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Gardner’s narrative of resiliency

A glass tunnel connects the new Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum wing to the original Gardner mansion.DAVID L. RYAN/GLOBE STAFF/Globe Staff

THE ITALIAN architect Renzo Piano, who designed the new building for Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, constructs for beauty, flow, and light. The museum's addition is intended to preserve Gardner's original home and her desire for an intimate visual experience, while providing more space. It is a way for an increasingly popular museum to update for the future. It is also a way for the museum to get over the past.

After all, the Gardner isn't just any museum. Sunday marked the 22nd anniversary of the most expensive property theft in history when two men walked out of the museum with 13 masterpieces. Long gone are Rembrandt's "Storm on the Sea of Galilee'' and Vermeer's "The Concert.''


The theft is now a part of Gardner's narrative, forever.

Piano likely did not think much of the still-at-large culprits when drawing his blueprints, and museum personnel are loath to talk about the theft. But look closely and the brilliance of his design isn't just in its beauty. At the Gardner, resiliency — the capability to adapt, to absorb shocks, and build better — has been turned into an art form.

I do not generally write about art or architecture. Phrases used to describe the new building design, like "a distinct visual and acoustical experience,'' confound me. But on a recent security tour of the property, it became clear that the museum is a perfect example of how an institution can learn from the past, but not be tied to it.

In 1990, two thieves dressed as Boston police officers told the museum night guards on duty that they were responding to a call. The thieves passed the sole security door. There was just one alarm button at the time; only motion detectors traced their movements. There were no cameras. A mere 81 minutes later, they were in possession of the masterpieces worth, today, half a billion dollars. The investigation is ongoing.


The new building could have been a fortress. But that would have made the theft the focal point of how we would perceive the museum. Instead, the colorless glass entry, the brick walls, even the enclosed corridor that passes from the new building through a grove of trees into Gardner's historic courtyard serve as practical access controls. There are no doors for the public to the original Gardner mansion. A thief would now have to walk through a transparent glass tunnel, into the new building, and out a security door for the easiest exit. Though counterintuitive, its openness makes it more secure.

While the museum is watched by hundreds of cameras, the new structure is designed to relieve some of the stress from Gardner's old home by shifting the burdens of exit and entry to the much more modern and secure building. "There is simply no place in the museum where a thief can just grab art and get outside,'' Anthony Amore, the head of museum security and author of "Stealing Rembrandts,'' said.

Amore's mission — the safety of great works of art — is not part of the museum's narrative. Museum materials describe the building as inspiring and even environmentally friendly, but you will read nothing about the resilient design.

And that's the way it should be. The notion of resiliency is used to describe how people, institutions, and societies bounce back from harms and figure out ways to adapt and thrive. It describes a way to persevere and move forward from the past - to keep calm and carry on - on issues as far-ranging as family trauma, recovery from an earthquake or tsunami, and the loss of masterworks belonging to a beloved museum.


On the heist's anniversary Sunday, much of Boston was recovering from a long blackout due to a transformer explosion. The museum, though, never lost power. Redundancies and backup systems kept the electricity flowing so the art was protected throughout the week. Knowing that its treasures were safe, the museum remained open for the art-viewing public.

Juliette Kayyem can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @juliettekayyem.