Rand Elliott, principal at Elliott + Associates is an alumnus of Oklahoma State University; while here, he was a student of Dale McKinney, whose work he still finds “very inspirational.” On Friday, February 25, the Oklahoma State University Regents selected Elliott + Associates to transform the Postal Plaza building into the new OSU Museum of Art. The Postal Plaza renovation project will bring Elliott’s relationship with OSU full circle: once an enthusiastic student himself, Elliott is now returning to his alma mater as an award-winning architect whose work inspires a new generation of students.
I spoke with Rand on Saturday afternoon about the future Museum of Art, the importance of the arts to Oklahoma State and the Stillwater community, and some of the challenges—and opportunities—of historic renovation. Some concepts that came up right away? “Refreshing,” “exciting,” and “pure passion.”
“I’m so excited about this I can hardly stand it!” These were almost Elliott’s opening words, and he may as well have been reading my mind. “If you had said to me in 1973, wait thirty-eight years for a project at OSU, and be patient,” he says, he’d never have believed it—but the museum is a project worth waiting for. Elliott gives much of the credit to President Hargis: “Thank goodness for Burns,” he observes. “He wants to see the university come into the twenty-first century. He’s a progressive thinker.”
Elliott + Associates have been involved in many major historic renovation/renewal projects over the years. When I asked Rand to talk about how he approaches this type of project, he began by explaining why he found them interesting. As a student whose inspirations were Louis Kahn and Le Corbusier, history, he said, struck him as “old and boring and dusty.” But he became a convert when he realized that “in order to understand the future, we have to understand the past.” “If you listen to a building, you will learn something from it,” Elliott points out. “You don’t get the building to succumb to your desires, you take hints from [it].” Ultimately, converting historic buildings to new uses allows us to explore the juxtaposition of past and future, and “that’s what university life is about—and it’s what art is about.”
Thinking about the Postal Plaza, Elliott immediately pointed to the lobby—including the Hamilton mural—as a space that embodies the historic character of the building. What if, he hypothesizes, visitors moved from that environment to galleries that were all about “light and air and space”? This type of transition from old to new is characteristic of the firm’s work, which strives, in Elliott’s words, to “embrace, embellish, and go forward.” “You never want to create fake history,” he emphasizes. “If something is missing, you don’t want to just put it back—you want to highlight it,” with lighting or with a redesigned element inspired by the original. But ultimately, “it has to be the OSU Museum of Art that used to be the post office. It can’t be the post office that is now the museum—there’s a difference.” At the same time, Elliott anticipates historic discovery being a part of the design process. When they worked on the Lyric Theater in Oklahoma City, for example, they discovered old Coke bottles, a painted date from a worker during the original construction, and newspaper that had been used as concrete form liners. “I suspect we’ll find things in this building, as well,” he says.
This won’t be the first building that Elliott + Associates have created to house art, and when I asked about how he planned to move forward with planning and design, Elliott noted that his priority would be seeing the art collection. The first question he asks about designing for art is, “what should we do here that is the right thing for the work?”—and the answer depends on everything from its conservation needs to its scale and aesthetics. Most of OSU’s art collection has been in storage for years, unavailable to the public, and so from Elliott’s perspective the museum will give us “opportunities to imagine experiences people have never had before.”
So what’s most exciting about this project? Elliott didn’t answer that question directly (I got the feeling that he would be hard pressed to choose just one thing!), but he did point out that “we have the ability to break a few rules” with an art museum—“rattle the rafters a little bit.” “We can make a little oasis” downtown, Elliott predicts—“make it fun; make it interesting. People have no expectations—and that’s fantastic.” The OSU Museum of Art represents a “pivotal threshold move for the university and the town,” and the Postal Plaza building is itself on the threshold of the downtown arts district. But: “the building is not enough,” Elliott reminded me. “You’ve got to kick start it. You’ve got to decide what it’s going to be and initiate it.”
Louise Siddons is the curator of the art collection and future OSU Museum of Art. She spoke with Rand Elliott on Saturday, February 26, 2011.