Curators at the Harvard Art Museums are spending the summer installing works in the new Renzo Piano-designed building, which has significantly boosted the university’s ability to display its wide-ranging collections. They’re working toward November 16, the date when Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum, closed six years ago for renovation and expansion, reopens as part of a new entity uniting three previously separate university museums.
The long-awaited project will bring together under one roof for the first time the Fogg’s European and American artworks, the Busch-Reisinger Museum with art from Central and Northern Europe, and the Arthur M. Sackler Museum’s holdings of antiquities and Asian art. It adds 40 percent more exhibition space, a 300-seat theater, classrooms, and study and conservation centers—the latest in a growing string of museum designs by Piano’s firm, Renzo Piano Building Workshop.
Harvard invited journalists for an advance look at the building last month, but the galleries remained off limits because of installation work. These galleries will display Harvard’s internationally renowned collections, comprising about 250,000 objects dating from ancient times to the present day. Only a fraction of the collection will be on view at any time; the bulk of it is stored in the museum annex a few miles away in Somerville, Massachusetts. When it reopens, the new museum will devote an inaugural special exhibition to Mark Rothko’s newly restored “Harvard Murals,” a series of five large-scale paintings that Rothko did in 1962 for a Harvard University dining room a few years after completing another series intended for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York.
Piano retained the Fogg’s neo-Georgian red brick façade, which dates to 1927, as well as its central courtyard of travertine arcades. But the east-facing section of the building is entirely new, replacing a 1991 addition by Gwathmey Siegel & Associates. In its stead, Piano has created a mammoth rectangular box, clad in Alaskan cedar strips stained light gray that echoes New England-style wooden clapboarding found on a few neo-Colonial buildings sprinkling Harvard’s campus. The cedar strips are flat and crisp at the corners but other parts are deftly sculpted and torqued to add visual variation and interest to the horizontal cladding.
The museum stands just outside Harvard Yard, the array of quadrangles making up the historic core of the university founded in 1636. Looking from the Yard toward Piano’s renovated building, students and visitors clearly see a modern glass pyramid looming from behind the Fogg’s traditional brick front. The glazed peak signals the museum’s openness to the new, topping the central courtyard and bringing natural light into much of the structure.
Like many university campuses, Harvard’s consists of a disparate array of architectural styles so that Piano faced a challenge in filling the site. And increasing this challenge was the direct adjacency of Le Corbusier’s only building in the United States and his last major structure, the Carpenter Center for Visual Arts, a startling form of sculptured gray concrete that has won both admiration and loathing.
“Two elephants copulating,” is how the Carpenter Center is described according to an oft-told Harvard jab. When the building opened in 1963, New York Times critic Ada Louise Huxtable wrote that it “violates the street and scandalizes the neighborhood” but “manages to make everything around it look stolid and stale.”
After Le Corbusier’s Carpenter Center was wedged onto a narrow plot and unveiled half a century ago, Harvard’s then president, Nathan Pusey, said university board members wanted to take up a collection to speed the growth of ivy across its façade to cover it up. Despite the Ivy League setting, such tendrils were never allowed to conceal Le Corbusier’s creation. But today its new neighbor is getting a turn in the limelight as Piano’s design garners comments on the Harvard Magazine website like: “Is this really the best that Harvard could do?” and “How very ugly.”
Although Piano has become the leading museum architect of our age, his designs for U.S. cultural institutions have received a mixed critical response. The Menil Collection in Houston, the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas and his addition to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston have been widely admired, but projects like the Morgan Library & Museum in New York and an addition to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art have received less acclaim.