Magazine article Artforum International

Saving Face: Philip Walsh on Renzo Piano Building Workshop's Harvard Art Museums

Magazine article Artforum International

Saving Face: Philip Walsh on Renzo Piano Building Workshop's Harvard Art Museums

Article excerpt

MUSEUM ADDITIONS are like the leftovers of the art world--difficult to keep interesting, mostly bland at best. And they are perhaps the structures most susceptible to the pitfalls of architectural practice--which is, after all, a discipline of constraints, often defined less by the vision of the designer than by the demands of the client, the limitations of the site, and the contingencies of building codes. Yet additions are inevitable. Art museums grow through accumulation--Adomo once remarked that, like the casino, the museum always wins--and so the day for expansion invariably arrives. The challenges of such a project are seldom more evident than in the dramatic expansion of the Harvard Art Museums designed by the Renzo Piano Building Workshop (in collaboration with local firm Payette), opening this month after more than half a decade of construction. From its inception, this project presented a phalanx of restrictions that would crush all but the most pugilistic of architects. But RPBW's design responds with gladiatorial vigor and balletic finesse.

The most fundamental task of the renovation and addition was to bring together the collections of Harvard's three distinct art museums under one roof for the first time in their history. Historically, each of the museums has had its own focus, and each has had its own buildings and curatorial staff: The Fogg opened in 1895 with a collection largely composed of plaster casts of classical sculpture; the Busch-Reisinger, dedicated to Germanic art, opened in 1903; and the Arthur M. Sackler opened in 1985 primarily to serve the collections of Asian and Islamic art. The Fogg's 1895 building, designed by Richard Morris Hunt, one of the lead architects of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, was replaced in 1927 with a building designed by the prominent Boston firm Coolidge Shepley Bulfinch and Abbott. The Busch-Reisinger passed through three buildings of its own during its history, the last being a large addition on the back of the Fogg designed by Gwathmey Siegel in 1991, itself demolished as part of the current renovation. The Sackler, designed by James Stirling, was intended to be connected to the Fogg by a giant bridge-cum-gallery that remained unbuilt. The net result was fragmentation, both geographic and intellectual. In 1997, RPBW was brought on board to provide a master plan for the museums' future.

But the task of unifying the three museums paled in comparison to the challenge of creating a new building that could successfully negotiate its context in terms of both urban relationships and institutional identity. The site, already a tight fit when the Fogg built its second home, is hemmed in by its famous neighbors: to the west, H. H. Richardson's 1880 Sever Hall; to the north, Stirling's Sackler Museum; and cheek by jowl to the south, Le Corbusier's 1963 famous Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, the modernist master's only built work in North America. Complicating matters further, the Cambridge Historical Commission suggested that the original facade and side walls of the Fogg's 1927 redbrick building be retained as elements of the new design, along with portions of the interior courtyard, itself a mutated replica of a Renaissance facade by Antonio da Sangallo the Elder. RPBW has worked in highly sensitive contexts in the past, including additions to the grounds of Le Corbusier's chapel at Ronchamp, but the Harvard site, spanning more than a century of building, is especially demanding.

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RPBW's response is baldly Janus-faced. Historicist architecture runs against the grain of Piano's temperament. His career-making 1971 design (with Richard Rogers) for the Centre Pompidou in Paris, in the architect's words a deliberately "impolite" building, set the tone for RPBW's "non-style," which embraces an elegant and probing use of engineering technology while retaining a sense of site specificity through subtle material reference rather than overt formal or stylistic gesture. …

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