How do you pile too much stuff on a site that’s too small and still get a great building from a famous architect?
Answer: You don’t.
The famous architect is the Italian Renzo Piano, long regarded one of the world’s best. The building is what Harvard calls the Harvard Art Museums. It’s an amalgam of three museums, the Fogg, the Sackler, and the Busch-Reisinger. But it’s one single building now, and the plural name is awkward. In the tradition of MoMA in New York and PEM in Salem, we’ll just call it HAM. It opens to the public Sunday.
HAM is good but not great inside. (It’s worse outside, but we’ll get to that later.) It’s not the usual art museum and neither is its architecture. Most of the collection is now in a warehouse in Somerville. Tom Lentz, the museum’s director, is firm in his definition of HAM as a teaching and research center, not just a public exhibition space.
Almost one whole floor is the Art Study Center, where scholars and future curators will be able to request and study Harvard’s treasures. Another floor is a conservation lab. HAM does what it’s meant to do, which is to serve the needs of users. But cramming so many practical activities into one building on such a tight site leads to a museum that works well without trying to be, itself, a work of art. Even the public galleries, with their mostly white walls and ceiling strip lighting, are forgettable.
But there’s one gutsy move so strong that it pulls the whole diverse complex together. That’s the atrium, a tower of empty air that begins at the beloved courtyard of the old Fogg, rises straight up through generous openings in the upper floors, and blasts through the roof to form a cupola that looks like a glass explosion. It also doubles as an exhaust vent and a skylight.
Seen from outdoors, the glassy cupola, with its boldly visible vent pipes, reads as a theatrical gesture that says, “Hey, there’s architecture here!” For me it’s a sentimental nod to the art of the romance of industry, by a painter like Charles Sheeler. Architect Piano calls it the “lantern” and hopes it will glow at night, a moonlike witness to the presence of art at Harvard.
The atrium makes the whole building feel transparent. For the first time, everyone has a chance to see what everyone else is doing. Of course the openings in the floors eat up a lot of what could have been useful floor area. The loss is made up, at least in part, by extra basement space.
The old Fogg courtyard, now at the bottom of the atrium, is a semi-accurate replica of a church arcade built in 1534 in the Italian town of Montepulciano. The courtyard, beautifully restored, is being repurposed as a social space. There will be a small cafe, with chairs and coffee.
The plan is that the entire ground floor will be free of charge. Anyone will be able to wander without a ticket. You’ll be able to enter HAM either at the old Fogg entrance, on Quincy Street, or at the new entrance on Prescott Street. The two entrances line up with the courtyard, thus creating a permanent, public pedestrian street running right through the building. The courtyard will feel like a European piazza.
If the HAM interior is OK, things begin to slide when you go outdoors. The Fogg still looks like the Fogg, as was mandated by the Cambridge Historical Commission. The new addition by Piano is the problem. A large building had to be shoehorned onto a small and awkward site. It would be built as an extension of the neo-Colonial red-brick Fogg and would stand cheek by jowl with Harvard’s Carpenter Center, a work in concrete by the famed modernist Le Corbusier.
The challenge for the architect: How do you give any sense of presence to a building on a nebbishy site between two iconic and radically different neighbors?
Piano responded to that challenge in two ways. First, he persuaded Harvard not to build in brick or concrete but to choose a third material, which eventually turned out to be wood. Having its own material would distinguish the new wing from its neighbors, would give it an individual personality. Second, Piano took advantage of the fact that Broadway, a main drag, cuts past the site at an angle. He aimed two of his flat wood facades toward that street. They address Broadway like billboards.
The biggest of these flat facades looked, just a couple of weeks ago, like the lonely, oversize screen of an abandoned drive-in movie. Now hung with a promotional banner, it comes to life. It’s got something to be the background to. It’s a media screen.
Seen from outdoors, the glassy cupola, with its boldly visible vent pipes, reads as a theatrical gesture that says, “Hey, there’s architecture here!”
A big, boxy building made of wood? It’s not surprising that during the process of design and construction, the new wing acquired a nickname: the Barn. Piano likes that. “The art is in the Barn,” he says.
The only other material of importance is a series of low walls at ground level made of massive, deliberately rough granite. I’m sure the idea was that the low, heavy stone would make the upper Barn look lightweight, as if it were an angular bird or kite perched on glass above a granite wall. “The building has to fly,” says Piano. But the granite is ugly clutter. It pulls the Barn down, not releasing it to fly. Even Piano admits that the granite will look better when ivy begins to hide it.
The chosen wood for the cladding is Alaskan yellow cedar, a wood that resists insects and rot. It’s arranged in narrow overlapping strips like traditional clapboards. The strips are spaced differently in different places, a detail so delicate that it looks like a construction error.
The cedar will be allowed to weather naturally over time. Perhaps the facades will evolve into tapestries of subtle grays, like a minimalist painting by someone like Agnes Martin. But today most people who see it, including architects, don’t perceive it as wood. They think it’s aluminum siding. That fact makes the wood an anonymous material. Or a non-material, perfect for the age of digital reality.
Things don’t improve as you explore the surroundings. A public sidewalk passes a grim sunken service yard. A pedestrian ramp, sprawling atop a wall of those granite blocks, is a caricature of the elegant ramp next door at the Carpenter Center.
On HAM, Piano collaborated with Boston architects Payette. The building is the latest in a string of projects that have made Piano the world’s default architect for the design of art museums. Among his better known are the Centre Pompidou in Paris (with Richard Rogers), the Menil in Houston, the Beyeler in Switzerland, and the Nasher in Dallas. He recently designed additions to two great buildings, the chapel of Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamp, France, by Le Corbusier, and the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, by Louis Kahn. Piano was also the architect of a new wing, which opened in 2012, at the Gardner Museum in Boston. (Full disclosure: I was a consultant to the Gardner during that project.)
Harvard rarely gets their best work from its architects. Maybe the university is too hydra-headed, with too many conflicting viewpoints that need to be satisfied. Whatever the reason, HAM isn’t one of Piano’s triumphs. The university and its architect have created a thoughtful building that doesn’t make it to the top drawer as a work of architecture.