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My Article on the Boston ICA in Today’s WSJ—Part I

As you know, I can’t link to the Wall Street Journal‘s subscribers-only site, but I AM allowed to post the text of my article. I’ll again do it in two parts, so as not to tax the short attention spans of hyperactive blog readers. (It’s on today’s “Leisure & Arts” page, D10, for those of you who still turn pages, instead of clicking hyperlinks. Online WSJ subscribers can find it here. )
Now that my WSJ gag order has been lifted, I will also be writing more about the ICA for CultureGrrl—particularly about the excellent inaugural shows.
Here’s the first half of the piece:
Boston
Given their reputation as the mischievously subversive renegades of the art and architecture worlds, Diller Scofidio + Renfro have created a surprisingly decorous building for the new waterfront site of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, which opened last month. At first sight, its effect is less “Wow!” than “Huh?” Pedestrians approach the new 65,000-square-foot ICA from its pedestrian-looking delivery side.
The flat wall is an immediate letdown from the expectations raised by the prospect of the first completed building in the U.S. by these maverick Americans, previously best known for their work as artists and theorists. At its most alluring when strikingly lit at night, the museum turns its best face — a dramatic 80-foot top-floor cantilever, overhanging an outdoor expanse of mahogany bleachers — away from the city, toward the harbor.
Although the spaces for exhibitions, education, eating and shopping are, for the most part, serviceably ordinary, the architects do defy convention by turning standard museum topography upside down and backward: The formal staircase at the front entrance of many traditional museums morphs here into grandstand seating out back. The ICA’s ground-level main entrance, however, is a bit of a challenge to find — a small, heavy glass door, tucked away in a corner, under an overhanging outdoor staircase.
To get to the art, you must ascend to the top, which houses the museum’s concrete-floored, sky-lit, white-walled galleries. The ICA wanted all its exhibition space on one level, for a continuous experience, and the 17,000-square-foot cantilevered loft-in-the-sky was the architects’ resourceful solution to the problem of the small allowable footprint below.
The two levels below the galleries are principally occupied by an attractive, steeply raked 325-seat auditorium, with a dancer-friendly wood floor and an ever-changing backdrop of harbor views through floor-to-ceiling glass. Artists producing works of theater, dance or music for this space may want to figure in the delightful distraction of boats plying the water and seagulls flying in the air. If not, pushing one button will lower translucent fabric panels to block the view; another button activates the descent of blackout panels.
Still, in a world of convention-busting recent museum architecture — in Denver, Milwaukee and Bilbao, Spain, for example — the exterior of the new ICA bears a surprising resemblance to a utilitarian building nearby: Visible from the museum and a short walk away looms Rafael Viñoly‘s 1.7-million-square-foot Boston Convention & Exhibition Center (2004), also sporting an exaggeratedly protuberant canopy, which, like the ICA’s, has a downward-tilting rectangular window jutting out beneath.
When I asked Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Elizabeth Diller if this resonance with Mr. Viñoly’s building was intended, she looked genuinely horrified and declared: “You’re the first person who’s mentioned that to me. I’ll have to go to look at it!”
Such mainstream comparisons must be jarring to provocateurs known for their biting institutional critiques, fully displayed in a 2003 retrospective at the Whitney Museum. Their most famous built structure was the Blur Building, a pavilion for Swiss EXPO 2002, whose “skin” consisted of mist pumped through high-pressure nozzles.
Diller + Scofidio (joined more recently in their practice by Charles Renfro) are also known for an unrealized 2002 design commissioned for Eyebeam, a New York museum for art and technology, which resembles the ICA with its ribbon-like slab, folding back and forth to form floors, walls and ceilings. The wood from the ICA’s rear harbor walk rises up the public grandstand, inside the building to the stage floor, ascending the auditorium’s stairs to its rear wall and its ceiling, then outside again to clad the underside of the cantilever.
COMING NEXT: Part II

an ArtsJournal blog