Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Blog Post No. 2010-22: Robert Campbell writes about the MFA's new wing...

...and RTUF likes what it hears and has already seen over there in recent years

Regular RTUFers may recall (OK, if you're like me, maybe you don't actually recall anything unless you write it down someplace or you're specifically reminded) that I wrote a little bit about the series of initial, relatively subtle but still urban design-influential changes going on over at the Museum of Fine Arts back in July (Update to Blog Post No. 2010-14). That, of course, was while the museum's new wing -- showcasing its Art of the Americas collection -- was still under construction. That wing is now complete and open to the public. In true celebration, at least from this blogger's perspective, we have Robert Campbell's return to the pages of the Boston Globe in a too-brief but typically insightful review of the wing's architecture from a week ago Saturday in a piece entitled "A wing that works." Soon enough, I'll take myself over to the MFA and be able to write back on whether the interior galleries and other spaces deserve the high praise that Robert gives them. For now, though, putting aside his verdict that the exterior doesn't really do much, I'd like to focus on two points from his piece, the first relatively minor, the second a big deal for RTUF given our focus here on urban design:

FIRST, the subtitle of the article is

"The beauty of the MFA's expansion is how it showcases the art without calling attention to itself."

And in this, Robert is exactly on the money, contrasting the design by Foster + Partners with Gehry's splashy Bilbao Guggenheim, which is posited as the start of "starchitects" around the globe drawing more attention to museum buildings than the works of art they are meant to house and display. Of course, being from New York, and this is my relatively minor point, I would go back to Frank Lloyd Wright's design for the original Guggenheim on Fifth Avenue in New York as a mid-20th century example of that precise phenomenon. Who thought that a museum could look like a giant toilet bowl?! How novel! How interesting! How disorienting to try to look at art on a spiraling, slanted walkway! How different from everything around it! Exactly right and an example of the phenomenon of a Modernist building's essentially anti-urban character being saved by the incredibly strong urban fabric all around it. The Guggenheim in New York is definitely an icon. Does it provide a comfortable and fitting home for the art it's meant to house and display? I've been there a number of times. I'm not convinced, even with the high-rise tower completed several years ago completing Wright's original design.

SECOND, Robert is at his best in the piece when talks about how the new wing represents the culmination of the MFA's now long-running effort to undo some pretty awful building access and layout decisions from the last quarter of the last century:

Finally, for the first time in my experience, it's now possible to figure out where you are in the MFA. Since the opening of the museum's West Wing in 1981, designed by noted architect I.M. Pei, that's been almost impossible. Most visitors entered through the Pei wing at the extreme end of the museum and quickly got lost in what seemed to be disorder.

The first thing Foster + Partners did was study the floor plan of the original MFA of 1909, by architect Guy Lowell. Lowell's plan, like much traditional architecture, was based on the human body. You entered at the head, and the building wings spread out symmetrically to the left and right like arms. It's a kind of order we grasp intuitively.

Foster has restored that old order. The Pei entry will be now used only for bus groups. The rest of us will again enter the museum at its center, either from the Fenway or from Huntington Avenue. A spine of visitor services — ticketing, tourist shop, information — now connects those two entrances.

To help you further with your wayfinding, openings between galleries tend to be lined up with one another, creating long vistas you can look or walk down. It’s an effect that was called Parade Rooms in an earlier era. The vistas let you see one part of the museum from another. They lace everything together visually. Often, for further legibility, the curators and architects site an especially bold or famous artwork at the termination of a vista.

I fully agree with Robert's comment that the old way of entering the museum at the extreme end of one side was a conceptually sub-par experience for every single visitor forced to endure it. The contrast with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York -- with its grand staircase and entrance hall welcoming visitors and giving them an immediate point of reference -- could not have been more obvious. A link here to the MFA's new floor plans would be useful in seeing what Robert means in terms of the museum's access points and layout now being much more intuitive than before. Similarly, the below RTUF sketch tries to highlight the exterior changes at work here -- the original entrances facing on Huntington Avenue and The Fenway have been reopened and re-emphasized, the parking lot entrance has, as Robert describes, been de-emphasized and is now only to be used for groups, and Forsyth Way is getting a much needed facelift now that the museum is more open to that side of its exterior.

Much of the credit obviously goes to Foster + Partners and their local team members, CBT, for getting the precise vision, execution, and details right. But I think substantial credit also needs to go to Malcolm Rogers, who has been the museum's director for the last decade-and-a-half. I will plead total ignorance on his stewardship of the museum's collections and whether he is a tyrant or a genius, or perhaps both. There is no denying, however, that it has been on his watch that the MFA has raised the funds, spent the design effort, and made the physical changes both small and large that have opened the MFA to the broader community -- both physically and symbolically -- in a way that it arguably has never been. This is a point recently made in, of all places, the Boston Phoenix, which featured an extensive cover article by Greg Cook entitled "OMFG: The new MFA " and a spot-on editorial about Rogers headlined "Mister Rogers: The MFA's Impresario." The Phoenix's editors say of the new wing and Rogers:

In the most expansive sense, the Art of the Americas Wing, while self-contained, operates in service to the larger MFA. It provides the well-established collections with room to breath properly and re-establishes a harmonious flow among the staggering number of older galleries.

