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The first thing the architect Thomas Phifer did after being awarded the commission for the Corning Museum of Glass’s new 100,000-square-foot Contemporary Art + Design Wing here was to go back to his downtown Manhattan office and take an Alvar Aalto vase out on Varick Street. Aalto’s Savoy vase — the classic wedding gift for an architect — has thick glass walls that bend and curve, and a footprint that looks a little like a splotch. “It was a really sunny day, and as we looked at that vase in the light, it began to really glow,” Mr. Phifer said. “The more light you pushed into it, the more it glowed.”
Seeking Mr. Aalto’s timeless modernism, Mr. Phifer has been exploring the horizons of glass throughout his 18-year-old practice, exploiting its transparency, reflectivity and indeed the glow. He had been on the Corning museum’s radar since 2003 for his Taghkanic House, a visually delicate pavilion of light and white-painted steel fitting into an Arcadian landscape in the Hudson Valley, recalled Robert Cassetti, senior director for creative services and marketing at the museum. He also admired Mr. Phifer’s North Carolina Museum of Art, a series of aluminum-clad rectangles with 360 oval skylights cast in fiberglass. But could the architect conceive as stunning a plan for the world’s largest show house of contemporary glass art?
Mr. Phifer, whose practice also designed buildings for the Glenstone private art collection in Maryland, was used to dealing with curators afraid of natural light, which can damage paintings and works on paper. The Corning museum, founded in 1951, holds 50,000 glass objects made over the past 3,500 years, telling the entire history of art through a single material. Funded by Corning, the new $64 million wing — which opens March 20 — finally allowed the museum to properly display large-scale works by Roni Horn, Liza Lou, Kiki Smith, Josiah McElheny and Fred Wilson, among others. […]