Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Expansion

Appeared in the January/February issue of Art New England

What would Isabella do?

It’s hard to divine the wishes of a long dead heiress, but that it seems to me as at the heart of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Expansion & Preservation Project. Would it please her? Short of a séance, we’ll probably never know.

As relates to the expansion, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that the Renzo Piano-designed scheme is impeccably executed and exquisitely detailed. This isn’t “the architecture of deconstruction” like we’re used to seeing for similarly sized museums – no swooping, come-hither curves or bold cantilevers. In a restrained and modest vocabulary, as befits his style, Piano has brought the museum into the 21st Century. The bad news, though, is that one gets the feeling that Mrs. Gardner, whose will stipulates that the museum be kept in exactly the configuration she left it, is spinning in her grave.

But wait a minute. Having written that, I stop myself to say: Institutions change. What was the Gardner to do – continue taxing the “Palace” – as the original building is known, with too much program in spaces like the Tapestry Room which were never designed to accommodate events like concerts and lectures? Don’t we live in vastly different world than Mrs. Gardner’s day, when art museums were the purview mostly of the wealthy and the genteel?

The entry sequence is vastly improved. No more patrons knocking into each other as they try and get their bearings and hang their coats in the cramped “front door” located directly on The Fenway. Now the main entry of in the new complex is amidst trees and shrubs that continue the verdant feeling along adjacent Evans Way Park. When you enter this highly glazed aerie, it’s an eagle’s view of the entire museum – you always know where you are in relationship to the various new components and especially to the Palace itself, what Piano calls “the object of your affection.”

In deference to the historic building, Piano chose to set the new wing 50 feet away and articulate it in five pavilions, four of which “float” above a transparent, light infused first floor. The only non-orthogonal element is the glazing above the greenhouses and artists-in-residence-apartments, whose roof is canted at a 45 degree angle.

“The building is fragmented into several pieces so that (it) . . . is not just one building, but smaller volumes that don’t ‘agress’ the palace,” according to a statement by Piano.
The four “floating” volumes contain the main new program. There is a Gift Shop and a Café, Education Studios and something called a “Living Room” which is conceived as a place of rest, reflection, respite and orientation. The new café and gift shop flank a main staircase that is the chief point of orientation for the new pavilions. Education studios will, according to the museum, “fire the imagination of children and adults alike.”

Above the Living Room and Café, respectively, are the new Special Exhibition Gallery and 300-seat Calderwood Performance Hall. This latter space allows the museum’s Tapestry Room to be returned to its intended use as exhibition and not a performance space.
The museum infrastructure that the expansion provides is some of the most impressive I have ever seen. On the third floor of the new pavilion are state-of-the-art curatorial and restoration/conservation facilities. New administrative offices further ease the space burden on the Palace, as do the artists-in-residence apartments and greenhouses.

Calderwood Hall is a miniature acoustical masterpiece. A cube exactly 44’x44’x44’, the space is encased in an outer concrete box and further sound isolated with multiple layers of sheetrock and paper-thin white oak paneling. In this soaring space, everything seems to waft upward – the smell of the leather seats, the carefully tuned lighting, and of course the music.

While the Calderwood is conceived by the architect and the acoustical engineer Yasuhisa Toyota as a “tool for sound,” the adjacent special exhibition gallery is an equally compelling “tool for light.” The gallery, itself a 36’x36’x36’ cube with an ante gallery for light sensitive objects, more than triples the museum’s special exhibition gallery space. Oriented north and flooded with natural light from both the side and above, the ceiling height can be adjusted to 12-, 24- and 36-foot heights. In his choice of low-lead glass for high transparency, Piano really outdid himself at the Gardner. The glass is so clear as to almost be invisible.

Like elements “floating” on this glass, the new complex sits very lightly on the site. The five pavilions are clad in a combination of glass, oxidized copper and red brick, the latter being joined with same-color mortar to read more like red stucco. The copper sheathing has tiny microdots and precise folds that as, it weathers further, will give a sense of depth and variety to the façade. A system of bridges and suspended walkways connect the various pavilions to each other and the Palace.

A key architectural element is the way in which Piano has connected the new pavilions to the Palace via a glass breezeway that the architect refers to as the “umbilical cord.”

According to museum officials, restoration of a cloister at the end of this passageway required a legal opinion because an element in the cloister had to be moved at a 45 degree angle, and Mrs. Gardner’s will stipulates that none of the exhibits be altered or moved. But this minor reconfiguration allows a dramatic moment – passage from the clear but somewhat compressive glass tube directly into the expansive and iconic courtyard of the Palace. It is a “wow” moment full of subtle but exciting architectural drama.
Below grade, vastly improved storage space and archives will be adjacent to geothermal wells which will help heat to the complex and which also aided in the project being certified LEED Gold by the United States Green Building Council.

I wrote in this magazine several months ago that what was missing from the Piano scheme was some sense of the whimsy and divine lunacy of the entire Gardner enterprise. But in his choice of color palette Piano seems to have paid homage to polychromatic original building’s reds and greens. He has chosen an architectural style that is a complete contrast to the original, but mediated this choice but using color cleverly and judiciously. I also wrote that the addition seemed “rote and corporate,” an opinion I regret having seen the competed project. One never gets the sense that Piano is trying to foist any kind of architectural agenda on the project. If he has a “signature style,” it is one of restraint and deference, not bombast and angling for the cover of an architectural magazine.

When Isabella Stewart Gardner died in 1924, she left her home “for the education and enjoyment of the pubic forever.” And yet in its earliest decades, the museum’s patrons were more likely to be genteel proper Bostonian matrons than today’s visitors, which could be anyone from local art aficionados to diverse school groups to visiting couples from Hong Kong. The real triumph of the expansion is that it integrates the Gardner with the bustling arts and education complex of the Fenway, which had only begun to form at the time of the Gardner Museum’s turn-of-the-century opening.

Whereas previously the main entrance directly off of the Fenway symbolically turned its back on the neighborhood, the new entrance off of Evans Way Park embraces and celebrates its surroundings, known as the Fenway Cultural District.

The word “museum” cones from the Muses, the mythical nine daughters of Zeus said to fire the artistic spirit and imagination. If your idea of inspiration is a place sealed in amber, absolutely to the frame and drawing as its benefactor left it, then the Extension & Preservation Project is probably a failure. But if your idea of inspiration is stunning, incomparable collection made more accessible and more suited to fulfilling the educational mandate of the benefactor, fully integrated into Boston’s premier cultural district, then the Extension & Preservation Project is unquestionably a success.

So maybe Isabella isn’t spinning in her grave after all.

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