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AAD’s Laura Stewart heads to Boston to See How the Architect Pulled off an Amazing Feat - Getting Harvard to Lighten Up - Renzo Piano

Renzo Piano in his studioRenzo Piano in his studioCuriosity is what took me to Boston. When I read that it had taken Pritzker-prize-winning architect, Renzo Piano fifteen years to convince Harvard to execute his $350 million revolutionary design, I wanted to see the finished product myself. Piano, obviously blessed with an endless font of patience and tenacity, admits that there were times when the idea that this renovation would happen at all, seemed remote at best. With historic preservation concerns to overcome, an obdurate and bureaucratic academic institution (Harvard) to please, and even lack of support from the City of Boston - an early plan to build a brand new museum on the banks of the Charles River was scrapped after neighborhood opposition - the fact that Piano got anything accomplished, not to mention that what he pulled off in the end, is astonishing. Piano likens the finished product to “a kind of miracle.” He fondly refers to it as a sort of small town, buzzing with activity, around a central, sunny piazza. “People will walk through the building and immediately understand that it is more than a showcase for art. It’s a conservation and study center, too,” he says, adding with a chuckle, “I’m Italian, you know. Creating this relationship between building and community, it’s in my natural attitude.”

And create it he did, and we owe him molte molte grazis.

Harvard SquareHarvard Clock Tower

On a typically grey and bitterly cold Boston morning, I trudged across Harvard Square looking for the entrance to the new Museum.The only clue that I had reached the right building, was the etching in stone above the edifice that reads “Fogg Museum of Art.” The red-brick neo-Georgian building, identical to most on Harvard’s campus, gave no exterior clue to the transformation that had occurred within. However, the moment I crossed the foyer and stepped into the central courtyard, I was so uplifted that I was tempted to shout “Bravo” at the top of my voice. The equipoise of height, light and symmetry convinced me that this was no mere world-renowned, architect we were dealing with. This was a magician.

It was not just the building’s “wow” factor that impressed me - it was that Piano had done what no one thought he could do. He had overcome a pretty nasty “double snob factor”. Harvard is intimidating enough, a bastion of elite Protestant privilege, with a “members only” vibe. If one then adds in the “fine art phobia” factor - the secret fear shared by 99% of people that they might do or say something silly in front of a work of art, a visit for most is a pretty daunting proposition. The genius Piano employed to overcome all of the above was that he turned to what he knew best, Italy. Or, more specifically in this case, the Italian piazza.

Piazzas, or central city squares serve as the great social levelers in towns all over Italy. It is in the piazza that the bus driver can peruse his morning Corriere della Sera at a table next to a Duca, doing precisely the same. Piano had faith that what worked in Italy, would translate in Boston. His aim was to bottle some of Boston’s urban “buzz”, bring it inside the building, and hope that, to steal a line from Field of Dreams, “If he built it, they would come”. The jury is still out as to whether attendance is up as a result of the renovation, but as a superb space in which to look at art, there is no doubt that Piano has hit it out of the park. The essence of the design is this. The central “piazza” is grounded by a surround of neo-Gothic arches. The arches give way, after the first floor, to a soaring, vertiginous glass tower, that appears to float without any visible means of support. By stripping the space of most of the elements that make up a traditional building - walls, doors, corridors and passageways, Piano also removes, both tangibly and symbolically, most of the barriers that previously stood between the building, its art, and its visitors.

The architect’s achievement is not just one of mood or aesthetic prowess. In the organization and function department, the statistics are pretty impressive as well. The expansion totals 204,000 square feet on seven levels; it bumped up the building’s available exhibition space by 40 percent, and to top it off, adds a new gift shop, new cafe and a 300 seat theatre.

Perhaps most importantly, it also brings the 250,000+ objects that comprise Harvard’s “collections” under the same roof for the first time ever in the University’s history. A great deal of thought went into not only the building’s structure and design, Piano worked tirelessly with Museum President Thomas Lentz on how to best arrange the gallery space and incorporate the conservation and study centres and offices. Overall, and whenever possible, they went for an open plan arrangement, further “opening” up the workings of the museum to the public. Their decisions as to what art to put where is also thoughtful and another factor in making the art accessible and user-friendly. Cleverly, Piano, Lentz and team decided to lead with contemporary art, in galleries on the lowest floors, as it is the least intimidating and most familiar art for most of the public. This appetizer, then draws the visitor, as he ascends, to galleries devoted to later periods and more esoteric artistic schools.

Renzo Piano Designed Interior Harvard Art MuseumnsRenzo Piano Designed Interior Harvard Art Museums

Piano’s design strikes a delicate balance on many levels. (pun intended). It respects Harvard’s history, and traditions, yet takes the school for a contemporary whirl. The tacit “wink here is that Piano’s building seems to say: “Yes, I take all this art very seriously indeed; but I won’t let you take yourself seriously one bit, as you look at it.” As architecture critic, Nicolai Ouroussoff said of Piano's work, (the) "...serenity of his best buildings can almost make you believe that we live in a civilized world."

This is surely one of his best.

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About the Author

Laura Stewart

Laura Stewart

Laura Stewart has been a professional in the art world for 30+ years. Her career has included work as a journalist, editor, public relations professional and non-profit management consultant. She bega...