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PRINT November 2002

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the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston

To the flurry of fancy new American museum buildings add Diller + Scofidio’s Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, slated for completion in 2006. Happily, the New York-based team’s recently unveiled design has little in common with many of its overblown contemporaries, such as Santiago Calatrava’s monumental addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum and Daniel Libeskind’s zany Denver Art Museum. Functional, spare, site-specific, and downright petite at sixty-two thousand square feet, Diller + Scofidio’s ICA stems the Bilbao-inspired tide of marquee museums, which, more often than not, have proved to be unsympathetic to art viewing and expensive to maintain. At the ICA, the center of attention will be not the building, but rather its contents and views of the city beyond.

Situated along a stretch of as yet undeveloped waterfront across the harbor from downtown Boston, the building will engage its surroundings. A boardwalk will wrap up into the building, becoming seating from which to contemplate the shoreline. Above these wooden bleachers floats a forty-foot-high cantilever demarcating an area for outdoor events. The museum’s entire gallery space is housed in the glass-clad top floor. Four giant trusses stand in for internal supports, allowing for installation flexibility. The north, harbor-facing wall is floor-to-ceiling lenticular glass: Views will appear and hen disappear, a nifty peekaboo effect that adds dynamism to the space even as it deflects attention back to the art on the walls.

While Diller + Scofidio have completed high-profile projects such as the interior remodeling of the Brasserie in New York’s Seagram Building and the design for the viewing platform at Ground Zero, the ICA is their first building in the US. Since opening their office in 1979, Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio have focused on installations and theoretical building proposals that analyze the mechanization and objectification of the body, with a particular emphasis on vision. Their practice emerged from the heady Cooper Union environment of the ’70s, where dean John Hejduk had instituted a strict pedagogy mixing modernist ideals of structure and function with poetic ruminations on timeless subjects such as beauty and death.

That Diller + Scofidio are beginning to produce sizable buildings elicits a tinge of trepidation. Their work has until now remained uncompromised by budgets and bureaucrats. Will the theory survive the plum commission? If their recent Blur Building, an exhibition pavilion on Lake Neuchâtel, Switzerland, Is any indication, it will, and in spectacular fashion. An elaborate lattice of post-tensioned steel spraying mist from every pore, the realized structure is improbably faithful to the original concept of a cloud hovering low over a lake. (Diller: “It surprised us also.”) Vision disturbed, perambulating bodies disoriented, gravity defied—we are once again in Diller + Scofidio territory. Let’s hope the ICA holds the high ground.

Daniel Herman is a Los Angeles-based architect and writer.