Renzo Piano Building Workshop’s Harvard Art Museums

Renzo Piano Building Workshop, Harvard Art Museums renovation and expansion, anticipated completion 2014, Cambridge, MA. Photo: Peter Vanderwarker.

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—Adorno 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.

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. Here, the Fogg’s 1927 facade has been tweaked a bit and capped with a glass roof. The new roof is angled at an unobtrusive thirty degrees, a decision made after extensive discussions between the architect and the Cambridge Historical Commission and ultimately based on detailed computer modeling that demonstrated that the new roof would be invisible from particular viewpoints on campus. Thus the view from Harvard Yard remains essentially the same.

The eastern side of the building, formerly a dowdy clutter of make-do additions, has been replaced by a striking, unified structure with a powerful interplay of transparency and opacity. Rising above a podium faced with hefty slabs of roughly finished, fine-grained, pale-gray Chelmsford granite, RPBW’s addition is a massive block cantilevered over a glass-walled entry level, windowless save for projecting glazed bays on the northern and southern ends. This box is the core of the addition, containing two floors housing the bulk of the new gallery space. The long, unbroken surface is clad in quiet gray lengths of Alaskan cedar. The wooden bands evoke the clapboard construction of some of the oldest buildings on the campus. Yet the cladding is also, paradoxically, one of the most impressively contemporary features of the new museum: The planks were individually computer-milled so that their overall orientation shifts—at a slightly different rate with each plank—from vertical at both corners of the building to nearly horizontal at the center of the facade,subtly and powerfully animating the surface.

The material sensitivity of the cedar paneling is echoed in the stone base, which screens the mechanical components of the building’s complex environmental systems and negotiates the shifting gradient of the site, providing a level plane on which to perch the glassed-in entry. The granite for this project came from the quarry thought to have provided the stone for the hallowed University Hall, designed by Charles Bulfinch and completed in 1815. The base accommodates its context in a more literal fashion, too, by sheltering a long concrete ramp that links Broadway with the steeper ramp that soars up and through the Corbusier building, which had previously been blocked from street level. Thanks to RPBW’s design, Corbusier’s ramp is finally reconnected to the world.

Although RPBW’s choice of materials indicates thoughtful acknowledgment of its context, there seems to have been no effort to integrate the new structure physically with the body of the Fogg building. In fact, the architects appear to have taken great pains to articulate their structure as a separate volume. A vertical glazed recess dubbed “the Slot” cuts across all above-ground levels of the new construction at the point where it touches the old building. Above this side, the glass roof rises at a vertiginous sixty-degree angle, establishing a powerful presence on Broadway, a thoroughfare that leads eastward away from the center of Harvard’s campus, and earning it the nickname “the Shard Come to Cambridge,” in reference to its designer’s prominent London skyscraper. Indeed, for all its invisibility from the Harvard side, the new building is an iconic addition to its home city.

The tension between preservation and transformation that undergirds the museum’s opposing facades pervades the interior as well. The unifying component remains the travertine-faced courtyard, previously surmounted by a row of hokey fake third-story windows and a fringe of red terra-cotta tile, which made it into a faux cortile in a typical bit of 1920s scenography: Think of the Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California, or the Biltmore Hotels. The “outdoor” effect was reinforced by an array of pebbled-glass panels set flush at the level of the third-floor ceiling, letting in an attenuated light from skylights above. Now the ersatz roof and openings have been removed, along with the glass capping the space above the third story. The courtyard thus rises to a multilayered monoplane skylight five levels above the floor. Despite efforts to recognize the geometry of the arcade in the fenestration of the walls above it, the masonry is inevitably dwarfed by its revised context. There is an inescapable uneasiness here, an uncanniness sparked by this preservationist mise en abyme, as if as if the set from an earlier and quite different opera had been left standing onstage.

The airy luminosity of the courtyard seems to radiate throughout the museum. The institution now has publicly accessible spaces on all six of its levels, revealing much that was previously hidden, including the beautifully light-filled conservation labs, replete with a sophisticated system of motorized shades that allow for the necessary control of sunlight. In total, the addition includes fifteen thousand square feet of new gallery space under gently arched, coffered ceilings. Partitions within this space stop a foot or so short of the ceiling, providing the open-ended spaciousness that characterized the galleries at the Centre Pompidou prior to Gae Aulenti’s early-1980s redesign. Several areas—including a glass-walled gallery at the top of the building that offers views through the center of the structure, and a basement-level “materials lab”—invite the invention of new types of experiences for museum visitors, students and public alike. The building seems to offer an open-ended invitation to experiment, to try on fresh forms and formats. Even the roof trusses in the courtyard have been designed with extra load capacity to enable works of art to be suspended from them.

RPBW’s skillful restructuring of the interior and the firm’s incisive and sensitive exterior make one look more closely at the 1927 building. This is not a good thing. There’s no shortage of this stuff around, and the Fogg isn’t even a particularly good example of its designer’s work. During the building-happy presidency of A. Lawrence Lowell (1909–33), copybook Georgian became Harvard’s house style. The old Fogg has balconies cribbed from Boston’s Old State House and a scaled-up pedimented entryway knocked off from an eighteenth-century slaveholding plantation in Virginia. This was, we should remember, the era of anti-Jewish and anti-Catholic quotas at many elite universities. Research published by Harvard undergraduates in 2002 revealed that during his tenure Lowell also set up a secret committee to extirpate homosexuals from the Harvard community; two suicides followed. In the end, the greatest constraint faced by RPBW might not have been any physical requirement of the site but a kind of reflexive valorization of history, where the neo-Georgian architecture was assumed to be valuable simply because it represents an amorphous sense of heritage. Perhaps our casual assumptions about the importance of grand Ivy League tradition have led us to an uncritical embrace of history, a blindness to the often deeply problematic ideology of our forebears, which historic preservation is all too quick to reinforce. If the 1927 Fogg facade is here to stay, may donors step forward with flats of Parthenocissus tricuspidata: Let the ivy take it back.

Philip Walsh is a writer and researcher based in central Massachusetts.