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
Personnel in architect's firm who should receive special credit:
Architect of record: CBT/Childs Bertman Tseckares Inc.
Associate architect(s): CBT/Childs Bertman Tseckares Inc.
Interior designer: Foster + Partners
Structural Engineers of Record: Weidlinger Associates, Inc
Design MEP Engineers: Buro Happold
MEP Engineers of Record: WSP Flack + Kurtz
Lighting: George Sexton Associates
Acoustic & AV Consultant: Acentech Inc.
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
CAD system, project management, or other software used:
Management and administration
Structural system: Steel frame
Metal Panels: Maddison Associates
Metal/glass curtain wall: Seele LP
Moisture barrier: Chapman Waterproofing Co.
Curtain wall: Seele LP
Skylights: Seele LP
Cabinetwork and custom woodwork:
Paints and stains: SOEP Painting Corp.
Resilient flooring / Carpet:
Wood Flooring (Gallery floors):
Other unique products that contribute to sustainability:
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
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