The idea of service is the glue that binds Rogers's 16-year tenure. In the past, the MFA was run as something of a private preserve that just happened to be open to the public.

The degree to which this was true may have varied from department to department, but the old MFA was a collection of fiefdoms that only appeared to operate in concert the farther away you viewed it.

Rogers, with varying degrees of skill and success, has managed to recast the MFA into a multi-disciplinary whole dedicated to internal growth and institutional survival by serving the public.

Wherever the truth lies in Rogers's role in brining the museum's staff and collections to a new level, there can be no doubting that the MFA is a much better piece of the urban fabric today than it has been in a long, long time, perhaps ever.

UPDATE (23 Dec 2010): Good friend and fellow runner Professor Matt Noonan called me out recently for writing about something that I hadn't gone and seen (at least not in its finished state), so herewith are some pictures of the exterior of the new wing that your faithful RTUF correspondent took very recently. Once the holiday craziness dies down, we'll actually go inside and let you know what we think of the interior.

A note on the photos: They run effectively in order from the Huntington Avenue facade around Forsyth Way and onto the Fenway, ending up looking at the West Wing across the surface parking lot referred to above.

UPDATE (24 Jan 2011): Well, over the weekend, we finally got a look inside the new wing and see how the museum works in its new, expanded form. Put simply, everything Robert Campbell said was true. The MFA works and makes much more sense now. The new galleries do a great job of showcasing the MFA's strengths in American art, and showing, by the dearth of space given over to South and Central America, where it needs improvement. I recall that Campbell was not entirely sure how well the new main space would work: I think it works just fine. I don't know whether it really needs more art work to be placed in it to give it more interest. You can see that one end is held up quite well by the former exterior of the original museum, and at least in mid-winter, you can see the (snow-covered) greenery on either side. Ending with some photos of that space:

Monday, November 15, 2010

Blog Post No. 2010-21: Seizing the presently available opportunity to continue the campaign to bring the Pru out to meet its neighbors...

...in the Back Bay and South End

A rendering of Avalon Exeter viewed from Boylston Street over the Lord & Taylor building (credit: Boston Properties, Elkus Manfredi).

Ted Siefer, a Boston Globe correspondent who's been writing recently on a wide variety of home and real estate-related topics as well as producing content for The Phoenix and WBUR, did a fine job in Saturday's paper in describing how a current development proposal does both in "Apartment building ready to rise". AvalonBay Communities is predicting construction start on Avalon Exeter, a 28-story rental apartment building located on the Prudential Center complex (MAP) that straddles the border of the Back Bay and the South End, in the spring of next year.

Multifamily development, especially in a rental market like Boston's with its high built-in demand, high rental rates, and low vacancy with little new product coming online, is the current conventional wisdom's financing fair-haired child. Almost nothing else is moving forward right now in a meaningful way -- certainly not general office given the employment situation, not ownership residential given the continued inability of that market to find a positive direction several years into the subprimte/foreclosure meltdown, and also not retail development given continued softness in the consumer economy (though there are some isolated bright spots). No, ladies and gentlemen, the smart money right now and for the foreseeable future is on multifamily rental and that counts as our "presently available opportunity" for today's post.

Which brings us to the "bring the Pru out to meet the neighbors" part of the post. That's the way the design of the new tower and, equally as importantly, its location continues the multi-year effort by the owner of the overall Prudentail Center complex -- Boston Properties -- to fill in the exterior edges of the massive complex and make it act more like a piece of the urban fabric in this critical urban location, rather than a sealed-off enclave behind vacuous and little used open spaces. This trend was cited in one of the first posts on this blog -- No. 2009-3 just over a year ago -- about the Mandarin Oriental building on Boylston Street and how it had quite elegantly filled in a gap in the Pru's exterior on Boylston Street. Boston Properties has been doing that all over the place -- with the curving Belvedere residential building on that street's frontage, the office tower at 111 Huntington Avenue (famous for its crown, reportedly the brain-child of the Mayor himself), new one- and two-story connections along Huntington Avenue itself with a relocated and upgraded Shaw's supermarket, and a more open design to the Lord & Taylor store on Boylston Street.

All of these changes have made the Pru a far better neighbor than it has ever been, and Boston Properties has a plan approved already to fill in the last big gap on Boylston with an office building dubbed "888 Boylston." The office market being what it is, it may be some time before that building moves forward. But, as noted above, the multifamily rental market is still going well and AvalonBay, having taken over ownership and management of the pricey but frankly urban design-deficient residential towers at the Pru, is now finally ready to break ground on a residential building that will fill in the exterior gap on the east, along Exeter Street between Huntington and Boylston. The rendering in the article doesn't have much detail but it does seem to show the new building creating a strong street edge and ground-level uses on Exeter. And below, some context...

In order: 888 Boylston Street (the proposed office tower further up Boylston (credit: Boston Properties)), 1960s-vintage postcard showing the under-construction Prudential as object building resting on its low-slung podium (credit unavailable), the residential towers on the eastern end of the site as originally built (note the surrounding plaza space (credit: Boston Properties)), the curving Belvidere residential building that encloses the Belvedere-Dalton Street frontage (credit noted).