As Harvard Art Museums Close For Expansion, A Preview Of What’s Coming

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Harvard’s Sackler Museum in Cambridge closes to the public at the end of tomorrow, June 1, as the university’s three art museums enter the home stretch of a renovation and construction project that began with the closing of Harvard’s Fogg and Busch-Reisinger museums in June 2008.

As the scaffolding has been coming down from a new addition across the road at Broadway and Prescott Street, which Harvard Art Museums Director Thomas Lentz says is “scheduled to open sometime in late 2014,” the museum’s plans are coming into focus.

The project by Renzo Piano—the celebrated Italian architect who designed Paris’s post-modern Pompidou Centre in the 1970s and the 2012 expansion of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston—preserves the exterior and iconic Italian Renaissance courtyard of the 1927 Fogg Art Museum, which has been protected with listing on the National Register of Historic Places since the 1980s. But much of the rest of the interior was torn down to add 40 percent additional gallery space.

Harvard declines to reveal the project’s cost, but the price tag has been estimated to be somewhere in the neighborhood of $350 million.

“It’s going to be a much more light filled, transparent, dynamic space,” Lentz says. “You’ll actually be able to stand in the courtyard and look up and have oblique views into parts of the museum that were never visible before.”

Harvard Art Museums renovation and expansion project seen from Prescott Street in May 2013. (Courtesy of the Harvard Art Museums © President and Fellows of Harvard College)
Harvard Art Museums renovation and expansion project seen from Prescott Street in May 2013. (Courtesy of the Harvard Art Museums © President and Fellows of Harvard College)

Starting anew

When Lentz arrived to become director of the Harvard Art Museums in November 2003, plans to expand the museums—which include the Fogg, which holds European and American art; the 1903 Busch-Reisinger Museum of Germanic art; and the 1985 Arthur M. Sackler Museum, showcasing Asian, Indian, Islamic, Middle Eastern, and ancient European art—were already being discussed. A proposal for Piano to develop a new facility along the Charles River had stalled. So attention had turned back to Quincy Street.

“There was kind of a rough, schematic plan for the new museum,” Lentz says. “But we essentially stopped that and backed up and started anew. So it’s been a long process.”

“Our hope is this brand new building will bring back all the good memories of the old building, but at the same time it will clearly be a new building,” Lentz says. “What remains from the old building are the courtyard, the brick exterior walls of the old Fogg. Inside all the vaulted ceilings and the arcades around the courtyard, all those had to be demolished. Everything is new in that building—floors, elevators, staircases. It was wildly out of code compliance. People forget one of the main drivers behind this building project is that the old Fogg never had climate control. If you walked in there in July or August, there would be floor fans whirling away. So it was not a terribly inviting viewing experience.”

Harvard Art Museums renovation and expansion project, rendering from Broadway and Prescott Street. (Courtesy Renzo Piano Building Workshop)
Harvard Art Museums renovation and expansion project, rendering from Broadway and Prescott Street. (Courtesy Renzo Piano Building Workshop)

Looking inside

Piano’s new modernist design on Prescott Street is a counterpoint to the Fogg Museum’s familiar Harvard red brick exterior and, just down Quincy Street, the modernist concrete of Harvard’s Carpenter Center, Le Corbusier’s only building constructed in the United States.

Piano constructs a sort of giant shoebox, sided with Alaskan yellow cedar, set atop a recessed, glass-walled first floor, where a new, second public entrance is being added. The whole structure is crowned by a glass pyramid.


“Renzo, he constantly walks around the site,” Lentz says. “He just walks and circles and circles the building. One thing he said early on, ‘You know, this building looks like any other building on campus. Nothing says it’s an art museum apart from the fact that you have a sign outside that says it’s the art museum.’ You will, from the street on the Prescott Street side, actually be able to look in the [new] galleries. Again continuing that transparency theme.”

