In Boston, an arts museum with a populist mission
BOSTON This is not a friendly place for architecture. Four decades ago, the completion of a City Hall in Brutalist concrete sent the city's cultural guardians into a panic. Since then, with a few exceptions like the John Hancock Tower, the city's architectural aspirations could generally be summed up in one word: brick.
The new Institute of Contemporary Art, which opens on Sunday, is likely to change all that. Designed by Diller Scofidio & Renfro of New York, its taut glass-and-steel forms at the edge of Boston Harbor are a startling expression of public-spiritedness. Conceived as an extension of a 43-mile, or about 70-kilometer, boardwalk along the water, its ability to interweave art and civic life makes it the most important building to rise here in a generation. It is also a milestone for Elizabeth Diller and Richard Scofidio, a duo who have dwelled largely on the fringes of the architecture profession since they opened their practice in the 1970s.
Their early projects — art installations, window displays, stage design — seemed intended to distance them from their peers, as if they felt ill at ease with architecture's permanence. Their 2002 Blur Building on Lake Neuchâtel in Switzerland, a grid of computerized nozzles supported on scaffolding and emitting puffs of mist, evoked an ethereal cloud; their current renovation of Lincoln Center in New York consists of a series of surgically precise interventions — a lobby, a pedestrian bridge, a concrete canopy — that suture together existing urban fragments.
But if trepidation is a consistent thread in their work, that's easy to forget as you approach the new museum. Flanked by empty parking lots on two sides, its bunkerlike form looms heroically at the water's edge. The building is designed as a series of public zones, with a museum and theater stacked atop a lobby and a stand of outdoor bleachers overlooking the water.
These zones are connected by a ribbon of wood that rises from the waterfront, up the bleachers, and into the building to form the theater stage. Then it rises diagonally to support the theater seating and up the rear wall before folding back over to become a platform for the galleries on the fourth level.
For now, the museum reads more as a sculptural object in stunning isolation against the sky than as part of a dense urban composition.
That won't last long: a hotel, office building, and residential tower are planned for the lots flanking the museum. But ultimately, the effect could be even more magical. Viewed through a maze of new buildings, the structure could wield the force of a wonderful surprise. And the bleachers should feel more intimate and sheltered.
There are a few kinks. The ground- floor entry is oddly laid out: The main entrance is set at the corner and cuts diagonally into the lobby, creating an awkward leftover space just inside the street facade. The space functions neither as a lobby nor a contemplative corner.
But it is the bleachers that form the building's public face, attesting to the project's populist mission. The view is magnificent. The heavy cantilevered form of the museum hovers above, guiding your eyes outward toward the rippling water rather than upward. As you climb the bleachers, the weight of the cantilever is palpable, though the effect is less menacing than intimate.
You might say that this is the architects' 21st-century response to the grand steps leading up to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, another stage where the public becomes part of the spectacle.
Rather than engage with the street hubbub, however, the center invites visitors to leave the city behind and embark on a contemplative experience. Beyond the water, stretches the city skyline, a view with a tough, unsentimental edge. After the waterfront development is completed, the museum will be physically and visually linked to downtown by the pedestrian boardwalk that will run along the entire waterfront.
Visually at least, that sequence from the boardwalk extends to the museum building itself: From the top of the bleachers, passers-by can peer directly into the theater through a towering glass wall. To actually enter the theater, visitors board an enormous glass elevator in the lobby. Upon exiting the elevator, the crowd spills downward to the seats. At the bottom, lies the stage, which is framed by glass on two sides and overlooks the water.
In essence, the theater is a more formal version of the bleachers.
But it is only when you reach the galleries above that you fully grasp how the architects have harnessed the harbor setting to induce a reflective mood. Divided into two parallel warehouselike spaces, this level yields 17,000 square feet, or about 1,580 square meters, of space for art, three times the amount afforded by the museum's old quarters in the Back Bay area.
The water reappears in the media center, a small room, lodged between the two wings, that telescopes downward, with descending rows of computers at which visitors can sit to peruse the museum's collection. At the bottom of the room, a window frames a narrow view of the water's surface, reducing it to an abstraction; the mood shifts along with the changing pattern of the waves.
That entrancing image sums up the museum's goal of resensitizing its audience to the world's tactile surfaces, its patterns, its range of scales — whether the subject before us is the city or a solitary work of art. It is the architecture of empathy, welcome therapy for a self- involved age.