Daily Archives: November 4, 2015

Boston museums


All of Boston’s venerable museums have had major renovations since I lived there – the Museum of Fine Arts by Foster + Partners, and the Gardner and Harvard’s Fogg, by Renzo Piano.  I couldn’t get to the Gardner, but I was able to see the other two in some depth.  As I ended up as an art history major in college, I knew both of these museums down to the smallest detail, and so have a good baseline for comparison.

The most impressive thing about the Foster remodel of the MFA is that they didn’t mess up the original Beaux Arts building.  In fact, they significantly improved the overall organization.  IM Pei’s addition from the early 1980s had confused the plan, shifting the main entry to the southern side facing a parking lot, and demoting the Huntington Avenue entry on the central axis.  The current state opens up this axis from Huntington back to the Fenway, and once again the building makes sense.


Pei’s addition is looking a little dated.  There are some commodious spaces and good galleries, but the detailing seems overlay flat and gypsum-boardy.  Mark Rylander just pointed out that the Pei buildings that are on the interface between late modernism and brutalism have worn better, with strong tectonic qualities (I had recently seen a good example of this at the Columbus Indiana library).  The MFA wing is hiding all of its guts, covering all with a pure white surface.



As the wing has been repurposed, it now includes an innovation that should become standard in museums:  inside the high-end restaurant, there is a bar, where I repaired for a little pick-me-up after a long, intense afternoon looking at art.  Refreshed by the best Manhattan I’d had in six weeks, I spent the rest of the evening checking in with all the galleries.  DSCF3765

Foster’s addition includes administrative offices and a new wing for American art, which grow off the north end of the existing building.  The exterior is an exercise in the current style – random variations within a grid.  It’s very tight and crisp, with the solid/void relationships handled well.


The big move is a large glazed court/atrium set between two wings of the original building.  It’s a huge space, with a scale that seems more like an exterior courtyard.  There is a cafeteria set up, which was whisked away in the afternoon so the space could be used for an evening event.  It connects the central axis of the museum with the entry to the new American wing, but is otherwise not accessible from the two flanking wings.  It supplies a necessary function within the museum – a place of relief from the intensity of galleries, with light, space, and a way to let your focus wander.  DSCF3736

It reminded me of a modernist version the courtyard at the Nelson-Atkins in Kansas City.DSCF3740DSCF3824

The big stair at the end of the atrium organizes the whole new wing.  From some hallways on the sides you can see the clear differentiation between the old and the new.DSCF3820

The new galleries are excellent – some are in the normal modernist vernacular of paintings floating on blank walls, but some are hung salon style, similar to 19th century practice.  The light is controlled very well (the only mistake being the hanging of Sargent’s The Daughters of Edward Boit facing the atrium stair, where the glare makes it hard to see the dark painting).  DSCF3744

The gallery building is wrapped by a double-envelope / walkway on three sides.  I’m not sure of the purpose of this – it has a few sculptures that can sit in the sunlight, but it seems like a lot of trouble for what it provides.  DSCF3749

The top floor galleries are skylit, working very well for the large modernist work there.DSCF3850

Overall, it’s a very successful, sensitive and simple remodel. It seems more like a Piano building than a Foster.


Which brings us to the Piano building at Harvard.  It is more than an addition to the Fogg.  The Fogg used to house galleries, classrooms, the art history department (which they call Fine Arts, just to confuse people), and the art history library.  Now the departmental spaces have moved over to the Stirling building across the street, and the collections from the Sackler and the Busch Reisinger have been consolidated, so it is now called the Harvard Art Museums, and is a much larger museum with an art study center.

From the street, the juxtaposition is striking, and not bad at all.  Let’s face it, the large flat wall of the Fogg went beyond the limits to which Georgian should be pushed, and the addition provides a much higher degree of articulation which reads well.


