A new ‘Cultural Lantern’ for Harvard’s Art Museums in Boston by RPBW
A museum is many things. A container for art, a place where the public convenes with culture and neighbors and, in the case of a university museum in a big city, it must also provide spaces for study and teaching and make a considerable gesture to the street. That is precisely what Renzo Piano Building Workshop (RPBW) had in mind when designing the new facility for the Harvard Art Museums in Boston which, for the first time, will unite Harvard’s three museums - the Fogg, the Busch-Reisinger and the Arthur M. Sackler - under one roof. At a press briefing held in New York City in April, the museum and its architect shared their vision for the new $250m facility, set to open in November.
Begun in 2006, the renovation and expansion project adds 240,000 sq ft of space to the existing two-building museum complex and provides new resources for study, teaching, exhibition and conservation with the goal of creating new ways for students, faculty and the public to engage with the collection. Piano’s work demolishes the older extensions to the museum added after 1927 and stitches together the original Fogg Museum designed by Coolidge, Shepley Bulfinch and Abbott in 1927 (which also houses the Busch-Reisinger) and the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, designed by James Stirling in 1985, with a new contemporary expression that reinstates the museum’s mission as a teaching and research facility while providing greater public access. Making the commission all the more challenging, the addition steps away from the Carpenter Center with its iconic ramp, the only building in North America designed by Le Corbusier.
Piano’s intervention extends the Harvard Art Museums upward and outward. The interior spaces have been reconfigured with the goal of bringing in natural light, clarifying circulation, and sparking greater collaboration. The Calderwood Courtyard, the museums’ central space, has been extended upwards three levels with new glass arcades and a new glass roof that will bathe the galleries and the public space in controlled light. At the uppermost level, where the new Lightbox gallery and conservation labs are housed, the building becomes a lens onto the city where visitors can enjoy views into the heart of the building and outside to Cambridge and Harvard Yard. On the exterior, the building expresses its many functions through setbacks, material changes, and other formal manipulations.
Asked what the building wants to be, Renzo Piano said: “If I had to describe the new Harvard Art Museums in a synthetic image, I would say the ground floor is urban, serving the city by providing life; the second and third floors are for the art and the people who come to know it; the fourth floor and fifth contain more specialized spaces for the students like the Art Study Center and the conservation lab. It is a stratification, an overlap of spaces and services that proceeds upwards towards more specialized functions. The hidden base of the museums’ machine is the storage, where the artworks are filed and protected from the efforts of time; while the rest of the space, under the big glazed lantern, is open to the city and to the light.”
For the opening, wHY is working with curators at the Harvard Art Museums on the inaugural installation of the permanent galleries. Payette Associates is the Architect of Record and RPBW’s local design partner. Skanska USA is construction manager for the project.