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September 7, 2007, 06:33 AM ET

A Modernist Building Survives the Test of Time

Baker Center Muhlenberg College’s Baker Center for the Arts opened in 1976.

Allentown, Pa. — One of the pleasures of visiting a college for the first time is the possibility of finding an interesting building you didn’t know about — maybe several interesting buildings, if you’re lucky. A recent tour of Muhlenberg College here wound through towered Collegiate Gothic buildings, then a chapel with beautiful stained glass, and finally a new science building that has just achieved a LEED silver ranking. But the highlight was a stop in the college’s Baker Center for the Arts, designed by Philip Johnson and opened in 1976.

Overhead view

The building is a minor Modernist masterpiece, an exercise in geometry and massing that is at once simple and engaging. Inside and out, its walls are white-painted brick — plain, but with a subtle texture. From above (left) the building appears as a series of adjoining rectangular blocks. The interior is organized by a 220-foot-long “street” that makes a diagonal climb through the rectangles from the site’s low southeast corner to its higher northwest corner. The street, paved in red brick, runs beneath a steeply peaked skylight.

Interior

As the street cuts through each rectangle, it widens into a sort of antechamber for whatever function the rectangle houses. A low brick wall covered in carpet serves as a bench convenient for waiting or conversation. At the lower end of the building, the street opens into a two-story space with a brick stair climbing to an upper level and a brick bridge crossing the space near the glass-walled entrance.

Johnson, who died in 2005 at age 98, was among the 20th century’s best-known and most productive architects. But his initial claim to fame was as co-curator of “The International Style: Architecture Since 1922,” the influential 1932 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art that introduced Americans to the work of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and others. Later Johnson enrolled in Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design to become an architect himself.

Among his most famous designs are his 1949 Glass House, in New Canaan, Conn. (recently opened for tours); PPG Place, in Pittsburgh, designed with John Burgee and opened in 1984; and New York’s Chippendale-topped AT&T Building (now the Sony Building), also completed in 1984 with Mr. Burgee.

At 31 years old, the Muhlenberg building has reached an age that has proven perilous for many Modernist structures. But it appears to have been lovingly maintained. Muhlenberg’s capital-projects manager, David C. Rabold, says Johnson hoped the white paint on the Baker Center would be allowed to age, fade, and peel, slowly revealing the bricks underneath. But the college has never let that happen — what college president, Mr. Rabold asks, would let the paint peel on a prominent building facing a major thoroughfare? —Lawrence Biemiller

Interior The diagonal corridor climbs from southeast to northwest.

Interior The stair leads to the upper level at the building’s southeast end.

Interior The bridge crosses above the lower end of the diagonal corridor.

Interior Fluorescent bulbs that run beneath the ceiling add to the interior’s visual interest. (Chronicle photographs by Lawrence Biemiller; aerial view from Google Maps)

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