A 63-foot-high cube of glass rises from deep within the granite-clad sobriety of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Sun slants through a luminous ceiling and plays across a stairway that hangs supportless in air.
You could fit a sizable museum in this greenhouse space, called the Shapiro Family Courtyard, but it’s just a foyer to the spectacular new Art of the Americas wing.
Designed by architect Spencer de Grey, of the London-based Foster & Partners, the wing rises on four levels and cost $345 million.
Though the courtyard makes an indelible impression, the glory of this massive undertaking, which doubles the displayed objects to 5,000, is the superb installation of the museum’s rich holdings in painting, furniture and decorative arts.
On each of four levels, a long central gallery displays the most significant works. You can power-walk this hit parade, but the riches on view will force you to stop again and again.
Smaller thematic side galleries amplify the main presentations and shouldn’t be missed. A survey of tribal arts from Canada to South America draws visitors to the lower ground floor.
On the courtyard level, a silver bowl by Paul Revere glints amid American Revolution-era portraits by John Singleton Copley, beyond which Thomas Sully’s mighty “The Passage of the Delaware” barely fits under the 15-foot ceiling. I gained new respect for Boston’s place in early American art.
Just when you’ve seen too much, de Grey provides a visual breather: a glass-walled ambulatory at the end of each level with views to the luxuriant Back Bay Fens, the Frederick Law Olmsted necklace of parks that winds its way through the city.
Working with the architects, the curators have assembled what they call vignettes within the galleries -- small groupings of art, furniture and decorative arts. So often such combinations do no more than describe period decorating taste. In Boston, they draw a roomful of art into the world they evoke.
There’s not a white wall to be found, even in the lofty top-floor galleries devoted to modern art. Too often, strong wall colors muddy art. Here paintings pop.
I couldn’t leave the second-floor Salon, where every surface is crammed like an antiquarian’s picture gallery with monstrous dark furniture and monumental paintings of panoramic nature and gushing waterfalls.
The feverish vulgarity of Boston’s 19th-century explosion of industrial wealth is palpable in this room, along with the romantic longing for a fast-vanishing American wilderness.
Financed in the years before the economic bubble burst (with total funds raised for endowment and operations reaching $504 million), this is the most ambitious museum overhaul we’ll see in some time. The city is lucky that director Malcolm Rogers and de Grey have completed much of a welcome reorganization of the entire building.
Rogers reopened the long-closed historic main entrance on Huntington Avenue, with its English country palace elegance. De Grey restored the main corridor that runs from that entrance and feeds all the collections. He attached the new courtyard to the corridor, making it the new heart of the museum.
The old entrances were abandoned after a west entrance was built near the parking lot in 1981. It meant few visitors made the trek to the museum’s eastern reaches, where the new wing was built.
New York’s Metropolitan Museum, where major collections disappear in the maze or confront visitors with intimidating ranks of vitrines, could learn a thing or two from Boston.
Grand museum spaces like the glass courtyard too often read as architectural indulgences, but its sun-splashed space also opens into Egyptian and European galleries. De Grey tucked a large temporary exhibition space under it.
The planning rigor comes with a silky sleekness that’s a Foster trademark. The austere courtyard walls are as finely machined as an airliner fuselage. The disciplined exterior counters the original museum’s classical grandeur with three well-proportioned stone and glass cubes strapped into a grid of thick recessed bands of metal.
De Grey’s architecture usually doesn’t romance you, but he built glass-walled passages that cross slot-like spaces between the new and old wings. They open long narrow views that frame a bit of old pediment or pilaster -- sublime glimpses that take you by surprise.
(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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