Renzo Piano gets museum airborne

Piano designed with the museum’s original mission in mind.

Before architect Renzo Piano and his team drew up plans for their addition to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, they spent months listening to museum staffers discuss the existing building, known as the palace - both its charms and its limitations. Only then, says Piano, a Pritzker Prize winner whose firm has designed and renovated art museums around the world, did they address the Gardner’s major needs and concerns: from the soundly practical to the purely aesthetic; from how the museum has functioned for more than a century to how it might thrive for another century or two.

“The palace is a palace, a brick building. It’s not where the magic is,’’ Piano reflected on a recent visit.

“The magic is when you get inside,’’ said the 74-year-old Italian architect, whose English is superb, if heavily accented. “What is the suspended atmosphere of the [palace’s interior] courtyard if not lightness? That sense of levitation, of zero gravity.’’


From a terrace overlooking the new addition, Piano betrayed an almost childlike delight in the view of his 70,000-square-foot addition - a structure slightly larger than Gardner’s original. Cultural buildings like the one he’s just added to the museum’s footprint enrich their cities, Piano said, summarizing a design concept that seeks to fully integrate the two edifices, old and new. “They’re not buildings that take possession of the land. They fly on the land. They welcome people. You look for lightness, and you get transparency. You build transparency, and you get accessibility.’’

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Behind the $114 million addition’s facades of glass and patinated copper are a gallery for special exhibitions, a performance center, offices, public rooms, conservation labs, and greenhouses. The new visitors’ entrance opens onto a lobby that’s visible through glass walls from the street.

The project’s aesthetic approach is informed by multiple sources, according to the architect, whose Renzo Piano Building Workshop maintains offices in Paris, New York, and Genoa, Italy.

“It comes from Isabella Gardner,’’ he said. “It comes from my personal story. It comes from a social vision of a cultural building that has a duty to create that sense of attraction.’’

Piano’s team has also designed The New York Times headquarters in Manhattan, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences, and the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, among other buildings of architectural distinction. Current projects include a renovation and expansion of the Harvard Art Museums, a major addition to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, and a new downtown Manhattan home for the Whitney Museum of American Art.


Architecturally, the Gardner addition - which, at 64 feet, is not quite as tall as the palace - bears little resemblance to the 1901 building, designed by Willard T. Sears and modeled after a 15th-century Venetian palazzo. In many ways, though, the new building bows reverently in the direction of its ancestor, which can be viewed from much of Piano’s addition and is mirrored in its surfaces.

“We were very clear that we wanted the addition to respect the historic building,’’ said museum director Anne Hawley. “The phrase we used was that it should ‘float quietly behind it’ but in no way upstage’’ the palace.

Flanking the new lobby are courtyard gardens on either side, a nod to the museum’s horticultural history. A glass-walled corridor - Piano refers to it as an umbilical cord - connects new building to old, 50 feet of greenery separating the two.

Visitors will now enter the palace through the walkway, which leads directly onto the courtyard, a soaring space blooming with flora and art.

The corridor serves other purposes as well, notes Piano. Plants taken from the greenhouse and works temporarily borrowed from the collection, for example, will pass back and forth along it.


“The entire building is designed in such a way you never forget the palace,’’ he observed. “The old lady is always over there. You feel her presence the moment you enter.’’

‘The entire building is designed in such a way you never forget the palace,’ says Piano.

Renzo Piano 

Above the new greenhouse, which looks onto Evans Way Park, are two 600-square-foot apartments that will accommodate artists in residence. Nearby is the new visitors’ entrance, the lobby spacious enough for even large groups to gather inside on a wintry day.

The ground floor contains an expanded gift shop and cafe, and additional room for educational projects and visitor orientation. Upstairs are two spaces of which Piano is particularly proud: a performance hall that seats about 300, featuring a three-tiered balcony surrounding a central stage, and an exhibition gallery boasting a ceiling that can be set at one of three heights: 12, 24, and 36 feet.

In the gallery, natural light will be controlled by a system of overlapping shades. Having a flexible exhibition space where light and ceiling height can be changed at will, Piano said, “is something I’ve been dreaming about for a long, long time.’’

In the concert hall, practically every seat is in the front row. Acoustically, it promises to be a significant upgrade over the palace’s Tapestry Room, where museum concerts were held for decades, and where the hanging tapestries had an unfortunate muffling effect. The concert hall’s floor is made of yellow Alaskan cedar, its walls of perforated white oak, allowing sound to reverberate off the concrete walls behind.

Piano designed the performance space in consultation with close friends such as composer and conductor Pierre Boulez.

“Architecture is an art that takes from everything, like music does,’’ Piano said. “It’s really robbery, but robbery without a mask. You don’t really care where ideas come from. You pick and take from yourself and others.’’

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at