The Fogg’s iconic Italian Renaissance-style Calderwood Courtyard had featured colonnaded arcades on the first and second floor, topped by a third-floor wall dotted with windows. The design suggested being outside—the effect completed by a faux red tile roof running along the top of the third floor wall, and a glass ceiling above that, which let in sunlight from a skylight above.

Piano removes the third floor windows and wall. Instead, the plan seems to call for the old arcades to float within a modern shell, with balconies running around the third and fourth floor of the courtyard. The glass and steel pyramid on top lets in sunlight (it can be diffused to reduce heat and glare).

The new design puts building entrances on the east and west ends of the courtyard, and then allows visitors to walk its entire arcade, with galleries extending off from the corners. A stairway and three elevators for visitors, plus one elevator for moving art, stand off the Prescott Street end.

New galleries have been added to the middle floors. The third floor will now have three 1,000-square-foot “curricular galleries,” featuring works chosen by teachers and students related to courses, and a 5,000-square-foot temporary exhibitions gallery. A new 300-seat theater is being constructed in the lower level, which will replace the 280-seat theater at Sackler.

The Fogg and Busch-Reisinger museums had offered 20,000 square feet of galleries, plus an additional 10,000 square feet in the Sackler. The new building is expected to offer 43,000 square feet of galleries. “Because of our increased space we will have more works on display,” Lentz says.

The new “glass lantern” or pyramid atop the building floods natural light into the building’s two upper floors. The fourth floor will offer supervised “study centers” where students, faculty and the general public can request drawings to ceramics be pulled from their collection for their personal viewing. The fourth and fifth floors will host conservation labs, which Harvard touts as “the oldest fine arts conservation treatment, research and training facility in the United States.”

All told the Fogg and Busch-Reisinger complex had 154,000 square feet of space. The project demolished 50,000 square feet, and added 100,000 square feet of new construction, so the new building will be 204,000 square feet, according to Harvard.

Harvard Art Museums renovation and expansion project, rendering from Broadway and Quincy Street. (Courtesy Renzo Piano Building Workshop)
Harvard Art Museums renovation and expansion project, rendering from Broadway and Quincy Street. (Courtesy Renzo Piano Building Workshop)


The Harvard Art Museums will be moving completely out of the Sackler building at 485 Broadway. The construction firm Skanska is expected to finish work on the renovation and expansion at 32 Quincy St. around November. Then the building will go through an initial shakedown. “We have to test run all the new systems, the HVAC, fire, security, all of that before we can actually bring works of art back into the building,” Lentz says.

Harvard’s collection is frequently underestimated locally because the buildings’ limited space present only a fraction of its holdings. And if you’ve arrived in town in the past five years, only a fraction of that fraction has been on display in the institution’s Sackler building, where a sampling of works from the three art institutions were put on view when the Fogg and Busch-Reisinger closed for construction.

“We have a big collection,” Lentz says. “I don’t think a lot of people realize that. It’s one of the biggest art museum collections in the United States. It’s also a very good collection.”

In the new building, Lentz says, they’ll adopt a new presentation of the collection, including mixing works from all three institutions under one roof.

“We actually begin with modern and contemporary on the first floor,” Lentz says. “Then as you rise up in the building, it’s a reverse chronology. So at the top of the permanent galleries that’s where our ancient art is."

Paintings and sculptures will now be mixed with drawings, prints and photos, as will works from various parts of the globe, Lentz says. “Our American art, which is very strong, will be mixed in with English, French and Italian paintings,” he adds. “Because that’s how those things were created, that’s the environment they were drawn from. What we’ll also have mixed in those galleries will be some selected, strategic Native American material as well” on loan from Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.

“What we want to do with our new reinstallation is not to put in place a kind of master narrative or a kind of canonical hang,” Lentz says, “but basically to give people a kind of general orienting intellectual framework and then from there go on to make their own discoveries.”

This article was originally published on May 31, 2013.

This program aired on May 31, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

Greg Cook Twitter Arts Reporter
Greg Cook was an arts reporter and critic for WBUR's The ARTery.