Arts

Site lines | Robert Campbell

Capitol thinking at the Kennedy Institute

A full-scale replica of the US Senate chamber is the centerpiece of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute.

David L Ryan/Globe Staff

A full-scale replica of the US Senate chamber is the centerpiece of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute.

There are a lot of ways to make good architecture. The new Edward M. Kennedy Institute on Columbia Point, which opens to the public Tuesday, is an example. It’s a building where the architecture is superb precisely because there’s hardly any architecture at all.

Never has the bromide “less is more” seemed more appropriate. Seen from outdoors, the Institute is nothing but a single-story white box with flat walls and flat roofs. There’s virtually no detail, not even a tree.

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But it’s hard to imagine a better design for this purpose and this site. The Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, to use the full proper name, is as minimalist as it is because its creators have worked hard to keep it simple.

On the exterior, they didn’t want it to compete for attention with the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum next door. And in the interior, they wanted it to be a neutral, almost invisible background for the exhibits, which are all about the history and life of the US Senate, where Edward Kennedy served for 47 years until his death in 2009.

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The architect was Rafael Vinoly, best known to Bostonians as the designer of the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. Convention centers are usually dismal buildings in which the easiest thing to do is get lost. Vinoly’s is the most logically organized one that I know. The Kennedy Institute has that same clarity.

As you approach the Institute from the parking lots, you see it standing next to the JFK Library. They’re near each other but don’t touch. The Institute is smaller, but it’s been composed of white shapes similar to those of the JFK. The architecture embodies a metaphor: These two buildings are brothers, one younger, one older, one a senator and one a president.

Together with earlier additions to the JFK, what is emerging here at the edge of the harbor is a kind of Kennedy village. You could call it a family compound.

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You approach the Institute by walking between two stiff rows of polished granite bollards, 50 in all, each inscribed with the name of a state. It’s a bit militaristic, and you feel as if you’re reviewing uniformed troops. But here a learning process has begun: Schoolchildren can be taught and grown-ups reminded that a senator, unlike a member of the House, represents an entire state.

By keeping the architectural temperature low, the designers are setting you up to be dazzled by two exhibits that break out of the world of gray.

David L Ryan/Globe Staff

By keeping the architectural temperature low, the designers are setting you up to be dazzled by two exhibits that break out of the world of gray.

Once you step inside, you discover that the Institute is essentially one huge room. Dimly lit galleries, painted in colorless gray or white, evoke the half-lit set of a noir movie. The floor, too, is gray. Galleries surround all four sides of a mysterious large block in the middle. Most of the walls double as projection screens, offering an ever-changing and rich history of the Senate.

As a visitor, you’ll be armed with a computer pad, so you can control the images on the wall, pointing and clicking to explore at your own pace. School groups will be able to work together to play politics, pretending they are senators debating issues — often genuine issues of the day — and voting. The interactive image system came from well-known exhibit designer — and Kennedy family member — Edwin Schlossberg.

It’s an old trick: By keeping the architectural temperature low, the designers are setting you up to be dazzled by two exhibits that break out of the world of gray. One is a full-scale replica of Kennedy’s Senate office, and the other is a replica — again, full size — of the entire Senate chamber at the US Capitol in Washington. The mysterious black box in the center of the Institute, it turns out, contains the chamber.

A full-scale replica of the US Senate chamber is the centerpiece of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute.

David L Ryan/ Globe Staff

A full-scale replica of the US Senate chamber is the centerpiece of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute.

The senator’s own office is my favorite part of the Institute. It’s a palace of memories. The walls and the desk — it’s his real desk — are larded with pictures and mementos. There are even homely seascapes painted by Kennedy. If you’re of a certain age, you’re spookily aware of the senator’s presence here.

A photo of Kennedy’s two dogs hangs over the doorway of his office replica.

David L Ryan/ Globe Staff

A photo of Kennedy’s two dogs hangs over the doorway of his office replica.

For architecture buffs, there’s a secret lesson in the Kennedy Institute. You could make it a trivia question: What famous Boston building does the Institute closely resemble? The answer, strange as it may seem, is the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. It’s a lesson in architectural appreciation to realize how similar these two buildings are, despite the fact that they’ve been designed in different eras and in radically different styles.

Like the Institute, the Gardner building — I’m thinking of the older part, not the recent glassy addition — is a box wrapped in a featureless skin, the skin being yellow brick instead of white concrete. The Gardner came in a plain wrapper, you could say, and so does the Institute.

The real facades of both buildings aren’t at the exterior. They’re deep inside: the lovely Italianate walls that surround the Gardner courtyard, and the ever-changing display panels that are the walls of the Kennedy.

Like that of the Institute, the Gardner floor plan is a square doughnut. Instead of the doughnut’s hole in the middle, though, you get a centerpiece. The one at the Institute is the Senate chamber. At the Gardner, it’s the garden courtyard. Both are brightly lit and filled with life and color, and both are surrounded by display galleries that are dimly lit and mostly gray.

Maybe it’s another lesson from the Kennedy Institute. Ideas in architecture never disappear. They just put on a new set of clothes.

Correction: An earlier version of this story cited the number of polished granite bollards as 100. There are 50.

Robert Campbell, the Globe’s architecture critic, can be reached at camglobe@aol.com.
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