Small Moment, Big Space

Courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art

There is no word for a space such as this, but until someone establishes said word, “atrium” will have to do. No matter. In here, insufficient words and spatial statistics slip away along with the rest of the world.

Contradiction blooms from all points, starting from points within, such as your expectations. Instead of feeling daunted by the vastness, you are wholly absorbed in a setting so natural, you might have been born here.

You are inside. You are outside. This should feel impossible, but it does not. After all, the portals that dot the perimeter of where you are now lead to Cleveland’s great shrine to all things mystical, from a court full-up with knights in shining armor to no less than one hundred smiling Marilyns, each of which is exactly alike and completely different.

The atrium’s quality of sound defies what’s left of your belief. Any other space this large—more than 300 feet long by 100 feet wide—and enclosed by stone and glass would be an aural study in echo and intrusion. But here ambient sound blends into the tranquility.

The men and women fluent in the language of acoustics have applied their expertise so successfully that the shyest greeting from a stranger lands easily upon your ears. At once, this immense room delivers something completely unexpected: intimacy.

The last thing to strike you is a piece of art designed by two men named Hubbels and Benes in 1913, before the museum’s first visitor walked through the doors: the rear of the Beaux-Arts building. You have never given much thought to the back of the original Cleveland Museum of Art, but fortunately a man named Viñoly did. To that end, the formal mass of stone is now a sculpture in its own right.

As with so many of the objects contained within the museum’s walls, you are compelled to connect with this venerable structure. But you are not in there, you are out here and you are allowed to touch this display. And touch it you do—with both palms open and gentle upon the marble, a prayer.

Your hands drop from the stone. You move to a bench surrounded by a grove of trees and sit, enjoying the rain as it falls above you but does not wet your skin. You wax nostalgic for the indoor garden court, with its lush fronds, and for the outdoor garden court, which always felt like a secret place, but you know both spaces live on somehow within this grand space.

You fumble with a paper bag and pull out a rolled falafel sandwich. You take a bite. You chew. You exhale.


The Cleveland Museum of Art’s new atrium, which covers 39,000 square feet and reaches 65 feet at its highest point, opens with a free celebration featuring presentations, music and dance, and hands-on activities from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. October 28. 

The Cleveland Museum of Art
11150 East Boulevard, Cleveland

Leave a Reply