Harvard Art Museums Reborn: A New Architectural Frame for Art, Education, Conservation

Mark Favermann
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Harvard Art Museums mark favermann artes fine arts magazine

A Renzo Piano-designed steel and glass ‘lantern’ and one-story addition sit atop the original 1925 Fogg Museum. Photo: Harvard Univerity

When a visitor enters the new Harvard Art Museums, there is a feeling of great institutional arrival, a sense of an art historical place and an overall atmosphere of beauty of light and materials envelops the space.

However, with that said, the newly renovated and expanded Harvard Art Museums tries to put too much great art and great educational resources into just a good, not great structure. xxxxxx

Arguably with the greatest university art collection in the world (over 250,000 objects in all mediums), Harvard University’s Harvard Art Museums is comprised of three museums. The Foggharvard museums mark favermann artes fine arts magazine Museum was established in 1895, the Busch-Reisinger Museum in 1903 and the Arthur M. Sackler Museum in 1985.

Right: Arched marble hallways and a center courtyard below make a dramatic presentation for the new museum facilities. 

Opened in 1896, the Fogg Museum was originally housed in an Italian Renaissance style building designed by architect Richard Morris Hunt. In 1925, that building was replaced by a Georgian Revival style structure on Quincy Street in 1925. It was, designed by the firm of Coolidge, Shepley, Bullfinch and Abbott.

In 2008, the Harvard Art Museums’ historic building at 32 Quincy Street in Cambridge, Mass., closed for major renovations and expansion. The renovated and enlarged structure integrates—with purposeful little visual distinction—all three museums in a single state-of-the-art facility.

‘Starchitect’ Renzo Piano and his staff (Renzo Piano Building Workshop) designed the structure to increase gallery space by 40% and added a stunning glass pyramidal roof as a sky-lighted canopy. The Boston architectural firm that collaborated with them was Payette.

harvard museums mark favermann artes fine arts magazine

Areal view of the combined Harvard Art Museums, with the Fogg in the foreground and Piano’s new glass pyramid rising behind.

Through research, teaching, professional training and public education, Harvard’s museums have played a leading role in the development of art history, the science of conservation and the evolution of the art museum as an institution.

The new museum’s over 200,000 square feet is organized into nine very distinct areas. These include the new Prescott Street Entrance, the Calderwood Courtyard, the Art Study Center, the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, Exhibition Galleries, Lecture Halls and Seminar Rooms, the Lightbox Gallery, the Materials Lab and the Museum Shop and Café.

This is also a 21st Century very “green” project. Sustainability was a key aspect of the project. Wherever practical, the architects reused existing spaces. Nearly a 17% energy reduction was obtained by introducing new design and operations strategies as well as sustainable building materials and energy-efficient HVAC equipment.

A water reduction strategy uses the building’s roof and landscaped areas to collect recyclableharvard museums mark favermann artes fine arts magazine water in underground storage tanks. The project also made use of selected regionally and responsibly harvested materials.

Though the encyclopedic beautiful art collection has been showcased in somewhat cramped quarters minimized by the site and architectural stylization, it is a welcoming place.

Right: Harvard Art Museums director, Thomas W. Lentz, with a view from inside of the glass and steel, ‘light box,’ the facility’s new pyramidal roof line.

To be fair, the brief for the architecture project was complicated. Not only did the expanded space need to display more of the museums’ great (and they are great) treasures, but also it had to also incorporate extensive teaching, conservation and storage functions.

The interior space is certainly better than the exterior. Looking at the interior spaces, there is a refined difference from the old structure and the reopened galleries and passageways.

With an interesting curved expandable ceiling in a number of galleries and moveable walls as well as strategically placed windows, the interior gallery areas bring the art collection up to an elegant 21st Century standard.

harvard mus 5 Straus CenterArchitect Renzo Piano explained that the core of the newly renovated Harvard Art Museums is a public place, a piazza, which acts as the community heart of the museum. Certainly, the various art gallery arcades, shop and café on the courtyard’s edges underscore this community square notion.

Left: One section of the more expansive, light-controlled, Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies. Photo: Mark Favermann 

The high glass atrium brings wonderful light and breathy airiness into the museum. Though this is a unifying element of the museum, this strong architectural gesture takes up a lot of space that could have been perhaps used in some ways for additional exhibition areas.

Ever since Renzo Piano created Paris’s Pompidou Center (1977), with Sir Richard Rogers, his projects have used glass and steel to reveal mechanical building technology. This Harvard project has those guts-and-all signature design features, as well—major glass canopies, expansive courtyards and light modulating roofs, often with exposed vents and building mechanics revealed.

The Genoa-born Piano is the world’s master museum architect of our time. He has built a couple of dozen museums including 14 in the U.S. Though a few are spectacular, his projects are a mixedharvard museums mark favermann artes fine arts magazine bag.

Boston’s Gardner Museum is a very sensitive Piano expansion of the New England Venetian palazzo, the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas is a gleaming contemporary homage to the three dimensional form, and the Art institute of Chicago addition houses the museum’s huge contemporary sculpture and canvases in a big-shouldered, Chicago way.

Yet, Oslo’s Astrup’s Feanley Museet is awkwardly arranged so visitors have to walk outside to go from one gallery to another, even in Norway’s very white winter. NYC’s Morgan Library is oddly organized so that the oversized courtyard overwhelms both the old and new galleries, making circulation rather clumsy.

The Harvard Art Museums is a very good, if not great, Piano project. This is due in part to the harvard museums mark favermann artes fine arts magazineconstraints that the Pritzker prize-winning architect (1998) faced with the site and the program. Starting with the Quincy Street entrance to the old Fogg Museum that is historically landmarked and had to be maintained, a too-small site, and the previously-mentioned complicated program, this was a puzzle with not one clear answer.

Left: Part of the museums’ collection of historic paint colors, some dating back centuries.

Added to this, Harvard has long had a reputation as a client that does not necessarily get the best out of starchitects like Piano. Perhaps, there are just too many chiefs with too many demands at the World’s Greatest University?

A few exterior criticisms of the Harvard Art Museums: the Prescott Street entrance is not inviting—corporate rather than cultural; the extended ramp of the neighboring Leharvard museums mark favermann artes fine arts magazine Corbusier Carpenter Center adds little to the project; and the exterior use of wood slats to look like metal seems gratuitous.

Right: Exterior of the museums’ cantilevered addition, clad in low-maintenance, stained Alaskan Yellow Cedar.

But overall, Piano and his team did very well with what they were given. It is damn hard to frame such abundant beauty.

By Mark Favermann, Contributing Editor

This article appears courtesy of The ArtsFuse Magazine, found at http://artsfuse.org/  

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