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Check out my cover story for ArchitectureWeek on the new museum at Massachusetts General Hospital
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.
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.
In May of 2008, with some fanfare, the Greenway Conservancy, the non-profit group that oversees the Rose Kennedy Greenway, touted the success of Mothers Walk, a fund-raising program allowing donors to buy paving stones etched with feelings of maternal affection and gratitude, to be displayed ad eternum along the linear parks in downtown Boston.
Alright then, it’s settled. Motherhood is a good thing and should be celebrated. For anything more substantive or engaging, best hop on the next Fung Wah bus to New York or northbound train to Montreal.
It’s a cliché that Boston, scarred by an era of reviled modernism, has over the past generation become highly conservative and parochial in matters of architecture, public art and urbanism. And yet no where is this cliché lent more truth than in the 30-acre stretch of parkland between Kneeland Street to the Zakim Bridge. As invigorating as the newly open space is, it lacks anything to challenge or enrich. This was supposed to be the time that, finally free of the ugly and divisive highway, we were going to create a cityscape for the ages. But like Gertrude Stein arriving in downtown Oakland, we find that there is no “there there.” This vapid, would-be urban space bodes ominously of a future in which Boston is a pleasant but increasingly inconsequential place.
What you need to know about public art along the Greenway is that there is very little of it, and that what exists is not easy to find. Most, according to Big Dig officials, is integrated into the landscape and infrastructure of the parks themselves.
Near Chinatown Gate is a Chinese chessboard pattern of paving stones created by California artist May Sun. The “square within a circle” pattern symbolizes heaven and earth in Chinese culture, and a river of stainless steel and colored concrete runs through the center of the piece depicting a map of Boston focused on Chinatown, South Station and the Fort Point Channel. In nearby Chinatown Park, both the fountain and the symbolic red metal “gate,” boldly cantilevered and meant to be a modernist foil to the more traditional Chinatown Gate at Beach Street, were designed by Christopher Bridle of Carol R. Johnson and Associates.
In the Wharf District Park, roughly in the center of the Greenway, the American History Workshop did a number of installations related to immigration and the topographical history of Boston. Landscape architect Dennis Carmichael of EDAW designed what are undoubtedly the most iconic installations yet – a dozen or so “light blades,” tall, thin steel frame structures inset with glass panels that, depending on the vantage point or time of day, resemble high-tech Easter Island sculptures or stacks of elongated televisions, all on the blink.
In Portal Park, the terminus of the Greenway featuring stunning views of the Zakim Bridge, artist Jamie Carpenter’s Cable Stay Bridge Fins could be thought of as a kitschy take on the 1950s automobiles that were the reason for the elevated highway in the first place. But in the context of a transition from a bridge to a tunnel, they seem out of place, even vaguely menacing.
Graphic artist Sheila Levrant de Bretteville’s West End Echoes consists mainly of a large typographical treatment embossed directly into the concrete bridge abutment at Nashua Street. “The Greatest Neighborhood This Side of Heaven,” it reads, yet another collective self-flagellation for Boston’s destruction of the old West End community as part of urban renewal in the 1960s. Finally, at the Nashua Street Park, sculptor Jonathan Bonner’s Chambered Nautilus fountain is rendered in a playful, interactive spiral shape.
And that’s about it.
Fred Yalouris, outgoing director of architecture and urban design at the Big Dig and trained as an archeologist, managed to salvage numerous items of historic interest and installed them along the Greenway as artistic objects: Pieces of the highway itself, an old millstone, parts of old bridges. He defends the dearth of major sculpture as a reality of both fiscal cuts and Boston’s political culture.
When the project was conceived almost two decades ago, Yalouris explained, a modest one percent target budget for public art was established, or roughly about $30 million of the originally projected $3 billion project cost. But as construction costs ballooned, administrations changed, fingers wagged and heads rolled, the amount actually spent was a little more than half that.
“When I came on board in 1997, there were already a number of large major commissions in the works – fish sticking out of the ground, and so on,” Yalouris said. “But the design of the pieces was proceeding far ahead of the design of the spaces themselves. We had landscape architects pointing to art maquettes and saying, ‘You want me to design around that?’”
