Saturday, April 23, 2005


Typical for giant building projects, at least those in Boston, the Museum of Fine Arts expansion is trailing its schedule and will be a disappointment when done. London’s Foster and Partners, which designed the addition, said construction would begin in 2004; the museum boasts that:

Now, in 2005, we have completed design development and are in the final stages of document preparation before ground-breaking, anticipated for late this year or early in 2006. The public phase of the Campaign to support this project was launched last fall and is well underway.

But it will hardly matter when the $385 million project (another $40 million will pay for maintenance and such) is complete. It’s another entirely forgettable, vaguely irritating design of straight lines and cubes, and the best that can be said of it is that some of it is glass.

In other words, when the museum describes the addition’s “deep respect” for the original buildings, the phrase apparently refers only to the fact that people in one of the bigger glass cubes get to eat overpriced museum meals under or across from the original walls. They’ll have a great view of 100-year-old structures, graceful stone edifices that awe and soothe in soft harmony with the grass, trees and sky around them.

Architects almost never make such buildings anymore. From the whimsy of Frank Gehry to the anonymous oppressive butcher blocks of Foster and Partners, they create buildings intended to shock and contrast. Or, in this case, become cold, sharp planes where people stand for the privilege of looking across a garden at a building that actually looks good. If there’s an expansion of the museum after this one — if this one is ever finished — it’s a certainty no one will be creating spaces that have “deep respect” for the Foster and Partners addition. It’s unworthy.

The galleries are inconsequential, the lobby obvious (a stairwell between black boxes looking out upon an expansive floor), the “jewel box” merely big. It is no trick to make a hallway with good lighting or create an impressive space by including lots of it. Nature did that everywhere without a $420 million budget, and more besides, and humans have demonstrated ad nauseam their mastery of it in building since, almost always to show superiority over humanity.

It’s time to either move on or, if the intention is truly to show deep respect to 1907 architect Guy Lowell, demonstrate mastery of his idiom instead. The new wing of the Boston Public Library was an earlier attempt to complement beauty with modernism. The result is a new library building that’s dated (an indelible time stamp of 1972) and an old library building that’s timeless (starting in a glorious 1895). Entering from the new is like walking into a cold, run-down office building; entering from the old is like walking into, well, a museum, complete with creamy marble, elegant stairwells and murals by John Singer Sargent.

Lowell created a Museum of Fine Arts equal to the art it would hold. Foster and Partners, and the museum directors who chose the firm, are creating space that, while claiming to be “establishing a creative dialogue between the old and the new,” merely highlights Lowell’s accomplishment and diminishes their own.

At its current pace, the addition may never get built. Aesthetically, that’s not such a bad idea.

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