Article appears concurrently in Art New England
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is a bit of divine madness. When it opened in 1903, it was an extravagant faux “Venetian Palace” plopped down in the heart of what was then the capital of Yankee propriety and restraint. It was built by a woman who could afford to indulge her follies and her passions.
Given this colorful history, when it comes time to expand this treasured institution, one must ask: Does it merit rote, corporate and predictable architecture? With the proposed expansion unveiled by Renzo Piano Building Workshop in January, that is apparently what it will get.
The problem is not with the idea of expanding the museum. Director Anne Hawley and her board of directors have made a credible case for a major new wing to accommodate not-exhibition functions – café, gift shop, coat check, musical performance spaces – thereby freeing up the interior of “the Palace” to be used as it was intended – to exhibit a magnificent private art collection.
Piano is a gifted architect and his gentle and aristocratic demeanor is ideally attuned to the rarified milieu of museum boards and wealthy patron donors. But museums are always touting themselves as risk-takers, as conduits of society’s loftiest aspirations. So why choose a man who has in effect become the default choice for museum expansions from coast to coast? Consider Piano’s recent and current project list: The Morgan Library in New York; the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York; the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth; the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the High Museum in Atlanta; the Art Institute of Chicago; and the Fogg Museum of Art at Harvard University. Need a museum expansion? Get me Renzo Piano on the phone!
Is so much design influence vested in a single architect a good thing? I don’t think so – especially given the caliber of other museum architects in Boston and elsewhere in the United States.
The Gardner’s press material calls the Piano expansion “bold and challenging.” But it is nothing of the sort. At the Morgan Library and the Art Institute of Chicago, Piano’s trademark crystalline structures form a visual foil to the neoclassical buildings adjacent to them. But having taken this design tack in Chicago and New York, in Boston is seems rather stale, even tedious.
The new wing is arranged as four orthogonal, cubic volumes. The proportions are not particularly graceful, and the fact that their heights are all the same – they match the height of the cornice of the Palace – only adds to the sense of their being thrown together with no compelling visual rhythm or aesthetic purpose.
To the south, Piano inserts a prism-like triangular glass structure described as being a “greenhouse with two artists-in-residence apartments above.” And yet this gesture also seems out of place, a forced bit of modernist geometry where it just does not belong.
Nonetheless, it’s hard to argue against many of the practical aspects of the design. First, the new wing will contain state-of-the-art conservation and preservation laboratories that will allow curators and staff to take care of the revered Gardner collection. A new entrance sequence will make entering the Palace a real experience, as Mrs. Gardner intended it to be. Visitors will go from the new building via a glass breezeway into one of the cloisters of the Palace. Mrs. Gardner’s beautiful Monk’s Garden will be on the right, the stunning central court of the Palace on the left. The expanded café and museum shop will be part of the new wing, and the space freed up will be retrofitted in a style commensurate with the rest of the Palace.
From the beginning, Mrs. Gardner made musical performance a key part of the experience of visiting her home. Originally, performances were small intimate gatherings, a musical salon for Brahmin Bostonians. But as the recitals became both more egalitarian and popular, they began to be held in the Tapestry Room, never particularly conducive to this function. And so a 300-seat performance hall, with acoustics designed by the legendary Yasuhisa Toyota, is part of the new building’s program. Bravo.
And so the Gardner is doing the right thing in the wrong way. The new wing, it appears, will be a practical triumph but an aesthetic mediocrity. I would love to have seen a design that was more colorful, more irreverent, something that took the magnificent folly of the original building and engaged in an architectural dialectic, imbuing the new with some of the divine madness that produced the old.