The Portland Museum of Art is a postmodernist landmark on the city’s Congress Square. The museum is now planning an even more dramatic architectural landmark that may upstage the handsome brick façade with its signature quartet of arches.
Back in 1983, the Portland Museum of Art replaced the old Libby Building office with the $8.2 million, 63,000-square-foot Charles Shipman Payson Building. Forty years later, the museum plans to double its space with a $45 million, 60,000-square-foot expansion next door to the Payson Building, replacing the outgoing Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine at 142 Free St. (which moved to Thompson’s Point) with one of four structures proposed by the finalists in an international design competition.
Billed as “Imagining the Next Maine Landmark: A First Look at the Future PMA,” the final-four selection is the subject of an exhibition at the museum (through Dec. 11) and part of its $100-million expansion project.
According to PMA director Mark Bessire, the museum needs more space both to exhibit its growing collection and to accommodate increasing public use.
“We don’t have the scale to partner with the museums we want to partner with,” said Bessire, adding that PMA’s largest gallery is 4,500 square feet while major traveling shows generally require 8,000 square feet of exhibition space.
Then, too, the museum only has one public restroom for visitors, which numbered roughly 175 thousand per year before the pandemic. More community groups are using museum spaces, and the Payson Building was not designed to have a gift shop or restaurant, both of which now occupy hallway spaces.
To remedy the space shortage, PMA opened a design competition in summer of 2022, which attracted 104 design teams (250 firms in all) from 20 countries. Museum leadership “put major significance” on the question of “how do we build equity within a modern museum,” Bessire said. Close to 50 percent of the firms that submitted to the competition and 100 percent of the finalists are led by women or people of color. A 12-member jury selected four finalists – Adjaye Associates of Ghana, London and New York; LEVER Architecture of Portland, Oregon; MVRDV of Rotterdam, The Netherlands; and Toshiko Mori, Johnston Marklee and Preston Scott Cohen of New York City.
While there are no Maine firms among the finalists, all four have selected Scott Simons of Simons Architects in Portland as their architect of record, meaning his firm, in Simons’ words, will “work with them to develop the design concept further, to prepare the construction documents, and to administer construction of the building.”
The PMA jury will begin its deliberations in December, but the new wing is not expected to be completed until 2026.
Adjaye Associates with Simons Architects, KMA, Michael Boucher Landscape Architecture, Atelier Ten, 2 X 4 and John Bear Mitchell
The Adjaye proposal is an elegant and compressed structure designed by David Adjaye, the architect who designed the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
All of the finalist proposals feature complex mixes of gallery, studio and meeting spaces as well as restaurants. The Adjaye design calls for a rooftop garden and sculpture park and for a new main entrance on High St. The building’s highest point is 94 feet, eight inches.
The Adjaye team includes John Bear Mitchell, a member of the Penobscot Nation. Acknowledgement of Portland’s Wabanaki heritage is expressed in three of the four proposals.
“Guided by indigenous knowledge systems applied with 21st-century technology,” says the Adjaye design statement, “the building’s primary materials are borne from the land — recycled Maine rammed earth will articulate the extension’s envelope and exposed structural timber beams will act as both interior structure and finish.”
LEVER Architecture with Scott Simons and Unknown Studio, Chris Newell Akomawt Educational Initiative, Openbox, Once-Future Office, Atelier Ten and Studio Pacifica
The LEVER proposal is a building the same height as the Payson Building, making it perhaps the most deferential of the designs. But in what Bessire calls “a bold move,” it also proposes punching an archway through the Payson Building leading to a new High St. entrance. The building’s highest point is 96 feet.
The LEVER team includes former Abbe Museum director Chris Newell, a member of the Passamaquoddy Nation.
“For 12,000 years,” says the LEVER design statement, “the Wabanaki have welcomed the dawn as a connection to people and place. Our proposal pays homage to Wabanaki worldviews by embracing the light — connecting the PMA with a new urban architectural experience where all people belong.”
The museum competition placed a premium not only on diversity but also accessibility and sustainability. The LEVER, Adjaye and MCRDV teams all include environmental consultants Atelier Ten and the LEVER team also includes accessibility consultants Studio Pacifica.
MVRDV with Simons Architects, STOSS, Institute for Human Centered Design, Pentagram, Atelier Ten and DVDL
MVRDV has proposed what might be the most radical design, a series of offset boxes stacked atop one another and topped by a glowing glassed-in restaurant. The firm calls its proposal The Beacon.
“As a beacon of the new era for the PMA,” reads the design statement, “the new wing will stand tall in the city. Exposed to all, it will seek attention and invite the city in, to experience, to explore, and to make it part of their world. Art for all, unpretentious, messy, transparent, expressive, and a continuous work in progress.”
The MVRDV plan features a plaza, atelier, gallery, photography center, studio, storage and the Beacon restaurant. The building’s highest point is 113 feet, 11 inches.
Not only does a prominent restaurant make sense in a foodie little city like Portland, but Bessire notes that “public amenities earn revenue for museums.” Restaurants, gift shops and space rentals can contribute as much as 20 percent to a museum’s operating budget.
Toshiko Mori Architect + Johnston Marklee + Preston Scott Cohen with Simons Architects, Cross Cultural Community Services, Arup, Buro Happold, Hargreaves Jones, and WeShouldDoItAll
Toshiko Mori, a Maine summer resident, is the closest the PMA competition has to a local contender. Mori designed the Center for Maine Contemporary Art and her proposal for PMA features a saw-toothed skylight roof similar to the one she designed in Rockland.
The tallest of the four finalists, the Mori building reads rather like a high-rise green house of glass and steel. On the side facing the Maine Health surface parking lot next door to the museum, Mori’s glazed structure reveals a distinctive geometric pattern. The work would be aided by consulting engineers Buro Happold and accessibility consultants Arup.
“Artist Jeremy Frey [Passamaquoddy] guided our campus identity incorporating Wabanaki basket weave patterns into our façade,” explains the Mori design statement. “Birch thickets in the sculpture garden reflect the site’s indigenous history.”
In an unusual bow to historic preservation, Mori proposes incorporating the portico of the 142 Free St. building into her glass palace. The building’s highest point is 108 feet, seven inches.
A previous version of this article identified two of the design models in the photo caption as imagined from Congress Square in an incorrect order.