A transparent addition sheds new light on a much-loved museum
When the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum decided to embark on a two year $180m expansion project of its prized palazzo building to relieve it from the pressure of years of misappropriated programs, the Italian architect Renzo Piano was among those it considered to help them with the project. But Piano was busy at the time and he removed himself from consideration. It was also the case that the architect did not compete for commissions but rather was handed them.
Paraphrasing the dialogue that went on between the Museum leadership and Piano, Matt Montgomery the Gardner’s Communication Director, said: “Piano told us ‘you either want me or you don’t’.” At the prodding of Ray Nasher, a Bostonian and the Founder of the Nasher Sculpture Center, a Piano-designed museum, the Gardner abandoned its process and its short-list and hired Piano for the job. Judging from the first look at the museum’s new wing last week, it should be glad it did.
While many architects would be up to task of expanding the much loved treasure house, Piano brought to the Gardner something very special; the ability to forge a rich dialogue between the two buildings by playing up their opposites. Connected by a 50ft glass-enclosed walkway, the addition serves as a counterpoint to the landmark museum building.
While the original palace building, which was built in 1903 and is modeled on a 15th century Venetian palazzo, is solid and firmly rooted in the land, Piano’s addition, which is clad in glass and pre-patinated copper, is light and airy and floats above the ground plane. The constant interplay between the two structures is an artful dance that Piano has orchestrated into pure theatre. Visitors to the new wing will be ever conscious of the original museum building as they will be able to see glimpses of it from most every room, thus heightening the anticipation.
While the original entrance to the palace building has changed, much to the chagrin of some, and has been relocated to the new wing, it provides a ‘living room’ equipped with a library of books that offers visitors a more hospitable sense of arrival and a place to relax prior to and after visiting the galleries.
The new programs have been accommodated adeptly with a great deal of flexibility that will allow the museum to adapt to future needs. A new 40ft x 40ft x 40ft performance space provides a tight yet improved space for music than the museum had before and a new gallery, which is on axis to the Palace’s celebrated Tapestry Room, has a flexible ceiling that can be raised or lowered to a height of 48ft, 36ft or 24ft. depending on the type of art accommodated. Uniting these pieces is a transparent stairwell.
It’s hard not to like Piano who exudes endless grace and a boyish charm. He is generous in his credit of others, like when he asks to ‘Please credit ‘Mucci’’ (Emanuela Baglietto the Senior Partner in Charge of the project) adding that ‘It’s a workshop and not just me’ and he is humble when he says things like ‘I could never design furniture. Designing a chair is the most difficult thing to do’. Still and all, Piano knows how to make ‘magic’ as he calls it.
For the Gardner, he went through scores of material before finally settling on pre-patinated copper and glass. “When we said copper is the right material…the bell finally rings. Sometimes it’s like waiting in the dark. You just wait and it comes to you.”
Getting it right is an obsession for Piano. “If you are a good pianist you know how much energy to put in the fingers or else poetry doesn’t come out.” At the Gardner there is enough poetry to the fill its rooms for generations to come.