. PWP Landscape Architecture put the plants on a grid, which provides an underlying geometrical depth to the space. They did this for not only aesthetic reasons but also for practical ones.
The squares found within the grid enable the landscape architects to create areas of different soil depths, so they can contain and define the different plant life. “Irises need 4 inches of water or less; pickerelweed needs 8-10 inches; but water lilies need 8 feet of water.” Each get their own squares.
Within the modular approach, plants can also easily be re-arranged depending on how well they are doing in one micro-climate or another. “We have a living system that can move.”
Up and out amid the hills again, you notice that the meadow grasses seamlessly extend into a green roof that covers part of the buildings. And glass banisters purposefully blur the difference between building and landscape.
As you peer over one of these glass banisters, you come upon another awing site-specific work by Heizer, called Compression Line, two opposing ditches set in his rust-metal gravel.
Trails off the main building take you to large works by Richard Sierra, Jeff Koons, and Tony Smith, as well as the first part of Rales’ museum, which opened across a pond from their home in 2006.
As you reach the top of a hill, an arching Sierra entitled Contour 290 looms and then storms into full view. A matted-grass and dirt path takes you to right up to the piece, creating a journey to a less-civilized realm.
As you spend more time there, you realize the art, building, and landscape must be explored once again in a different season or sky. Emily Rales’ call for deeper awareness lingers: “we want you to notice the changing light.”