Boston, Massachusetts

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.”

The architects’ remedy included reviving the Fenway and Huntington entrances as the building’s main access points, and designating Pei’s entry for groups. They reinforced the path between the old entrances as the museum’s primary spine by replacing galleries with a visitor information area. And just to the east of this revived physical center, they inserted their T-shaped addition between two existing Lowell-designed wings, replacing a third that had opened in 1928. As part of the new addition, a quietly grand, 63-foot-high glazed court links new with old. It houses a café during normal museum hours and also provides space for events, including concerts, receptions, and lectures. A rigorously detailed ceiling system of baffles and translucent panels modulates sunlight and provides sound absorption to make the room acoustically suitable for its varied cultural programming. (For more information on the space’s acoustics see the related technology story.)

Beyond the court, but within the same shoebox-shaped, Vierendeel truss–supported volume, are the addition’s core exhibition areas. A generously proportioned recess in a pristine limestone-clad wall contains a cantilevered stair and acts as a multistory foyer to the four levels of galleries. The glazed entry reveals some of the art on view, providing a visual magnet.

Foster’s office collaborated with curators to determine the location of many key works and create displays that are refreshingly accessible. Galleries are not typically devoted to a single medium, but instead include a variety of types of objects from the same period. In addition, white walls are the exception rather than the rule. For example, a gallery focusing on the work of John Singer Sargent has flocked wallpaper. The goal was to create environments sympathetic to the collections and evoke the eras in which the pieces were created.

More fundamental to the success of the new wing are its connections to the surrounding context. One such link is the planted swath that runs in the 20-foot-wide gap between the addition and the existing building. The gap, which doubles as an exhibition space for sculpture, seemingly brings the Fens into the museum’s interior and helps satisfy seismic codes that required the addition be structurally independent.

Visual access to the outside is also available through a few gallery windows carefully positioned to shield art from the sun’s damaging rays. In a pair of pavilions that flank the core gallery structure and contain reconstructed rooms from historic New England houses, the architects have located openings in the exterior walls so that they align with windows of the older rooms inserted within. When environmental conditions allow automated scrims to be opened, visitors can see the surrounding landscape through the historic windows. The designers have also created corridors at the eastern edge of the core gallery building that run behind a curtain wall with the most minimal of mullions. In addition to functioning as circulation space, the zones contain interactive exhibits that explore how the museum conserves and selects the objects in its collection. These areas look out onto the Fens and provide a means of navigation and orientation as well as a respite from the more intense viewing experience of the galleries.

The only disappointment of the project is the new eastern elevation. The granite-clad pavilions’ windows, placed to correspond with the layout of the historic rooms they house, have an almost random air that seems at odds with the symmetrically arranged volumes. In addition, the restraint of the overall composition borders on excessive. Nevertheless, the scale of the addition seems appropriate, and a high level of precision and craftsmanship is evident throughout, but most notably in the glazed perimeter corridor. The visual permeability it provides is an especially welcome counterpoint to the building’s other, almost impenetrable facades.

Foster + Partners
22 Hester Road
SW11 4AN, United Kingdom
T  +44 (0)20 7738 0455
F   +44 (0)20 7738 1107

Location: Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Completion Date: November 2010

Gross square footage:
193,325 sq. ft. (new construction)

Total construction cost: $345 million (new construction and renovation)


Owner: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Foster + Partners
22 Hester Road
SW11 4AN, United Kingdom
T  +44 (0)20 7738 0455
F   +44 (0)20 7738 1107

Personnel in architect's firm who should receive special credit:
Norman Foster, Spencer de Grey, Michael Jones, Kate Murphy, William Castagna, John Small, Benedicte Artault, Robin Blanchard, Jan Coghlan, Chris Connell, Aaron Davis, Gennaro di Dato, James Edwards, Dagmar Eisenach, Morgan Fleming, Kristin Fox, Herbert Gsottbauer, Anthony Guma, Sean Hanna, Rie Haslov, Judith Kernt, Ismael Juan Khan, Kohelika Kohli, Abel Maciel, Peter Matcham, Pablo Menendez Paz, Aidan Monaghan, Yat Lun Ng, Mathis Osterhage, Silvia Paredes, Carol Patterson, Michael Pelken, Michael Richter, Katherine Ridley, Il Hoon Roh, Ingrid Sölken, Kinna Stallard, Matthew Stokes, Diego Suarez, Jane Tiley, Alexis Williams, Oliver Wong, Richard Yates

Architect of record: CBT/Childs Bertman Tseckares Inc.

