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Harvard Art Museums

Town and gown

An Italian architect brings subtlety and tact to a difficult American project

Nov 29th 2014 | From the print edition

RENZO PIANO has long fought against what he calls the mystification of culture.
The Pompidou Centre in Paris, which he designed with Richard Rogers and
which opened in 1977, was a manifesto for a new kind of museum, a thumb in
the eye to those who believe that art must be quarantined from the unwashed
Over the decades Mr Piano has shed some of the brashness of youth, but that
initial populist impulse remains. Now 77, he is the most prolific designer of
museums in the world, with more than 21 projects completed so far and more on
the drawing board. Surprisingly, given his iconoclastic start, that success has
been founded on tact and a subtle appreciation for the nuances of a site and his
clients needs. Mr Piano has constructed his share of eye-catching monuments,
from the sleek Menil Collection in Houston to the 87-floor glass Shard in London.
But he is at his best when forced to adopt a more modest profile: accommodating
an existing structure, playing new forms off old or breathing life into institutions
suffocated by the weight of their own histories.
Mr Pianos tact is highlighted in his latest project, the Harvard Art Museums in
Cambridge, Massachusetts. His deft redesign manages to combine three
separate institutionsthe Fogg Art Musem, the Sackler and the BuschReisingerbeneath a single roof, while at the same time giving visual coherence
to the museums multiple functions. Among the agendas the new complex must
fulfil is helping mend relations between the university and a local community that
has often felt ignored or even dismissed. Welcoming the wider community while
integrating the arts within the academic curriculum, paying homage to paintings
and sculpture as sources of sensual pleasure while encouraging rigorous
scientific analysiseach element is articulated within a convivial space.
One mission, Mr Piano stresses, was to make the museums open, accessible,
welcoming people inside. Harvards reputation as arrogant and unneighbourly,
less ivory tower than impenetrable intellectual fortress, was not helped by
buildings that were visually closed off from the street. The Foggs original faade
is a dour barrier of brick and marble; Mr Pianos addition contains generous
expanses of glass that allow passers-by multiple views into the galleries and
patrons vistas of city streets.
The new museums heart is a light-drenched courtyard, a truncated version of the
Foggs original classical atrium with a glass-and-steel overlay that both enhances
and playfully tweaks the classical arcade below. For Mr Piano, this transparency
serves the practical needs of a structure dedicated to seeing, and also as a
metaphor of inclusion. He compares it to the piazzas of his native Italy, where
people mingle, converse and share ideas.

The need to make things transparentto break down the barriers between inside
and out, between the realms of high culture and everyday lifeshapes the
structure itself as Mr Piano reveals aspects of the museums function that are
usually concealed. Since the museums house the countrys oldest art
conservation centre, Mr Piano decided to make that an integral element in his
design, exposing the functional guts of the building. Visible from the courtyard is
a collection of archival pigments, arrayed in glass jars like potions in an
apothecary. Work in the Straus Centre for Conservation takes place behind glass
walls so that, like diners at a restaurant with an open kitchen, visitors can
appreciate the behind-the-scenes workanother step along the path to the
demystification of culture. A similar commitment to openness is in the Art Study
Centre, rooms where scholars, students and members of the public can examine
original artworks under the eyes of museum staff.
The newly configured Harvard Art Museums do not pack an enormous visual
punch. They sit comfortably on the street, being neighbourly rather than assertive.
Mr Pianos design offers something more sustaining than an obvious visual hook:
it opens up a rarefied world to the wider community, encouraging engagement,
conversation, cross-fertilisation. In short, it is perfect metaphor for the role of the
museum and the university in a democratic society.