Staying in Tune
Wednesday, June 18th, 2014
By Timothy A. Schuler
Photos by Nic Lehoux
The expansion of Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is a tale of two workshops. One is the Renzo Piano Building Workshop (RPBW), the globally esteemed firm commissioned to construct a new wing for the museum; the other is the new wing itself—a space designed to serve as the “bustling workshop” of the museum’s inner workings.
One of America’s most eccentric art collectors by the turn of the 20th Century, Isabella Stewart Gardner’s style was unique and a passion that was unparalleled. In 1903, her museum became the first institution created, curated, and designed by one woman. With assistance from architect Willard T. Sears, she modeled the building on Venetian palazzos; its plat de résistance was a central, glass-encased courtyard—another first in the United States.
When it came time to design the new wing for the museum, despite architect Renzo Piano’s experience balancing contemporary design with historic architecture—as when he seamlessly integrated the Modern Wing and the 120-year-old Art Institute of Chicago building—RPBW was especially deferential to Gardner’s original vision. Since 1903, the visitor experience has been highly choreographed, with landscaped paths leading to intentionally framed views. The new wing seeks to do the same, offering uninterrupted views of the original Palace and its gardens through a spacious, transparent ground floor lobby. Above, four volumes clad in patinated copper seem to float, yet rise no higher than the existing building, maintaining the museum’s intimacy.
The new building’s role as a “workshop” was born out of necessity. With annual attendance reaching 200,000—versus 2,000 in Gardner’s day—the museum had appropriated gallery spaces for operational activities. With the opening of the new wing, conservation labs, educational stations, and musical performances are provided purpose-built spaces (concerts, for instance, will take place in a unique, multi-level, cube-shaped performance hall), allowing areas such as the historic Tapestry Room to be restored to their original functions.
Gardner was as passionate about the museum grounds as she was about its galleries, and the expansion opens the museum greenhouses to the public, featuring a landscape classroom that serves as a living lab. A new garden will function as a “horticultural exhibition” area, planned by a new artist every few years.
Additionally, RPBW and L+A Landscape Architects chose smart landscape elements that naturally filter rainwater, a choice that, along with a geothermal system, daylight harvesting, and materials with recycled content, helped the museum achieve LEED Gold certification. The design team’s emphasis on sustainability—both environmental and curatorial—helps ensure the continuation of Gardner’s unique gift.