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First Look Inside Expanded Harvard Art Museums

Looking down from the glass-roofed atrium to the courtyard floor five stories below. (Greg Cook)

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“Light is one of the most important materials of architecture,” Renzo Piano said at a talk at Harvard University in 2009. Light and transparency—one of the ways he makes light part of his architecture—are primary themes for the suave, celebrated Italian architect.

“Transparency is still a very important quality of urban life,” he said at that Harvard talk. “Urbanity comes because the buildings talk to the street.”

These notions are evident in his designs for the newly renovated and expanded Harvard Art Museums between Quincy and Prescott streets in Cambridge. On Tuesday the university announced plans to reopen the complex on Nov. 16.

Since the project began with the closing of the institution’s Fogg Museum and Busch-Reisinger museums in 2008, he’s taken the iconic Italian Renaissance-style courtyard at the heart of the 1927 Fogg, which has been protected with listing on the National Register of Historic Places since the 1980s, and extended it upward and crowned it with a futuristic-looking, steel and glass pyramid that floods the five-story-tall space with sun.

Piano first made his mark as a post-modern punk with his designs for Paris’s Pompidou Centre in the 1970s, which seemed to expose all the guts of the museum by putting them on the building’s exterior. On a tour of the Harvard museum Tuesday, this impulse continues to be evident in exposed supports of the atrium ceiling. And the winter gardens that dramatically jut out from the new wing’s exterior. And how prominent he makes a new main visitor stairway, which improves circulation through the building.

But Piano has become the go-to guy for a kind of handsome, exquisitely upholstered, sensual, couture architecture, as seen in his 2012 expansion of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. And here. One example: See how he twists the Alaskan yellow cedar that clads the Harvard Art Museums’ new exterior, giving what is basically a big minimalist shoebox a bit of the subdued flair of a finely tailored suit.

The new wing along Prescott Street serves as the main entrance into the Busch-Reisinger Museum and the Arthur M. Sackler Museum. A winter garden gallery juts out from the side of the structure. (Greg Cook)

The new wing along Prescott Street serves as the main entrance into the Busch-Reisinger Museum and the Arthur M. Sackler Museum. A winter garden gallery juts out from the side of the structure. (Greg Cook)

Piano’s design preserves and restores the Fogg Museum’s Italian Renaissance-style Calderwood Courtyard, opening up arches along the arcade that had long been closed, while also extending the space upward with the addition of glass arcades on the upper three floors topped by a glass roof. But much of the rest of the interior was torn down to add 40 percent more gallery space in the combined Fogg, Busch-Reisinger, and Arthur M. Sackler museums. (Greg Cook)

Piano’s design preserves and restores the Fogg Museum’s Italian Renaissance-style Calderwood Courtyard, opening up arches along the arcade that had long been closed, while also extending the space upward with the addition of glass arcades on the upper three floors topped by a glass roof. But much of the rest of the interior was torn down to add 40 percent more gallery space in the combined Fogg, Busch-Reisinger, and Arthur M. Sackler museums. (Greg Cook)

Looking down from the glass-roofed atrium to the courtyard floor five stories below. (Greg Cook)

Looking down from the glass-roofed atrium to the courtyard floor five stories below. (Greg Cook)

The new “glass lantern” or pyramid that crowns the building fills art conservation labs on the fifth floor with natural light, which can be controlled with a system of adjustable shades. “We can control the light at all times,” museums spokesman Daron Manoogian says. (Greg Cook)

The new “glass lantern” or pyramid that crowns the building fills art conservation labs on the fifth floor with natural light, which can be controlled with a system of adjustable shades. “We can control the light at all times,” museums spokesman Daron Manoogian says. (Greg Cook)

Piano leaves a gap between the Fogg Museum’s familiar Harvard red brick exterior (at right) and his new modernist facility. Floor-to-ceiling windows across the corridors linking the buildings offer views of Harvard’s Carpenter Center, Le Corbusier’s only building constructed in the United States. The ramp from the Carpenter building has been extended so that it links up with the new Prescott Street entrance to the museums. (Greg Cook)

Piano leaves a gap between the Fogg Museum’s familiar Harvard red brick exterior (at right) and his new modernist facility. Floor-to-ceiling windows across the corridors linking the buildings offer views of Harvard’s Carpenter Center, Le Corbusier’s only building constructed in the United States. The ramp from the Carpenter building has been extended so that it links up with the new Prescott Street entrance to the museums. (Greg Cook)