The reveal between the two is clear, while the big new roof ties them together.  DSCF4549

The Prescott St. corner is massive but pleasing.  A wood(!) screen wall above a stone base.  Robert Campbell thinks the base is clunky and not necessary, and I’m inclined to agree with him.  DSCF4543

The big move is the central atrium.  The Fogg had two levels of a Renaissance palazzo court, with a third attic story with small windows on a hallway.  Piano always seems to respect these Beaux Arts schemes (such as at the California Academy of Sciences) and he does so here.  The big question is how do you keep this parti, while doubling the height of the building, without making it a dark shaft.   The masonry at the third level was removed, and that becomes the start  of a glass curtain wall addition, exquisitely detailed.  DSCF3587

The third floor gallery circulation had been one of my favorite spaces – you got glimpses into the  court through the small windows, as you were surrounded by pre-Raphaelite paintings on your way to class.  It was fine, but I like the new corridors much better.  Similar to the double envelope at the MFA, sculpture that can be in strong light is located here, with paintings set back in shielded galleries.  DSCF4451p

The galleries are less spectacular, just plain rooms with track lighting.  I think this quality is due more to the layout of the original Fogg – the footprint is not big, and these rooms are simply fit in.  The circulation scheme relieves any possible claustrophobia – you’re not caught in an endless warren of galleries (as sometimes happens at MOMA), but can readily jump back to the atrium for light and space.DSCF4424

There are new galleries which pop through the solid wall of the museum and engage the streetscape.  These also house sculpture, and the contrast with the painting galleries is strong.  DSCF4418 DSCF4435

These also provide an excuse for the massively articulated, movable shading devices on the exterior.  I’m not sure all of this was necessary;  perhaps as with Foster’s double envelope, the alleged function just provides an excuse for doing something which looks really cool.  DSCF4531

On the fourth and fifth floors there is the conservation space and an art study center, with rooms which van be reserved so items in storage can be retrieved and examined.


There are quite a few big rooms like this, only one of which I saw being used.  I asked about excessive daylighting, with its attendant glare and damage to art work, and was told that there are multiple levels of automatic and controllable shading devices in place.  The rooms are beautiful, with great views of the city, but again I’m not convinced that this over-the-top high tech approach couldn’t have been accomplished with simpler and more passive techniques.  DSCF4462

The relationship to th Carpenter Center is great.  I’m not sure, but I think the whole Gwathmey Siegel remodel must have just been throw away.  DSCF4430

The ramp now plugs into the rear entrance to the museum.DSCF4530

The top floor is an homage to Piano-tech (not to be confused with Pinakothek).  The curtain wall starts at the third level, in a fairly simple manner, but it seems to accumulate more and more little metal pieces as it ascends, and the top is a high-tech apotheosis.  At this point I don’t care if it is at all necessary – the dematerialization of structure, the play of light, the modularity and repetition, the transparency, it is all just gorgeous.  No one can detail like Piano, and it’s nice when he’s able to just run amok.


But I did find one embarrassing detail:  I asked the brick what it wanted to be, and it said, an infill panel on an access door!DSCF4461

i’ve liked every Piano museum addition I’ve seen, mainly for their good sense, simple partis, contextual sensitivity, attention to the demands of the art and exquisite detailing, but in this museum, the architectural experience of the atrium is the dominant element.  I found myself returning to it again and again, just to enjoy the light and the tectonics.  It’s a very different museum from the one I knew, but the sensual and intellectual pleasure of the space more than made up for my displaced nostalgia.



If being in Boston felt familiar, Cambridge and Somerville felt much more so.  I was at Harvard for four years, and then spent two years living in Somerville while I worked for an architecture firm in Boston.  In retrospect, I spent the vast majority of my college years on campus, as it was intense and time-consuming, venturing into Boston for frequent field trips and museum visits related to my major in art history.  After college I spent a lot more time wandering around Boston, due to more free time, being in Boston every day anyway, and living in a crummy apartment in Somerville that encouraged one to get out more.

