Emotional Encounters With Asian Art SAMA Asian Art Wing   |   San Antonio, Texas   |   13,000 SF

Opened in 2005, the Lenora & Walter F. Brown Asian Art Wing was designed to house the San Antonio Museum of Art’s extensive collection of Chinese, Japanese, and Southeast Asian art.  The wing is the second major expansion for the museum to be designed by Overland, who developed a master plan for incremental improvements to the museum’s campus.

A Magnificent Gift
Over a period of thirty years, museum donors Lenora & Walter F. Brown assembled one of the most celebrated collections of Chinese ceramics, and they began donating works from the collection to the San Antonio Museum of Art in the 1980s. According to John Johnston, the museum’s former Curator of Asian Art, this collection “has been described as the most important in the southern United States. It is an international resource for scholars and researchers.”

The Brown’s generosity broadened when they became the lead donors behind a museum expansion that would provide adequate space and ideal conditions for viewing the Chinese collection, along with the museum’s other Asian holdings, which span six thousand years of art history and also include works from India, Japan, Korea, Tibet, Nepal, Pakistan, Thailand, and Vietnam.

A Different Culture, A Different Tone
Having completed the museum’s Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Latin American Art, the first expansion outlined in the master plan for the growth of the museum’s campus, the Overland team was familiar with the building’s history and the challenges of making additions to the former brewery that had been transformed into a museum.   Nevertheless, Asian culture and aesthetic sensibilities differ from their Latin American equivalents, so it was once again necessary to pay careful attention to the distinctive characteristics of the art, with the goal of showcasing these qualities to their best advantage.
The Heart And Soul Of Asian Art
Overland approached the design of the Asian Wing’s exterior by looking at the history of the existing building as well as at the content that the addition would contain. At one time, the area above the first floor of the museum’s Victorian-era industrial style building was occupied by a steel structure with a rooftop garden, which had been removed when the brewery was turned into a museum. With this as an historical precedent, it seemed natural that the proposed Asian Wing be constructed in the very same place and that it should be a delicate, modernist structure that appears almost weightless. Considering that the collections inside would include Japanese art, the Asian Wing’s glass façade was designed to replicate the patterns and proportions of shoji screens from Japan.  The light box allows filtered light to illuminate the Chinese porcelain much in the same way they would be seen in their original setting in China.

As with the Latin American Wing, the interior of the Asian Wing involved joining an entirely new structure to already existing spaces.  Including the redesigned areas of the older building’s third and fourth floors, the Asian galleries are organized by country, with the largest sections devoted to China and Japan.  Visitors can thus begin their excursion through Asian art history from either floor.

The new [Asian Wing] is satisfying architecturally because it emerges in an organic way from functional considerations. [It] is consistent with the museum’s original architecture, which combined fully modern new construction with a restored historic shell. More important, this project serves as a precedent freeing [Overland Partners] of future expansions from the historical yoke.
Mike Greenberg San Antonio Express-News

In order to capture the distinctive qualities of each collection, Overland employed an innovative, flexible lighting system using a combination of sophisticated translucent and transparent glazing, as certain objects look their best in natural daylight, while others fare better or need to be protected in more dimly lit spaces. Chinese porcelain ceramics, for example, shine brilliantly under natural daylight but need to be shielded from the harmful effects of ultraviolet rays. So to create the optimal viewing experience in the Chinese galleries, the Overland team opted for windows where natural light enters through double-layered protective glass, while safe filtered light is used in the display cases.

Moving from culture to culture while meandering through the Asian galleries, visitors will alternately enjoy moments of quiet solemnity and spiritual inspiration, with each temperament expressive of the objects being exhibited and reinforced by carefully designed lighting. As Senior Principal Bob Shemwell has observed, “These galleries are about taking the visual quality of the art and treating it in a way that is very emotional and highly tuned to the specifics of each gallery.”

Awards
  • TSA Design Award 2009
  • Downtown Alliance of San Antonio BEST Awards BEST Arts & Cultural Institution 2006
  • AIA Design Citation of Honor 2005
  • TSA Honorable Mention 2005
Publications
  • Texas Architect, “Inspired Display – TSA Award Winner,” September/October 2009
  • Texas Architect, “Light Insertion,” November/December 2005
  • Austin American Statesman, “Museum: San Antonio Oddly Becomes Asian Art Center,” May 2005
  • San Antonio Express News, “Curator: Wing Boost Museum’s Status,” May 2005
  • Texas Monthly, “West Meets East,” May 2005
  • San Antonio Express News, “San Antonio Goes to New York,” March 2005