The museum’s collections of pigments and artist materials will be visible from across the atrium in cases off the fourth floor analytical lab, which is not open to the public. (Greg Cook)

The museum’s collections of pigments and artist materials will be visible from across the atrium in cases off the fourth floor analytical lab, which is not open to the public. (Greg Cook)

Lights dangling down into the courtyard offer dramatic effects at less sunny times. (Greg Cook)

Lights dangling down into the courtyard offer dramatic effects at less sunny times. (Greg Cook)

Study center rooms on the fourth floor offer some 5,000 square feet of space where visitors, by appointment, can closely examination of art from the collection, which includes some 250,000 objects dating from antiquity to now. “There isn’t anything that large in the country,” Manoogian says of the facility. (Greg Cook)

Study center rooms on the fourth floor offer some 5,000 square feet of space where visitors, by appointment, can closely examination of art from the collection, which includes some 250,000 objects dating from antiquity to now. “There isn’t anything that large in the country,” Manoogian says of the facility. (Greg Cook)

The renovation and expansion project has increased gallery space by 40 percent, for a total of approximately 43,000 square feet. Here on the third floor, there are now three 1,000-square-foot “curricular galleries,” featuring works chosen by teachers and students related to courses, and a 5,000-square-foot temporary exhibitions gallery. Walls between them can be moved or removed if museum leaders wish to use the entire space for blockbuster presentations. (Greg Cook)

The renovation and expansion project has increased gallery space by 40 percent, for a total of approximately 43,000 square feet. Here on the third floor, there are now three 1,000-square-foot “curricular galleries,” featuring works chosen by teachers and students related to courses, and a 5,000-square-foot temporary exhibitions gallery. Walls between them can be moved or removed if museum leaders wish to use the entire space for blockbuster presentations. (Greg Cook)

Piano merges the old Italian Renaissance-style Calderwood Courtyard with modern glass and steel. (Greg Cook)

Piano merges the old Italian Renaissance-style Calderwood Courtyard with modern glass and steel. (Greg Cook)

“Renzo wanted this as a place to take a break from the galleries,” Manoogian says of the winter gardens at the ends of the second floor, where the museums expect to display less light-sensitive Asian art. (Greg Cook)

“Renzo wanted this as a place to take a break from the galleries,” Manoogian says of the winter gardens at the ends of the second floor, where the museums expect to display less light-sensitive Asian art. (Greg Cook)

The new building’s Alaskan yellow cedar siding twists dynamically until it flattens at the new wing’s corners. (Greg Cook)

The new building’s Alaskan yellow cedar siding twists dynamically until it flattens at the new wing’s corners. (Greg Cook)

Piano’s devotion to architectural transparency is evident in the ways he opens up the spaces with glass walls throughout the design. (Greg Cook)

Piano’s devotion to architectural transparency is evident in the ways he opens up the spaces with glass walls throughout the design. (Greg Cook)

A new 300-seat theater and lecture hall constructed in the lower level replaces the 280-seat theater at Sackler building at 485 Broadway, which the museums plan to completely move out of by June 30, Manoogian says. (Greg Cook)

A new 300-seat theater and lecture hall constructed in the lower level replaces the 280-seat theater at Sackler building at 485 Broadway, which the museums plan to completely move out of by June 30, Manoogian says. (Greg Cook)

A new 100-seat lecture hall has been constructed in the lower level. As in the new 300-seat hall, the gaps between the paneling grow larger toward the back of the room to assist in acoustics, Manoogian says. (Greg Cook)

A new 100-seat lecture hall has been constructed in the lower level. As in the new 300-seat hall, the gaps between the paneling grow larger toward the back of the room to assist in acoustics, Manoogian says. (Greg Cook)

Piano emphasizes the gap between the new Modernist museum building and the Fogg Museum’s old brick structure. (Greg Cook)

Piano emphasizes the gap between the new Modernist museum building and the Fogg Museum’s old brick structure. (Greg Cook)

Previously: As Harvard Art Museums Close For Expansion, A Preview Of What’s Coming

Greg Cook is co-founder of WBUR’s ARTery. Follow him on Twitter @AestheticResear. Friend him on Facebook. Check out his public speaking skills when he moderates “In-Sight Evening: Preparing for the New Harvard Art Museums, Part IV,” a talk at Harvard’s Sackler Museum in Cambridge at 6 p.m. Wednesday, April 9.

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