A large-scale work by sculptor Richard Serra has just been put on display in a very specific space. Designed in conjunction with the artist himself, a new building has been constructed for the sole purpose of showing this sculpture.
The artwork is Four Rounds: Equal Weight, Unequal Measure, completed in 2017, which features four massive forged steel cylinders of different heights and diameters weighing 82 tons each.
Its specially designed building was commissioned by the Glenstone Museum outside Washington, D.C., which focuses on contemporary and modern art on a 300-acre wooded campus. The new building is tucked amid the trees along a winding path leading to a series of outdoor pavilions. Designed by New York-based architecture firm Thomas Phifer and Partners, the building is a 4,000-square-foot block of concrete that appears from a distance almost like a smooth cut of marble.
Serra is known for his huge steel sculptures that recall canyons—and his work has been displayed around the world. Phifer worked closely with Serra, now 82, to design what has become a walk-in display case for his monumentally sized work. “We attached ourselves at the hip and made this building together,” Phifer says. “I really wanted to see this building through his eyes.”
Early on, Serra made clear that he wanted the building to be a simple form made of simple materials to complement and highlight the simplicity of the all-steel sculptures inside. Phifer was fully on board. “We both wanted it to be concrete so that it would not be pretentious [but would] in a certain way be related to the directness of the sculptures that he was proposing to place inside the room,” Phifer says.
The building is perfectly square, 64 feet long on each side and 28 feet tall. Given the weight of the sculptures, the floor had to be especially strong: It’s a 4-foot-deep slab of solid concrete.
Light was particularly important to the artist. “Richard was adamant that there not be any direct light in the space,” Phifer says. “He didn’t want any shadows, so as you looked at these round forms, he didn’t want one side to be in shade and the other in bright sun.”
To make that possible, the building is topped with four large white glass skylights recessed in deep wells. “It diffuses the light so it gives completely even light over the space and the works themselves,” Phifer says.
Phifer calls Serra one of the most significant sculptors of our time, and says working directly with the artist was a privilege. “I’m not sure my enthusiasm and the work ethic here could have been any higher,” he says. “I’ve never had an experience quite like this.”
But he notes that the work was focused not on the artist or his reputation but on making the best possible space to display the sculptures. “Every decision we made and every choice he made was in direct service to that work,” Phifer says.
The building is now open; admission to the museum is free.