If Boston seems to change less than other places, Cambridge is even more extreme.  Returning alums bemoan the loss of old standbys like Cronins or Elsie’s, but there were certainly more than enough nostalgia-triggers around to drive Greta crazy, as she had to listen to stories in front of each (although I restrained myself from breaking into Illegitimum non Carborundum).  Random highlights follow:

Harvard Square struck me as much the same, thought perhaps more sedate.  Certainly the pedestrians are less militant than they were.  DSCF3550

While Joyce Chen’s was arguably one of the first restaurants to introduce authentic Chinese food to America, Yenching will always be remembered as the harbinger of the Great Szechuan Revolution in Cambridge, the place which inspired our subsequent lifelong predilection for excellent Chinese food.

Pinocchio’s pizza is still going strong, although it now has pictures of Mark Zuckerberg prominently displayed.  I had forgotten how much Boston pizza differs from New York – not least in that it is made by Greeks – but I’ll leave the review of it to Greta.  But perhaps the most inexplicable survivor was:DSCF3525
Charles Kitchen, purveyor of thoroughly mediocre double cheeseburger specials and cheap beer.  I know that the culinary proclivities of undergraduates probably haven’t changed that much, but I was still surprised that it hadn’t been displaced by a higher-end establishment, until a local informant told me that it is owned by the Mafia and probably fills some other role in the underground economy.

Harvard Yard is of course the same, except for the now huge crowds of international tourists and the chairs scattered around.  Crowd control has become an issue, and there are signs everywhere telling you not to enter the buildings or bug the students.  But once you get out of the Old Yard, the Tercentenary Theatre and the small courts are still relatively sedate.DSCF3409

Massachusetts Hall, the oldest survivor on campus, from 1720.

Massachusetts Hall, the oldest academic building on campus, from 1720.

The President's House

The President’s House

The window in Emerson, from which I gazed during Soc Stud 10 lectures on Marx (when I was a Soc Stud major before switching), and the tree I gazed upon.

The window in Emerson, from which I gazed during Soc Stud 10 lectures on Marx (when I was a Soc Stud major before switching), and the tree I gazed upon.

Architecturally, we went by old favorites to photograph them, as I just hadn’t taken enough slides back in the pre-digital days.

the Lampoon and Adams House

the Lampoon and Adams House

the alley by Lowell House. An interesting development has been the replacement of the Fly Club garden by a new building for Hillel.

the alley by Lowell House. An interesting development has been the replacement of the Fly Club garden by a new building for Hillel.

the view of Mem Hall from the GSD library, my preferred reading and late-afternoon dozing spot.

the view of Mem Hall from the GSD library, my preferred reading and late-afternoon dozing spot.  The tower has been reconstructed, and it is now used as the freshman dining hall, after the desecration of the Freshman Union 20 years ago.

Becoming an architect has given me a new appreciation for buildings I didn’t particularly like as a student.  I still understand their shortcomings as seen by laypeople, but as an architect I am bound to defend their architectonic qualities.  First there is Sert:

the Science Center

the Science Center

Peabody Terrace, which I no longer feel the desire to bombard with paint balloons.

Peabody Terrace, which I no longer feel the desire to bombard with paint balloons.

the Holyoke Street side of Holyoke Center, which is extremely nuanced in how it addresses its different orientations.

the Holyoke Street side of Holyoke Center, which is extremely nuanced in how it addresses its different orientations.

and of course Corbu’s Carpenter Center, which I now appreciate much more, and find its stand-off with Piano’s new museum quite entertaining (more on this to come).

