It may come as a surprise to some Boston-area residents that Harvard University—right in our own backyard—boasts one of the largest fine art collections in the country. Its galleries contain a whopping 250,000-plus works, including masterpieces like Vincent van Gogh’s self-portrait dedicated to Paul Gauguin and the West’s finest collection of early Chinese jades. But perhaps its largest piece of art was unveiled on November 16: the new Harvard Art Museums building itself, a sleek wood-and-glass-clad addition to a 1920s brick Georgian structure.
The new Cambridge building combines the staffs and collections of the Fogg Museum (housing European and American art from the Middle Ages to the present), the Busch-Reisinger Museum (art from German-speaking countries of Central and Northern Europe), and the Arthur M. Sackler Museum (Asian, Mediterranean, Byzantine, Islamic, and Indian art). The years-long project has reimagined the old Fogg Museum space and almost doubled the museum’s size to 204,000 square feet.
The Renzo Piano Building Workshop, an international architectural collaborative known locally for its renovation and expansion of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 2012, has more than two dozen museum projects under its belt. But that didn’t prepare it for Harvard. “This project stands out from other museums,” says RPBW architect Justin Lee, who was sent from Italy to Boston three years ago to work with the local architecture firm Payette and live with the project until its completion. “This was unique because it’s a teaching museum.”
Acclaimed architect Renzo Piano masterminded the new design.
As such, the architectural design had to bend to the program requirements laid out by Thomas W. Lentz, the Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot Director of the Harvard Art Museums. In addition to facilities for extensive conservation and restoration work, the building needed to accommodate scholars and classes regularly viewing works currently in storage. “We like spaces that encourage close looking and thinking, which has always been a hallmark of this institution,” says Lentz. “Renzo was quite sensitive to that.”
The centerpiece of the museum reinterprets the original Fogg Museum’s Calderwood Courtyard, with two stories of travertine arches and columns surrounding a courtyard paved in bluestone. Piano raised the roof, adding three stories of interior glass walls above the arches to create transparent arcades on each level. Topping it all is an angled glass ceiling, nicknamed “the lantern,” from which light coruscates through the center. While the atrium space feels impressively lofty, the square footage of the courtyard keeps it approachable. Says Lentz, “We wanted to maintain the kind of human, intimate scale of the old museum.” There is gallery space off the courtyard and up two more levels, in modest-size rooms with plain backdrops to encourage close study.
Academics and serious art lovers can now take advantage of the 5,000-square-foot fourth-floor Art Study Center, which has the proper room configuration and light conditions to allow close examination of works usually in storage, ranging from Byzantine coins to Diane Arbus photographs. At the top of the building is the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies. From that atrium vantage point, a visitor can observe the researchers and technicians restoring artworks in their labs, look up to see the unique triple-glazed window roof, or look down to one of the glassed-in arcades to see an entire wall of pigment containers in glass cabinets, which Piano suggested should be liberated from the back room.
Seen from the outside, the angled glass roof is taller—but not by much—than the surrounding buildings, echoing some other features of the Harvard campus and the Cambridge neighborhood. “You look at the campus, the yard, and the surrounding environment—it’s a sea of tree canopies,” says Lee. “Once in a while you get a steeple or a tower popping through the tree canopies. We thought maybe the lantern could be one of those objects.”
“We didn’t want to create a closed academic bunker or a static treasure house,” says Lentz. “Renzo created not only a more functional building, but a much more accessible and transparent building. We actually view this new building as a giant transparent classroom.” 32 Quincy St., 617-495-9400