Minneapolis-based sculpture Andrew Leicester had a number of early commissions including giant sail-like structures, arrays of wood spears that resemble whale carcasses, and a giant codfish rising from the earth, tail first.
“Andrew’s designs became vulnerable,” Yalouris said. “A lot of people used budget cuts as a means to target artwork they didn’t like.”
“Boston is over-weighted with urban designers and architects,” said Leicester. “The city wanted to put the artwork within the green spaces, but the Turnpike Authority said it could only be at key intersections. The whole thing became a multi-headed hydra.”
Several people familiar with the decade and half-long process say that the art program suffered because it had no champions at the highest levels – whether at the Turnpike Authority, City Hall or the State House.
“There was no leadership at the top,” said Ricardo Baretto, director of the UrbanArts Institute of the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. “No politician is going to say they’re against art. But you’ve got to have the leadership willing to come up with the money.”
Providence-based sculptor Bonner said that the specter of Richard Serra’s “Tilted Arc” hung over the entire process. (In 1981, Serra’s large wall of rolled steel was installed in a plaza in front of a Manhattan federal office building. When it was removed in the mid-1980s, it set off a firestorm of debate about artists’ rights and site-specific artwork.)
“I really do believe that public sculpture has to accommodate the people using it,” Bonner said. “Tilted Arc was a disaster. They had every right to remove it.”
And yet there’s no need to look to New York for examples of so-called “plop art” – designerspeak for arrogant modernist sculptures intruding into the cityscape. There are two excellent examples at the perimeter of the Greenway – Dimitri Hadzi’s “Thermopylae” in the plaza in front of the John F. Kennedy Federal Building in Government Center, and David von Schlegell’s four identical stainless steel sculptures adjacent to Harbor Towers.
Like Boston City Hall and Harvard’s Peabody Terrace, these are modernist objects that sprang from the supposedly greatest design thinking of their day, and everyone hates them.
Or do they? The Hadzi sculpture seems to be pretty much ignored, but the von Schlegall pieces, often compared to giant sun reflectors, have found a devoted following in teenage skateboarders, who can be seen on any weekend using them as launching pads. These kids are presumably oblivious to the artistic merits of the work, but ironically, in their indifference, they actually animate the sculptures and turn them into the kind of deeply engaged work that most sculptures say is their goal.
Rebecca Blunk, executive director of the New England Foundation for the Arts, points to Anish Kapoor’s riotously popular “Cloud Gate,” in Chicago’s Millenium Park, as a contemporary public sculpture that enlivens instead of alienating. While appreciating the series of community meetings necessary for any approval in Boston, she acknowledged that the results often fall short.
“Public art is a way our city can be more interesting,” she said. “But those trying to organize community opinion can end up going for something that is ultra safe.”
History shows that people will often rail against iconic interventions into the cityscape, whether in the form of sculpture or architecture, only eventually to adopt them as revered landmarks – imagine Paris’ Left Bank without the Eiffel Tower or Kenmore Square without the Citgo sign.
And yet the Rose Kennedy Greenway is shaping up as a textbook case of political and artistic trepidation. Politicians and public alike have for more than a decade insisted that the original formula of 75% open space for the linear parks be preserved – but what good is bland, inarticulate open space, left unpunctuated by anything interesting or lively?
No space along the Greenway so begs for an iconic structure as Dewey Square, framed by South Station and numerous office buildings. This is like a blank canvas just waiting to be made into a great urban space. Unfortunately, a proposed for a metal lattice obelisk by Wellington Reiter, a former MIT architecture professor and now dean of architecture at Arizona State University, was one of the works eliminated by Big Dig budget cutting. It was part of a larger vision for the square that included an international news kiosks, a café and other amenities – in other words, the makings of a bustling, dynamic urban square commensurate with its location at the heart of New England.
“From those to whom much is given, much is expected,” the matriarch Rose Kennedy used to say.
It’s time, now, to increase the artistic and urban expectations for the Greenway that carries her name.