It seems remarkable that architects Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio—longtime irreverent skeptics of the very idea of the art museum—ever won the commission to design the recently completed home of the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), in Boston. But ICA director Jill Medvedow—whose short list ran from Diller+Scofidio, of New York, to Peter Zumthor, of Switzerland; Office dA, of Boston; and Studio Granda, of Iceland—was more than willing to take risks.

Photo © Nic Lehoux

The ICA rises like a giant periscope, its lens hovering tantalizingly at the brink. Engaging the water is so key to the scheme that the structure’s landside—its main approach—almost feels like its rear. Most people, unless in a water taxi, arrive across a sea of parking lots (future hotel, residential, and mixed-use sites, now in development) to an apertureless, banded composition of channel and clear glass with matte-aluminum panels. The entry, understated as a back door, slips visitors in obliquely at the southwest corner.

On the waterside, the $41 million building reveals its most open and dynamic face. In the trade-off with the BRA, the architects were not merely broadening the HarborWalk and gaining gallery space. They envisioned the path extending up metaphorically into the building, like a single undulant ribbon “enfolding public and private realms,” as Diller puts it. With one continuous surface material—Santa Maria, a hardwood used in boatbuilding—the boardwalk “flows” up to form stadium steps (a see-and- be-seen venue) overlooking the water. The deck then morphs into the stage floor and raked seating inside the museum’s theater, only to curl back, wrapping the auditorium ceiling and rolling outdoors again as the cantilever’s underbelly above the grandstand. Revealing the wood’s course, the east and west elevations are essentially section cuts. “The Fold,” hardly a new idea, was all the rage in the 1990s, inspired by writings of Gilles Deleuze and the proclivities of emerging computer software. Despite that decade’s prodigious outflow of “folded” schemes from architecture schools and theoretical practices, only a few (from UN Studio and several other firms) actually got built.

While the ICA’s fold flows dynamically down the building’s west side, the curve becomes more rigid, far less expressive on the east face, where it seems almost a conceit superimposed on more straightforward, rectilinear forms. Diller suggests that where it unfurls into a grandstand, the form subverts the traditional notion of monumental front steps rising to a rarified domain of art. Whether or not the ICA’s understated entrance and transposed “front steps” really buck The Establishment (and that’s arguable), the building responds, most of all, to the aqueous edge.


Institute of Contemporary Art

Diller Scofidio + Renfro
601 W. 26th St. Suite 1815
New York, NY 10001
Phone: 212.260.7971
Fax: 212.260.7924

Associate Architect(s)
Perry Dean Rogers Partners Architects

Structural, Mechanical, Electrical, Plumbing
Arup New York

Miscellaneous Metal Engineering  
Robert Silman Associates  
Arup Lighting  
Vertical Circulation Consultant  
Jenkins and Huntington  
Curtain wall Design and Consulting  
Acoustical/ AV  
Jaffee Holden Acoustics  
Theater Design  
Fischer Dachs Associates  
IT, Security, AV  
CCR Pyramid  
Vertical Circulation Consultant  
Jenkins and Huntington  
Campbell McCabe Inc  
General Contractor:  
Skanska USA
Nic Lehoux 
Peter Vanderwarker
32 Prince Street
West Newton, MA 02465
Phone / Fax: 617 964 2728
Cell: 857 231 1466



Structural system:

Structural steel frame and mega trusses.  Poured in place concrete slabs over metal deck.  
Aluminum and glass curtain wall:  
Channel glass rainscreen  
Glass component and support system: Bendheim  
Vinyl component:
3M dusted crystal by Design Communications
Stucco: (Interior and Exterior)  
Wood Decking, Ceiling  
RDA, Environmental Interiors  
Insulated glass units at curtain wall by Oldcastle.  
Metal Panel:  
Karas and Karas Glass Co  
Founder's gallery and Mediateque curtain wall:  
Glass by Oldcastle
Sliding doors: 
Fire control grilles, security doors: McKeon door  
Pocketed Hollow metal doors: Total doors  
Interior finishes:  
Gallery scrim ceiling:
Fabric by Bergamo
Gallery ceiling Aluminum support system:
Environmental Interiors
Mediateque flooring:
Mediateque upholstery: South Shore Upholstery  
Acoustical Plaster Ceilings: Baswaphon  
Glass fiber reinforced Gypsum at Theater:North East Custom Castings  
Sprung floor at stage: Robbins Sport flooring  
Manual, motorized, scrim, black out shades and acoustic banners: Mechoshade  
Series International w/fabric by Maharam
Rigging, curtains: 
High Output
Lobby, Bookstore, Café:  
Reception desk, Bookstore millwork: Jutras Woodworking Inc.  
Bookstore furnishings: USM  
Stair #1 and all miscellaneous metals:  
Ryan Iron Works  
Swimming Pool:   
Boston Harbor