A Big Pile of New Museums!

Renzo Piano Wing at the Isabella Stewart Gardner MuseumThe new Renzo Piano wing at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. (Photo by Matthew Reed Baker.)

The opening of the new addition by Renzo Piano to the Gardner Museum marks the third step in what will ultimately be four dramatic changes to the Boston museum scene. When the re-building of the Harvard Art Museums in Cambridge is complete sometime next year (also by Renzo Piano), the area will have seen almost a billion dollars invested in the art curatorship of The Institute for Contemporary Art, The Museum of Fine Arts, the Gardner, and the Harvard Art Museums — in less than a decade.

What this points to most of all is the maturity of Boston’s cultural scene. These collections have been assembled over centuries, and the museums that house them have undergone continual evolution. The MFA as we know it was laid out in 1906 by the architect Guy Lowell, but was significantly altered by I.M. Pei in 1981. And the recent massive overhaul and addition by Norman Foster (CBT were the architects of record), was able to respond to both the original and the addition. The result is a rich conversation over time that engages changes in systems, circulation, light, and attitudes about curatorship. The addition to the MFA offers a rich and deep new layer to the culture of the city.

The new Art of the Americas wing offers not only compositional balance to the now more symmetrical, classical plan, but also a whole new way of viewing, categorizing, and understanding the art of North and South America. This integration of the architecture with the deeper function of the museum is possible here because of the history of our city.

The task of many other newer museums, even ones we may like, is a much simpler one. In Denver, and even Bilbao, Spain, the task is simply this: “look, we have art and culture here!” But Boston doesn’t need to say this. That isn’t to say that focused infusion of investment isn’t welcome. It is. The MFA is now on a sustainable path to ever better experiences for visitors. And they are working with a plan that helped link together not only the new wing with systems and circulation improvements throughout the building, but also the new Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art. The evolution will continue.

The new addition to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum offers a different take on the same kind of evolution over time. Barred from altering the basic layout of the exhibition space by Gardner’s will, the new space simply removes all of the support spaces that had grown to clutter the building’s original interior. The only significant change to how one views the art is that the entry sequence is now changed, and everyone enters through the new addition. But while the architecture of Piano’s addition, which houses a beautiful new concert hall, a contemporary gallery, and many more new spaces, is unapologetically modern and light, it also extends the mission of the museum. The new classrooms, curatorial spaces, offices, gift shop, living room, and restaurant all continue the public mission of the Gardner. They expand the museum’s connected-ness to the city and give a completely new face.

The Institute of Contemporary Art. (Photo via ThinkStock.)

While we wait on the completion of the Harvard Arts Museums in Cambridge, it’s also worth commenting on the relationship of the still reasonably new Institute for Contemporary Art on the South Boston Waterfront. While this building continues to sit as an object, forlorn, amidst the sea of surface parking that covers that district, it provides a fine experience upon arrival. And it’s easy to imagine that once the ICA is more embedded in a fabric of other buildings, as the district plan implies, it will be perceived very differently, and the waterfront will finally really read as the building’s primary face.

But there are things not to love about the ICA.

The first is simply a missed opportunity, while the second is an unforgivable oversight. The architects, Diller/ Scofidio/ Renfro, of New York, cleverly chose to make the elevator a real part of the museum sequence for visitors. Like at the Guggenheim in New York, one enters the building, and takes the elevator up to the very top, and then moves down. The top floor of the ICA is where the galleries are, and it is the destination of the vast majority of visitors. So using an extra large elevator, and giving it glass walls so that one can see interesting glimpses on the way up is a great idea. It’s just that it would have been even better to make it just a bit larger and have it be a gallery in itself.

The choice not to make even more out of the elevator may have a provenance that I am unaware of, or it may have had negative consequences for other operations in the building that made it unfeasible. But the unforgiveable oversight is this: the building was conceived in dozens of models beforehand (all exhibited at the old ICA on Boylston as part of the extended roll out of the project), and in none of them was the now signature Mohawk haircut of air handling units on the roof visible in the design options. The building was always envisioned as a kind of unfolding, or unrolling, ribbon of thick bendable slabs in cross section (one of these slabs becomes the sloped seating facing the harbor). It was never imagined with a big vertical ridge on the top.

This was clearly the result of not having considered the enormous air-handling load for a museum, and having to find a way to address this after the design was conceived. The result is a much less interesting and coherent design for a major public building. And it’s too bad. The firm is very good, having subsequently been very involved in the design The High Line and the interesting revisions to Lincoln Center in New York. But they dropped the ball on the form of the ICA.

But all these museums and their collections being re-presented to our city in the space of less than a decade marks a major cultural moment for Boston, and one that we should realize isn’t going to happen all the time.