Over the past week, I have visited two of my local city Boston’s newest museums: the Institute of Contemporary Art and the Harvard Art Museums. Designed by two high-profile architectural firms, both had received heavy press coverage and, upon completion, mixed reviews. I was very interested to see them for myself.
The ICA is the older of the two, completed in 2006. It was designed by Diller, Scofidio, and Renfro, famed for their reimagining of New York’s High Line. If there’s one thing you can say for certain about the building, it’s that it’s an eyecatcher. A massive cantilever juts out towards the waterfront, covering an area not much smaller than the actual footprint of the building. It’s a dramatic, attention-drawing structural statement, further accentuated by a lecture hall extruding underneath like an ajar trapdoor. The overall effect is an impression that a huge mass is suspended in midair. From my engineering-oriented viewpoint, the cantilever was a greater piece of art than anything in the exhibits.
The Harvard Art Museums, designed by Renzo Piano (architect of the Pompidou Center, Shard, and a long list of other high profile projects) is not quite so magnificent. Don’t let the name fool you; there is only one building, half of which is a brick edifice from the early 1900s, the other built from scratch by Piano. Official pictures of Piano’s exterior, presumably taken from the roof of a nearby building, show a pyramidal glass roof (like a squashed shard)., but from the street level all that can be seen is a windowless box distinguished only by its unorthodox clapboard cladding. This side of the building is entered up a ramp and beneath a cantilever, which roofs a space darker and smaller than that of the ICA.
In the interior, however, Piano’s expertise and experience in museum design shows. Light filters in through the atrium, skylights, and a few windows, but in the exhibition spaces are lit appropriately for the art they house. These spaces are plain but professional, aesthetically pleasing but not overpowering the artwork. In Piano’s half or the building, a wide ceiling of repetitive barrel vaults stretches over the rooms, a clear tribute to Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Museum. Throughout the interior, one has freedom to move around exhibits in their own path without becoming disoriented. Though most of the spaces make no attempt to distract from the artwork, there are a few architectural “focal points” where Piano allows himself to play with light, form, and artistic devices. Small sculpture galleries on either side of the building are entirely glazed and partially shielded from the sun by layers of cedar siding. The atrium is an effective lightwell with layers of glazing and dramatic contrast between classical arcades and modern curtain walls.
I was less impressed with the interior of the ICA. The rooms are extremely plain, and made it look as if the museum was perhaps a refurbished warehouse. They could have been anywhere. The most impressive part of the interior was a glazed corridor; the space was bright and expressive, but still felt like a missed opportunity in that there was no indication that there was only a thin layer of wood and steel between you and a three-story drop. I also didn’t like how you had to follow a defined path through all three exhibits. A rare place where the architects employed finely subtle architecture was the emergency staircase, hidden away behind the bathrooms. The architects were far more successful in the exterior spaces, such as a staircase beneath the cantilever that doubles as seating for events and for simply a view across the harbor.
Although neither is perfect, both museums are worth visiting. Come to the ICA for the architecture- but if you do come only for the architecture, don’t go inside. If you go to the Harvard Art Museums, you must appreciate the art inside, for what Renzo Piano’s design does best is create a pleasant art-viewing experience.
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