Building a Cultural Landmark for Boston

Robert Campbell, Architecture Critic

Elevation from Evans Way Park. © RENZO PIANO BUILDING WORKSHOP, 2010. Note: The brick massing at left is an apartment building adjacent to the Museum and is not part of the project.

Robert Campbell, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning architecture critic, examines how Piano’s design for the Gardner works within the Fenway Cultural District.

When an institution is housed in an older building that is itself a distinguished work of architecture, there’s a special burden on the owner to maintain that level of excellence.

The Gardner has stepped up to the plate on this issue by commissioning a building from Renzo Piano, acknowledged as one of the leading world architects of our time, a winner of the Pritzker Prize and the designer of such outstanding art museums as the De Menil in Houston and the Beyeler Foundation in Basel.

Piano’s design has been developed in collaboration with the Museum staff and trustees. It’s unobtrusive in scale, so as not to compete with the Palace. But it’s also ambitious. It seeks to be, itself, a work of art worthy of taking its place in the Gardner’s famous collection.

The Piano addition will decant from the Palace many of the activities that have gathered there over the years during which the Gardner has been morphing from a private museum into a 21st century civic institution. These activities have overcrowded the Palace and, in many cases, have caused deterioration. Removing them will permit the Palace to be restored closer to Mrs. Gardner’s intentions. There will also be basic new visitor amenities, starting with an adequate entry lobby.

Architecturally, the new building doesn’t try to floor you with some flabbergasting new shape, as do other recent museums. It’s simple, understandable and logical. Nothing about it feels heavy or heavy-handed. Instead it is crisp, light and transparent, reminiscent of nautical design, and thus a deliberate foil to the closed “plain brown wrapper” of the Palace. A ground floor, wrapped in clear glass, welcomes you when you’re looking in from outside, and when you’re inside it opens up views of the Palace across a newly landscaped garden. Upper levels are clad in more glass and in copper, a natural material that will weather over time.

Piano has been careful to preserve the Gardner’s most frequently cited virtue, namely the famous explosion of space, light and color you experience as you emerge into the atrium. You’ll now come at the atrium from a different angle, but the experience will be at least as dramatic as in the past.

The Gardner isn’t a loner. It’s one member of an extended family of cultural entities in the Fenway neighborhood of Boston. That membership is part of its strength. Taken as a whole, the Fenway institutions form a cultural cluster with few if any peers in the United States. It’s a green cluster: the institutions gather near the Back Bay Fens as art-maven guests might surround around a green table.

Opposite what will be the Gardner’s new front door is Evans Way Park, already renovated with new trees, plantings, pathways and benches. Nearby is the Museum of Fine Arts, which has now reopened its Fenway entrance, from which you can stand at the top of the stairs and look across the Fens to the lights of that more populist cultural institution, the Red Sox. A push is on for renovation of the neglected parkland.

All the arts, from Titian to a well-turned double play, are present in the Fenway. Besides the Gardner and the MFA, there’s a wealth of visual art at the Museum School, Mass College of Art and other centers. There’s theater at the Huntington. There’s music at the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the New England Conservatory, the Boston Conservatory, and the Berklee College of Music—and of course at the Gardner. There’s history at the Mass Historical Society. There are students everywhere, starting with Northeastern and its handsome new west campus. Architecture is studied there and at Wentworth, and soon may be an option at Mass College. Many of these institutions—at least half, by my count—are actively at work on some kind of plan for physical improvements to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Thus the new Gardner will not be an isolated entity, as it was both socially and geographically when it was founded by Isabella Stewart Gardner, but will be a part of a meta-cultural green world where nearly all the institutions—like the Gardner—are now reaching out to connect with the broader and more diverse audiences of our own time.

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