Associate architect(s): CBT/Childs Bertman Tseckares Inc.

Interior designer: Foster + Partners

Design Structural Engineers: Buro Happold

Structural Engineers of Record: Weidlinger Associates, Inc

Design MEP Engineers: Buro Happold

MEP Engineers of Record: WSP Flack + Kurtz

Landscape: Gustafson Guthrie Nichol Ltd.

Lighting: George Sexton Associates

Acoustic & AV Consultant: Acentech Inc.

Environmental Consultant: Epsilon Associates

Geotechnical Consultant: McPhail Associates, Inc.

Civil Engineers: Nitsch Engineering Inc.

Permitting: Goulston & Storrs

Code Consultant: Hughes Associates, Inc

Transportation Consultant: Howard/Stein-Hudson Associates, Inc

Signage and Way finding: Roll Barresi & Associates, Inc.

External Envelope Consultant: Simpson Gumpertz & Heger Inc.

Catering Consultant: Hammer Design Associates, Inc

Security Consultant: Ducibella Venter & Santore

Hardware Consultant: IR Security & Safety Consultants of New England

Space Planning: Robert Luchetti Associates Inc.

Pedestrian Flow Consultant: Orca Consulting Group

Existing Conditions Survey: Existing Conditions Survey Inc.

Specifications Writer: Kalin Associates, Inc

Elevator Consultant: Van Deusen Associates

General contractor:   
John Moriarty & Associates
Winchester, MA

Enabling Contractor:
Skanska USA Building Inc.
Boston, MA

Pre-Construction Services:
George B.H. Macomber Company
Boston, MA

Nigel Young
T  +44 (0)20 7738 0455
Credit: Nigel Young / Foster + Partners

CAD system, project management, or other software used:
Microstation V8, XM
Rhino, 3D Studio Max, Adobe CS3/4

Management and administration
Microsoft Office suite
Microsoft Project



Structural system: Steel frame

Exterior cladding
Masonry: Phoenix Bay State Construction, Inc.
Boston, MA

Metal Panels: Maddison Associates
Revere, MA

Metal/glass curtain wall: Seele LP
New York, NY

Precast concrete:
J.L. Marshall & Sons
Seekonk, MA

Moisture barrier: Chapman Waterproofing Co.
Dorchester, MA

Curtain wall: Seele LP
New York, NY

Built-up roofing: Commonwealth Building Systems
Rockland, MA

Interior Glass and Glazing:
Ipswich Bay Glass Co., Inc.
Rowley, MA

Skylights: Seele LP
New York, NY

Doors, Frames, and Hardware:
Partition Systems, Inc.
North Reading, MA

Hardware Consultant:
Ingersoll Rand Security Technologies
Needham Heights, MA

Interior finishes
Acoustical ceilings: Allan Construction
Burlington, MA

Cabinetwork and custom woodwork:
Mark Richey Woodworking & Design, Inc.
Newburyport, MA

Paints and stains: SOEP Painting Corp.
Malden, MA

Floor Tile:
Port Morris Tile & Marble
Boston, MA

Resilient flooring / Carpet:
Circle Floors
Everett, MA

Wood Flooring (Gallery floors):
Becht Corporation
Tewksbury, MA

Otis Elevators [a product of United Technologies
Corporation (UTC)]
Needham, MA

J.C. Cannistraro
Watertown, MA

Other unique products that contribute to sustainability:
Building re-use and restoration rather then rebuilding
Energy efficient ventilation system

Natural light, as permitted by the display of art, reduces artificial lighting demands

Energy efficient lighting connected to light and motion sensors, and efficient centralised HVAC systems

Sanitary fittings with low flow-rates specified, including PIR sensing taps which will reduce water consumption by 25%

Triple glazing to minimise thermal transmission
Extensive sun-shading devices to minimise need for cooling

Commitment to reduce car-use by, taking advantage of the MBTA tram stop in front of the Museum. The MFA provides 25% subsidy of monthly MBTA passes for employees, bicycle parking in the garage and market-rate parking fees

Landscaping minimises irrigation - species require minimal or no irrigation

Storm water management to capture rainwater and allow for slow infiltration into the sewage network, reducing the risk of flooding