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The Gardner, the Morgan, the Barnes: Modern Additions vs. Founders’ Visions

Cross section. left, of Renzo Piano’s planned addition to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, right, connected by glass walkway

Both the Boston Globe‘s Sebastian Smee (in a negative review) and the NY TimesNicolai Ouroussoff (in a positive review) have serious misgivings about an important aspect of Renzo Piano‘s just unveiled plans for a 70,000-square-foot addition to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.

Smee writes:

The new building’s modernist idiom of transparency and efficiency is the antithesis of Gardner’s palace museum….Since the only public access point to the museum will be through the
new building, it is bound to color the visitor’s experience in ways I
don’t believe Gardner would have condoned.

Instead of walking from an
opaque exterior straight into an enchanted realm (prompting that sudden
“Ah!” we all experience now), we will be forced to negotiate an open,
glass-walled, sociable, and relentlessly modern space.

Similarly, Ouroussoff writes;

This [entering through Piano’s addition] significantly lengthens the distance between entry and artworks, which I suspect is intentional….But it may also further reduce the impact of Gardner’s original vision.
The ability to move, in a few short steps, from the darkness of the
brick vaulted lobby to the joyous explosion of light that fills the
towering pink courtyard is not just a great architectural effect; it is
a powerful metaphor for what art can do—and what it did for her.

The site plan shows you just what a trek it will be before you arrive at what you’ve come to see:


You will enter the copper-clad Piano building, left, from Evans Way (at the bottom of the site plan), turn right at the center and enter a narrow, glassed-in walkway (the white horizontal strip connecting the two buildings). At last, you will then enter Isabella’s palazzo on the right…that is, if you haven’t been distracted by the offerings in the new building’s temporary exhibition space.

On the plus side, making visitors enter a quirky individual’s antiquated art-filled lair through a sterile modern add-on shields the intense experience of the founder’s space from the business buzz that’s part of the present-day museum—ticketing, eating, shopping. What’s more, as Smee noted, the new space addresses “the need to take pressure off” the main attraction, by spreading the crowds over a greater area.

Both these functions were envisioned for the entry pavilion designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien for the the Barnes Foundation’s new Philadelphia facility. Here again, you’ll be entering a modern facility that houses all the auxiliary amenities and a temporary exhibition space. In its current Merion location, you walk straight into a dazzling array of Cézannes, Renoirs and other masterpieces, and are directly confronted with the great Matisse mural, ”La Danse.” The impact is immediate and visceral.

What’s lost in modernizing musty places is what I referred to in my 2006 Art in America piece, The Atrium that Ate the Morgan, in which I expressed a then contrarian view of Piano’s bravura addition to that beloved New York City cultural landmark:

Part of the mystique of any house museum is the spirit of the master of the house. But now J.P. Morgan‘s outsize ego has been supplanted by Piano’s beautiful but discordantly sleek addition. New Yorkers, especially, will love the way this gorgeous space accessions the whole city into the Morgan’s collection–a complex architectural collage viewed through glass walls.

But the insular old-world ambience of the robber baron’s luxurious lair is upstaged by this upstart, with its modern glass-and-steel pizzazz.
Yes, you can still ogle the old man’s study and library….But these rooms now feel like a minor diversion from the main architectural event.

William Griswold has done a lot to re-Morganize the Morgan Library and Museum since taking over its directorship in 2008. Visitors can now enter and wander around in J.P.’s study, which you formerly gazed at from just inside the room’s roped-off entrance. Bill has also made it his mission to bring out greater quantities of the founder’s treasures in rotating exhibitions.

Still, architecture is king. Your main impression of the Morgan is now this:

Renzo Piano’s atrium for the Morgan

…not this:

J.P. Morgan’s study

an ArtsJournal blog