Photo © Chuck Choi

Museum of Fine Arts

Foster + Partners

Boston, Massachusetts

By Joann Gonchar, AIA

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To First-time visitors to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), it might appear that the fruits of its $345 million capital project are limited to the recently opened Arts of the Americas Wing at the building’s eastern end, designed by London-based Foster + Partners. Its powerfully spare glass-enclosed courtyard and 53 thoughtfully organized galleries showcase everything from art to musical instruments to textiles. However, Foster’s still ongoing work involves more than the 193,000 square feet of high-profile new construction. The project includes the renovation and subtle reconfiguration of spaces all over the now 617,000-square-foot museum and reestablishes the building’s little-used historic entrances — a move that reinvigorates the venerable Boston landmark.

The museum sits along the Back Bay Fens, part of the city’s linear network of parks by Frederick Law Olmsted, and consists of several interconnected parts by numerous designers. The oldest piece is a 1909 Beaux-Arts structure designed by Guy Lowell facing Huntington Avenue to the south. The most recent major piece, not counting the Foster intervention, is I.M. Pei and Partners’ West Wing, which opened in 1981. The latter provided space for special exhibitions and an auditorium, among other amenities, behind a smooth-skinned granite facade, as well as a new entrance immediately adjacent to a parking area. Ironically, the success of this addition, combined with the subsequent closings of the Huntington Avenue entrance and another one axially opposite it facing the Fenway, completely “skewed the building’s center of gravity,” says Michael Jones, a Foster partner. Visitors rarely made it to the building’s easternmost galleries, according to Jones, even after the Huntington entrance was reopened in the mid-1990s. The trip from one end of the museum to the other was a “slog,” he says. “The route was convoluted.”

The architects’ remedy included reviving the Fenway and Huntington entrances as the building’s main access points, and designating Pei’s entry for groups. They reinforced the path between the old entrances as the museum’s primary spine by replacing galleries with a visitor information area. And just to the east of this revived physical center, they inserted their T-shaped addition between two existing Lowell-designed wings, replacing a third that had opened in 1928. As part of the new addition, a quietly grand, 63-foot-high glazed court links new with old. It houses a café during normal museum hours and also provides space for events, including concerts, receptions, and lectures. A rigorously detailed ceiling system of baffles and translucent panels modulates sunlight and provides sound absorption to make the room acoustically suitable for its varied cultural programming. (For more information on the space’s acoustics see the related technology story.)

Beyond the court, but within the same shoebox-shaped, Vierendeel truss–supported volume, are the addition’s core exhibition areas. A generously proportioned recess in a pristine limestone-clad wall contains a cantilevered stair and acts as a multistory foyer to the four levels of galleries. The glazed entry reveals some of the art on view, providing a visual magnet.

Foster’s office collaborated with curators to determine the location of many key works and create displays that are refreshingly accessible. Galleries are not typically devoted to a single medium, but instead include a variety of types of objects from the same period. In addition, white walls are the exception rather than the rule. For example, a gallery focusing on the work of John Singer Sargent has flocked wallpaper. The goal was to create environments sympathetic to the collections and evoke the eras in which the pieces were created.

More fundamental to the success of the new wing are its connections to the surrounding context. One such link is the planted swath that runs in the 20-foot-wide gap between the addition and the existing building. The gap, which doubles as an exhibition space for sculpture, seemingly brings the Fens into the museum’s interior and helps satisfy seismic codes that required the addition be structurally independent.

Visual access to the outside is also available through a few gallery windows carefully positioned to shield art from the sun’s damaging rays. In a pair of pavilions that flank the core gallery structure and contain reconstructed rooms from historic New England houses, the architects have located openings in the exterior walls so that they align with windows of the older rooms inserted within. When environmental conditions allow automated scrims to be opened, visitors can see the surrounding landscape through the historic windows. The designers have also created corridors at the eastern edge of the core gallery building that run behind a curtain wall with the most minimal of mullions. In addition to functioning as circulation space, the zones contain interactive exhibits that explore how the museum conserves and selects the objects in its collection. These areas look out onto the Fens and provide a means of navigation and orientation as well as a respite from the more intense viewing experience of the galleries.

The only disappointment of the project is the new eastern elevation. The granite-clad pavilions’ windows, placed to correspond with the layout of the historic rooms they house, have an almost random air that seems at odds with the symmetrically arranged volumes. In addition, the restraint of the overall composition borders on excessive. Nevertheless, the scale of the addition seems appropriate, and a high level of precision and craftsmanship is evident throughout, but most notably in the glazed perimeter corridor. The visual permeability it provides is an especially welcome counterpoint to the building’s other, almost impenetrable facades.

Foster + Partners
22 Hester Road
SW11 4AN, United Kingdom
T  +44 (0)20 7738 0455
F   +44 (0)20 7738 1107

Location: Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Completion Date: November 2010

Gross square footage:
193,325 sq. ft. (new construction)

Total construction cost: $345 million (new construction and renovation)

February 2011
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