Perhaps the most striking place was the pedestrian alley and courtyard at 44 Brattle Street, (behind the Design Research building designed by Ben Thompson).  The buildings were by Sert, Earl Flansburgh and TAC, who all had offices there, and collaborated on the design of the passage to the interior of the block.  I have never seen another pedestrian passage in this country that is this successful – the materials, the scale, the spatial sequence – all have combined to create a vibrant, pleasant and well-used alley.  It has become a commonplace that modernist object buildings ignored the context and destroyed the city;  it is instructive to see spaces like this and understand how the best modernist architects were highly sensitive to these issues.DSCF3530DSCF3533 DSCF3534

At the end of the day, Greta was more taken with Cambridge than she had thought she would be, and immediately fell into the role of serious author writing in a crowded cafe.

Jim McCarthy

DSCF3388Jim McCarthy and I first met almost 40 years ago.  I was in college and got a note from my mother, saying that my second cousin from Oregon was at the Bio Labs at Harvard and I should go meet him.  I dropped in, we chatted for quite a while, and then I moved to New York and didn’t see him again.  About 30 years later I was web-surfing and watching a Bill Moyers program on climate change on PBS, when this bearded Harvard biology professor named James J. McCarthy appeared.  I emailed him to ask whether he was my cousin, and he replied yes, he had been on the Harvard faculty ever since, and by the way, he had grown up in Sweet Home, and all the rest of his family lived in or around Eugene.

In the intervening years, Jim would come to Eugene from time to time to visit his mother (who has since passed away), and we got to spend some time with him and meet more of his family.  It was quite intriguing to get  to know a branch of your family that you weren’t really aware of – certain looks or expressions seem improbably familiar;  Jim actually looks a lot more like my grandfather than anyone in my immediate family does.

Jim has had an extraordinary academic career.  I won’t list all the details (I don’t want to  mimic those colleagues who introduce a visiting lecturer by spending 15 minutes reading their CVs), but he is the Alexander Agassiz Professor of Biological Oceanography at Harvard, and for twenty years was the Director of the Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ).  Most importantly, he has been at the forefront of climate change research and action throughout his whole career as a key member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and currently is the chair of the Union of Concerned Scientists.  (There are more details at http://www.oeb.harvard.edu/faculty/mccarthy/JJMpage.html).  I’m frankly in awe of what he has accomplished in his career, as he embodies this ideal of the academic life – a cutting-edge researcher whose activism has had a great impact at the international scale, all while being very involved in university governance and caring deeply about teaching.  (We at least have the last two characteristics in common.)

Throughout this trip I’ve visited many friends in academia, and it’s been revealing to discover how similar our concerns are about the direction in which universities are moving, even when our institutions are quite different.  Jim and I also share an academic  focus on climate change – his at the fundamental level of figuring out what is taking place in the global environment, mine at the more pragmatic level of how the architectural profession and building industry should respond to this most important challenge.

Greta and I were walking across Harvard Yard and ran into Jim (we were going to try to find his office later in the day), which I regard as payback for the time I was biking home in Eugene and unexpectedly ran into him as he headed to the Law School to meet with Mary Wood.  We rendezvoused with him the next week for lunch, and then he took Greta on a behind-the-scenes tour of the collections at the MCZ, where she saw the marine specimens, supplementing what she’d seen of amphibians and reptiles with John Wenzel in Pittsburgh.  (Meeting leading scientists and learning about their work wasn’t one of the planned goals of this trip, but it has emerged as one of the most important ones for her.)  I  sat in Jim’s office and Skyped into the thesis presentation of one of my honors college students back in Eugene, and I think the backdrop of his bookshelves and papers lent me an appropriate online academic gravity that calling in from a Starbucks wouldn’t have.  (I’m currently thinking about how I might be able to bring this semblance of academic gravity back to Eugene with me.)

Greta and I both really enjoyed talking with Jim, and we appreciated how he let us barge into his busy academic life (the longer we’re on this trip, the harder it is for us to remember that most people have normal lives with commitments and job and schedules.)  Greta got a glimpse into Harvard as it really is – an amazing collection of smart and engaged people working on serious issues – which was a good antidote to the old alumnus nostalgic sightseeing trip she was getting from me.