To First-time visitors to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), it might appear that the fruits of its $345 million capital project are limited to the recently opened Arts of the Americas Wing at the building’s eastern end, designed by London-based Foster + Partners. Its powerfully spare glass-enclosed courtyard and 53 thoughtfully organized galleries showcase everything from art to musical instruments to textiles. However, Foster’s still ongoing work involves more than the 193,000 square feet of high-profile new construction. The project includes the renovation and subtle reconfiguration of spaces all over the now 617,000-square-foot museum and reestablishes the building’s little-used historic entrances — a move that reinvigorates the venerable Boston landmark.
The museum sits along the Back Bay Fens, part of the city’s linear network of parks by Frederick Law Olmsted, and consists of several interconnected parts by numerous designers. The oldest piece is a 1909 Beaux-Arts structure designed by Guy Lowell facing Huntington Avenue to the south. The most recent major piece, not counting the Foster intervention, is I.M. Pei and Partners’ West Wing, which opened in 1981. The latter provided space for special exhibitions and an auditorium, among other amenities, behind a smooth-skinned granite facade, as well as a new entrance immediately adjacent to a parking area. Ironically, the success of this addition, combined with the subsequent closings of the Huntington Avenue entrance and another one axially opposite it facing the Fenway, completely “skewed the building’s center of gravity,” says Michael Jones, a Foster partner. Visitors rarely made it to the building’s easternmost galleries, according to Jones, even after the Huntington entrance was reopened in the mid-1990s. The trip from one end of the museum to the other was a “slog,” he says. “The route was convoluted.”