How an 80-year-old banyan tree is focal point of Norton’s new design

5:41 p.m Friday, Feb. 5, 2016 Local

The starting point for the Norton Museum of Art expansion is its roots, its architect Norman Foster said Friday.

The $60 million project, set for completion in 2018, will return the 1941 structure’s east-west orientation, placing its entry on South Dixie Highway and replacing the southern entry and parking lot with a 9,000-square-foot sculpture garden. The inner courtyard at the heart of the original museum also will come back into focus, with stronger visual ties to the galleries that surround it, Foster said.

And then there are the real roots, those of the 80-year-old banyan tree that stretch for dozens of yards in all directions beneath the building’s Dixie frontage, as detected by ground radar scans. They’ll stay, as the tree becomes a main feature of the new design, with a sizable cutout in the building’s front overhang making room for for the banyan’s canopy.

Three arborists were consulted to make sure the structure wouldn’t compromise the tree’s survival and the design was adjusted accordingly. The cutout was enlarged, and the reflective pool was shortened to give the roots more space.

Foster+Partners, based in London, designed Hearst Tower in New York and the 30 St Mary Axe building in London, known familiarly as “The Gherkin,” for its pickle shape. The Yale-trained, Pritzker Architecture Prize winner was granted a knighthood in 1990 and honored with a life peerage 1999, taking the title Lord Foster of Thames Bank. He’s the same age as the banyan tree.

Foster told a gathering of of Norton patrons and other donors, collectors that even as construction prep work for the project began in September, much of the design work on the interiors continues.

The design, including such features as a dining pavilion that overlooks the sculpture garden, is meant “to make the whole thing more permeable and welcoming,” than many traditional museums, Foster said.

The thin but expansive overhang, with a brushed aluminum underside to capture light from the reflective pool, serves to unite different parts of the museum, from its galleries and great hall to a 210-seat auditorium. The architects worked hard to make the complex structure look simple, he said.

Gilbert Maurer, a Norton trustee, predicted that the quality of the project will enhance a large stretch of the Dixie corridor and change West Palm Beach in subtler ways. As Winston Churchill said, Maurer noted, “We shape our buildings. Thereafter they shape us.”