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:

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