Boston’s Oddball Art Palace Gets Cool New Wing by Piano: Review

Exterior View
An exterior view of the $114 million addition to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. An egg-crate metal sunshade extends from the new lobby, which leads to the original museum through a suite of glass-walled rooms. A copper-clad upper level houses a 2,000-square-foot temporary exhibition gallery and a 300-seat recital hall. Photographer: Nic Lehoux/Renzo Piano Building Workshop via Bloomberg

A youth presents a dead hare to a trio of elegantly dressed noblemen who appear to be dancing. Sleek hounds bound across a bucolic landscape.

That is just a fragment of a deliriously beautiful monumental 16th-century tapestry that hangs in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.

For years, bad lighting and stacked chairs used for recitals have obscured the bunny. Now it’s visible thanks to the just-opened $114-million addition.

Designed by Renzo Piano, the extra space injects some air into a beloved jam-packed museum (housing around 5,000 objects) in which Raphaels and Rubens share space with eclectic furnishings, textiles and bibelots.

The recitals have moved to a new room in the addition, and the relit Tapestry Room hangings reveal the splendor of a wood-beamed salon. It’s big enough to allow a platoon of medieval knights to lounge in front of its massive carved stone fireplace.

Director Anne Hawley has banished a cramped entrance, a gloomy cafe, and a too-tiny bookstore to the new addition. Her staff has quietly burnished and relit the loopy fantasy settings Gardner assembled in her faux Venetian palace.

The galleries wrap a sky-lit garden courtyard where feathery palms and lurid orchids run rampant.

Flamboyance

Gardner’s theatricality remains just as she left it, because her will decreed that no curator’s vision should supersede her own. She traveled extensively and cultivated the company of artists and intellectuals snubbed by insular Boston society, including Henry James and Bernard Berenson, who helped guide her voracious collecting.

Many locals thought Hawley should not tamper with an institution shaped by such a flamboyant personality, but fortunately this is one of the architect’s better designs, executed with sensitivity and delicacy.

Piano prudently set the addition 50 feet to the north of the 1903 brick farrago concocted by Willard Sears. He contrasts the introversion of the masonry palace with a suite of inviting, outward-looking glass-enclosed rooms. A cubic volume faced in rippling panels of copper pre-oxidized green surmounts the lobby level. It contains a three-story-high temporary gallery and the new recital hall.

Piano shifted the entrance to his new structure from the cramped original doorway facing the park-like Fenway.

Gardens

I entered the light-filled ground floor that includes the lobby, a cafe, and the Living Room, a comfortable lounge for meeting and reading.

Piano deftly weaves Gardner’s outdoor gardens into this sequence of rooms. A sloped-glass greenhouse puts the source of the courtyard’s greenery on display.

As you look from one room to another, reflections multiply as the planes of glass gently veil the movement of visitors --an elegant, calming effect.

An almost invisible hallway that’s walled and roofed with glass now links new to old under a canopy of trees, culminating in the columned perimeter of the courtyard garden.

The new entry aids security as well. In one of America’s most brazen art thefts, more than a dozen works were stolen from the Gardner in 1990, including three Rembrandts and a Vermeer. None have been recovered.

Gardner hosted concerts from the day the museum opened, and Piano twinned his new gallery with a tall, 300-seat recital hall, both accessed by a stair of glass and metal fittings, suspended by skinny metal rods.

Two Eccentrics

The hall abandons convention. Instead of a stage, there’s a flat-floor room that places performers in the center. Three shallow seating tiers run up the walls, topped by a skylight. Listeners are very close to performers, but the room impairs sightlines. I was reminded of a wood-walled surgical operating theater.

Of course, Piano’s idiosyncrasy is nothing compared to Gardner’s, but he deploys his familiar kit of industrial-styled parts to enhance the beloved intimacy of the original.

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. He is the author of “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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