CAMBRIDGE — When the new Harvard Art Museums complex opens to the public on Nov. 16, director Thomas Lentz expects visitors to be struck by the size and scale of the project, a $350 million renovation and expansion designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Renzo Piano. With a total of 204,000 square feet on seven levels, acres of glass culminating in a pyramid-shaped roof, and a new gift shop, cafe, and 300-seat theater, the new structure makes quite a first impression. A 40 percent increase in gallery space will allow substantially more of Harvard’s 250,000-piece art collection, one of the country’s largest, to go on public display.
Yet Lentz hopes visitors will also appreciate a more subtle feature of the new facility: its total integration of three separate Harvard art museums — the Fogg, Busch-Reisinger, and Arthur M. Sackler — into a dynamic whole.
“People think we just put a wing on the old building, but we took everything apart,” Lentz said while conducting a recent tour.
By everything, he added, he means not just the Georgian-revival Fogg Museum building itself, a badly outdated 1927 structure facing Quincy Street that was stripped down to little more than its original travertine-vaulted courtyard and brick exterior. Also reorganized, he said, are the museums’ curatorial staffs, resources, and scholarly mission, all brought under one expansive, glassy roof.
Piano’s addition, clad in Alaskan yellow cedar and offering a second entrance facing Prescott Street, compounds the sense of the old building having been transformed into something all new and thoroughly modern. Inside and out, the dominant design theme is transparency, say key players involved with the project.
“It’s essentially a reinvention,” said Lentz. “We broke everything down and reassembled it for 21st-century users.”
Piano, speaking by phone from his office in France, says he is proudest of the way in which the new complex knits together the museums’ separate functions in an organic, public-friendly way.
His firm worked with Harvard on museum expansion plans for 15 years, through several iterations, he recalled, an exercise in patience as much as anything. One early plan to build a museum on the banks of the Charles River was scrapped after neighborhood opposition.
In the current plan, Piano and his design team had to address historic preservation concerns — how much of the original Fogg Museum could and would be saved — and whether the building’s central courtyard could effectively anchor the new facility, as it now does.
The result is “a kind of miracle,” Piano said, likening it to a small town humming with activity around a central, sunlit piazza.
“People will walk through [the building] and immediately understand that it’s more than a showcase for art. It’s a conservation and study center, too,” said Piano, who will be on hand for the Nov. 16 opening. “I’m Italian, you know,” he said with a chuckle. “Creating this relationship between building and community, it’s in my natural attitude.”
Harvard now joins other premier local museums, including the Museum of Fine Arts and Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, that have spent lavishly to expand in recent years. Piano’s firm designed the Gardner’s $114 million addition that opened in January 2012.
The Harvard opening caps a challenging six-year period during which the Fogg was shuttered and its collection largely stored off-site. Meanwhile, the 1991 building that had housed the Busch-Reisinger Museum, located behind the Fogg, was demolished. The contents of the Sackler were moved from their previous location, across Broadway, while the museums’ combined staffs shrank from a high of 260 to between 220 and 230 today, according to Lentz.
Museum officials pondered how to organize and display their collections, a rich trove that includes paintings, sculpture, drawings, textiles, photographs, and other media.
These works will be more integrated now, said chief curator Deborah Martin Kao, standing alongside Lentz in the refurbished courtyard. Different media, time periods, and artistic traditions will be displayed side by side. “What a social building it is, too,” she said. “You can literally see what’s happening behind glass doors and walls, breaking down boundaries, physical and conceptual.”
Organizationally, the new building largely begins with contemporary and modern art and flows backward in time as it moves upward. The ground floor houses the gift shop and cafe, both accessible without entry fee. Below it are two floors containing 8,000 square feet of storage and a theater for lectures and performances.
Galleries on the second and third floors display the museums’ permanent collections. One highlight: a display of Mark Rothko murals and drawings rarely seen in public since the late 1970s, and now restored to their original color via state-of-the-art digital projection technology.
Scale was a topic of much debate during the complex’s design phase, Lentz recalled. “We like human scale and intimacy, the notion of not walking into a gallery and being confronted with 150 works of art,” he said. “Maybe there are 40 or 50. We think that increases the chances of people actually stopping, looking, and thinking.”
The fourth and fifth floors contain research and conservation labs and study centers. Primarily for the use of faculty, students, and scholars, the study centers will also give the general public a chance to request pieces from the collection for close study. Around 200,000 objects from the collections will be available. Appointments can be scheduled through the museums’ website (www.harvardartmuseums.org), and walk-ins will be accommodated whenever possible, Lentz said.
Also on the upper level, the so-called Lightbox Gallery will “showcase the intersection of art and technology,” Lentz said. A double-shade system invented by a German engineering firm allows the building’s heat-gain and light-control functions to be adjusted as needed, depending on weather and the light sensitivity of artworks.
The Boston-based architectural firm Payette worked closely with Piano’s team on the new complex, which went through many stages, recalls Charles Klee, a principal with Payette.
In Klee’s view, the project’s greatest achievement is the building’s sense of lightness, the “gentle way the new construction sits on the old architecture,” as he puts it. “There’s a laciness to the new construction that doesn’t come commonly” in a project this size.
“Renzo understands proportions better than any architect I’ve worked with,” adds Klee.
Piano and Lentz acknowledge having many discussions, sometimes heated ones, about how everything should fit together in the new complex.
“Architects at [Piano’s] level are endlessly inventive, they never stop designing,” Lentz said. Yet because his Harvard staff had put together a comprehensive program for the new facility, “We could say, ‘That’s beautiful, but how does it relate to our program?’” he added. “Oftentimes it didn’t. So we had a healthy give and take.”
Observed Piano, “There’s no other way to do this sort of work. A good client is not just there to say yes. It’s like making a movie. You need a director, but you also need an incredible team.”
As an architect, he said, “You work by layering experience” from other projects that came before, including his expansion of Fort Worth’s Kimball Art Museum, originally designed by Louis Kahn, which opened in late 2013, and his work on the Beyeler Foundation museum in Basel, Switzerland, completed in 1997.
“Every time you try to add quality to what you’ve done,” Piano said. “Architecture is not cosmetics. It must last a long, long time. You need to be patient in establishing a solution.”
Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at email@example.com .