The Harvard Art Museums, during renovation and expansion, showing the new addition.

From Quincy Street, you would never know that the overhauled Harvard University Art Museums, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, lurks behind the puritanically aloof facade of the neo-Georgian Fogg Museum. Even the long boxy volume of Renzo Piano’s addition, which hoists itself one-story above Prescott Street, behind the rear of the Fogg, doesn’t fully disclose its size, even with showy glass cubes poking out at either end. The Fogg is now just one of three merged collections that opened November 16. To accommodate a daunting array of competing programmatic agendas on a too-small site and survive a tortured history, Piano (working with local architect Payette) designed defensively, producing a design that is variously elusive, alluring, and insistent.

Piano was originally hired in 1997 to design a contemporary art branch for the Fogg Museum on a site along the Charles River. It succumbed to neighborhood opposition. Then planning began to upgrade the Fogg next to Harvard Yard, which the museum’s Director Thomas Lentz says “was a much beloved building nearing the end of its life.” The university also hoped to build new museum space in its planned expanded campus in Allston, and hired the Los Angeles architect Daly Genik to design it. 

The economic recession ended that “irrational exuberance,” as Lentz put it. At Harvard, as at many older universities, the campus museums were run by scholars largely for scholars. It offers leading programs in art history and conservation, but few other Harvard students visited. The public was tolerated more than welcomed. Warned by then university president Lawrence Summers that “a campus-wide justification” was needed to proceed with the costly overhaul of the Fogg, Lentz decided to “pull over to the side of the road” and reexamine the entire project.

After two years of heated discussion, Lentz’s plan merged the diverse collections of the Fogg (European and American art) with the Busch-Reisinger museum (a collection of central and northern European art, attached to the Fogg in 1991 by Gwathmey Siegel) and the Arthur M. Sackler Museum (Asian, Near Eastern, and ancient art), which occupied a 1985 building across the street by James Stirling and Michael Wilford.

Piano managed to stuff these jigsaw pieces neatly into a design that vigilant neighbors would find acceptable in size (204,000 square feet) and style. “It’s no secret that Harvard has a very difficult relationship to the community,” says the architect. Piano kept only the neo-Georgian brick façade and courtyard of the existing Fogg (designed in 1927 by Coolidge Shepley Bulfinch & Abbott). The crown of his new building—the shards of glass-roof facets that flood daylight gloriously into the conservation labs on the top floor—also had to be invisible from Quincy Street and Harvard Yard, as demanded by the Cambridge Historical Society. The Gwathmey Siegel wing was demolished.

Now that it is complete, the difficulties of the project are most evident on the museum’s disjunctive exterior, which can’t reconcile the complexities that persisted through 17 years, three sites, and total costs of about $400 million. Piano separates his addition from the Fogg façade with a deep recess, a visual sawcut. Out of the short north and south ends of the otherwise sober beige, cedar-clad addition explode what look like de Stijl artifacts: glass cubes wrapped in tie rods and steel-beam rails and (north side only) what looks like a teacup handle. Piano calls these winter gardens, a daylight-bathed pause in the museum itinerary within.

The south-facing glass cube feints at the Carpenter Center, Le Corbusier’s 1963 visual arts building next door, but keeps a respectful distance. Unfortunately, Piano grabs the end of the iconic ramp that cuts through the Carpenter as it descends toward Prescott and ungracefully stitches it onto his wheelchair-access ramp.

But step into the interior Calderwood court, now a lobby surrounded by the original travertine arcade, and see Piano delicately blur the line between old and new. He extended the two-story arcade upward, in layers of shimmering glass that seem to infinitely reflect each other, to a total of five, high-ceilinged levels topped by a spiderweb of rods and cables supporting the glass roof.

The view through the courtyard glass discloses a programmatic mix much richer than a conventional museum. On the first three levels are the exhibition spaces. A colorful pigment collection signals Harvard’s materials conservation program on the fourth floor. A stair links it to an art conservation center under the sloping glass roof. The conservators’ work is on view behind yet more reflecting full-height glass walls. Piano makes this intricate packaging look easy.

With galleries for budding curators and professors from across campus, Lentz added a 5,000-square-foot, fourth-floor study center that Piano installed under glass sloping down from the conservation galleries. Drawing from 8,000 objects stored in the four levels below the main floor, faculty throughout the university can teach from the collection. In these ways, the museum embeds itself deeply into the life of Harvard.

The galleries extend a long-overdue welcome to the public. They handsomely and intimately display a tiny, but jaw-dropping percentage of the museums’ massive holdings. Lentz could only add 12,000 square feet of display space for a total of 43,000 square feet. For a collection of 250,000 objects, comparable to the holdings of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, that’s tiny. Lentz and the curators hung the galleries sparely, aided by Kulapat Yantrasast of wHY Architects. “We want to encourage close, sustained looking,” Lentz explained. Piano was able to bring daylight into several galleries, including the winter gardens, both of which bathe sculpture with light on three sides.

Though Piano deploys the materials and details familiar in museum projects from coast to coast, he so adeptly manages the compromises of constraint that few will notice the few places where the stitches show.