Friday, January 9, 2015

The New Harvard Art Museums - Day 1

By Charles Kessler

The Harvard Art Museums, a combination of the Fogg, Busch-Reisinger and Arthur M. Sackler Museums (hence the awkward plural), have been closed for six years while they completed a new Renzo Piano-designed renovation and addition to house all three of them in one space.  I think the new facility is a disaster.

The street presence of the new building is obnoxious – it's essentially a bleak and ponderous bunker that rudely clashes with the surrounding buildings.
Renzo Piano's new addition to the Harvard Museums, view from Prescott Street.
Piano's entry ramp acts like a forbidding wall – not exactly welcoming. (Ironically, various rooms in the Harvard Museums look out upon an excellent example of an entry ramp that invites you into a building: Le Corbusier’s Carpenter Center (below), a truly great building.)
View from a gallery of the Harvard Museums of the entry ramp of Le Corbusier's Carpenter Center.
And not only is the entrance unwelcoming, it is so meager I thought I'd mistakenly come in through a side entrance. And the common areas (stairways, corridors, and atrium) are sterile – beautiful in their way, but clinical and corporate.
Entrance to the Harvard Art Museums
The new facility is supposed to be bigger than the Yale Art Gallery, but it doesn't seem to be. A lot of space is wasted with a disproportionately grandiose five-story atrium – something that unfortunately has become obligatory for museums. As with Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim (which probably initiated this regrettable trend), but without Wright's dramatic flare, I feel dwarfed by and uncomfortably exposed in this atrium.
Courtyard of the original Fogg Museum with its new glass-covered atrium. 
It certainly isn't a warm and friendly space conducive to the quiet contemplation of art. On top of that, the bustle and noise of the cafe echo throughout the entire atrium. And the cafe itself feels very much like an unconsidered afterthought.
Even the natural light the atrium allows in isn't a particularly good thing. While natural light is nice, it’s not good for paintings, so there has to be an elaborate shading device in the roof skylights.

The top two floors are flooded with natural light and are used for a conservation lab (see below) and an art study center (essentially classrooms where they bring in actual art objects). Additional classrooms, a lecture hall and a materials lab are on the lower level (below ground). So three of the six levels are used for other things besides the display of art, and a towering atrium takes up about 20% of the remaining space. And they claim that sadly they don't have enough room to display more of their 250,000 piece collection.
Conservation Center.
One final gripe: Harvard is the only university museum I know of, at least the only Ivy League museum, that charges an entry fee ($15, $13 seniors, $10 for non-Harvard students). It's not much, and it’s free for Harvard students and residents of Cambridge; but still, it sends the wrong message.

Next post: The New Harvard Art Museums Day 2 where I get over my disappointment and enjoy their great collection.

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