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New Gardner Museum Expansion Opens To The Public

BOSTON — More than century since its opening, the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum has endured, unchanged…until Thursday.

The palace’s $114 million expansion opens to the public Thursday and it’s decidedly modern.

The force behind the project has been Anne Hawley, the museum’s director.

WBUR’s Deborah Becker caught up with her this week and they toured the new addition, which more than doubles the Gardner’s original size.

Anne Hawley: We are standing at the new entrance to the museum, in the building designed by Renzo Piano.

Deborah Becker: And this new building is all glass and it’s spectacular.

Yes, it’s designed to have the visitor step in and actually experience the gardens while they’re inside. You can see through the glass out to the gardens, and of course you can see the palace itself. But if you step in a little further and you look left, you can see the working greenhouses. Piano has said that the building is about light and sound, and you can certainly feel that, don’t you.

Absolutely. Now this is a 70,000 square foot..

A 70,000 square foot addition, and what it represents is an off-loading from the historic building of all these functions that we need today to run a museum, but had drawn up inside the museum over the last 110 years that were really putting far too much pressure, and wear and tear on it.

We had shoe-horned in a cafe and a bookstore, and classrooms which were in the basement, and the concerts were held in the Tapestry Room. Now, after 85 years of concerts in the Tapestry Room, we have our own concert hall.

And then there’s a gallery, and we did have a gallery in the historic building, which has now been converted to bathrooms.

It was my understanding that Gardner said she didn’t want anything changed at all, right, that was part of the stipulation for the old building.

It’s interesting, her will says that the disposition of the collection should not be changed permanently, permanently altered. Legally it’s a little vague because in another part of the will she gives all authority to the director and says the director is the one who makes all the decisions.

This change, you think, would fit in with…

Oh, in fact in her will she says if the museum needs to expand it should do so behind the museum, which is what we’ve done.

Let’s take a walk around.

OK. And now here we’re standing before the staircase. Renzo called this the “monumental staircase.”

So this right here, we’re standing in front of these three levels of stairs, or three stairs, into a glass walkway that goes into the other building, the old building.

Yes, that’s correct. The connector is actually a glass, entirely glazed, corridor surrounded by trees on all sides. Of course in the spring and summer it will be all leafed out and it will be a much darker corridor. Piano wanted the effect of going through a forest into the courtyard so that there was a transition time from the lightness of this space, and the business of this space, to the contemplative and magical courtyard that the audience is going to find on the other side.

Do you want to go now?

Sure. So we’re walking through this glass hallway. We just went from the new building into now the sort of brick arches…

So now we are stepping into the courtyard.

This is spectacular.

You can hear water dripping from the Venetian fountain. Everywhere you see flowers and lush foliage. And as you step further in, you also feel an explosion of space.

To go from a very modern building, with all glass, to this, I understand when you say there’s a conversation between the two buildings, but I wonder if there are some purists who feel that they don’t go well together.

Well, I’m sure, it’ll be interesting to see the public reaction to it. The critical reaction so far has been quite spectacular. Certainly, we have seen in many Italian buildings that incredible juxtaposition of very modern with very old. And it’s something that I think takes maybe some adjusting to. But to try to make an addition that would try to imitate this would feel wrong. The architecture that one uses needs to use the language of your time, and you need to figure out how it relates and compliments the architecture of long ago.

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