Now we can see what Rafael Viñoly was thinking. The celebrated architect re-imagined the Cleveland Museum of Art as a ring, with the 1916 building as the diamond and the three new wings as the band. At the center, he designed a vast, glass-ceiling atrium.
It’s now open, and as you walk in, it’s easy to think that Viñoly meant for the atrium to be the jewel. The expansive, overwhelming space beckons visitors the moment they walk through the museum’s north entrance.
The room frames the entire rear of the 1916 building, enclosing it. The neo-classical marble façade signifies the art held within: antiquity to the history of pre-modern Western art. Far off to the left, modern lines and tall panes of glass frame the East Wing, with its growing contemporary collection and its galleries filled with works by modernist masters, such as its Picasso paintings or Monet’s wall-sized Water Lilies.
To the right, the rattle and whir of construction echoes as the last parts of the museum take shape, including the west and north wings, which will open next year and house the museum’s world-renowned collection of Asian art.
On a sunny day, the glass panes and thin steel beams of the atrium roof cast a latticework of sunlight across the width of the granite floor. The sun pattern glows, then shifts and fades as clouds pass. Four rectangles of greenery interrupt the rectangles of light. Two are currently rolling collections of leafy plants, while thin-trunked and tiny-leafed bamboo trees rise from the others located across the giant room. Benches sit among the trees offering an ever-present spot to pause near nature.
That’s the atrium’s final success: It makes October as bright as summer, but it’s more valuable still in November and beyond. The vast hall of light is about to become Cleveland’s greatest year-round gathering space, a haven for the seasonally affected, an antidote to our winters of nine-hour days and closed-up rooms. It’s a social crossroads, where people pass on the way from the Egypt of the pharaohs to the salons of late-19th-century Paris.