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Confrontation at Harvard Art Museums

Harvard’s new Piano plays off the Le Corbusier next door, and not everyone is happy with the tune

When Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum opened in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1895, museums were far less popular than they are today. But even in recent decades, as other institutions pulled in crowds, the Harvard art collections had a somewhat secluded feel.

“There was a sense of those things being locked away,” says Harvard Art Museums chief curator Deborah Martin Kao.

All that will change on November 16, when Harvard opens an ambitious renovation and expansion by Italian architect Renzo Piano. “It was a core goal of this project to open up the collection and create new platforms for their study by both the university and the community generally,” Kao says.

The long-awaited project by Renzo Piano Building Workshop brings together under one roof for the first time the Fogg’s European and American artworks, the Busch-Reisinger Museum’s central and northern European collection, and the Arthur M. Sackler Museum’s holdings of antiquities and Asian art: about 250,000 objects dating from ancient times to the present. It adds 40 percent more exhibition space as well as a 300-seat theater, classrooms, and study and conservation centers. Lofty galleries will accommodate overscale contemporary works, with an area reserved for digital displays. The revamped museum will devote an inaugural exhibition to Mark Rothko’s newly restored Harvard murals, a series of five large-scale paintings executed in 1962 for a university dining room.

The Calderwood Courtyard, during renovation and expansion of the Harvard Art Museums. PETER VANDERWARKER

The Calderwood Courtyard, during renovation and expansion of the Harvard Art Museums.

PETER VANDERWARKER

But Piano, who has emerged as one of the leading art–museum designers of the present age, faced a particular and controversial challenge with the Harvard project, in the form of the building’s Le Corbusier–designed neighbor.

The work at Harvard is the latest in a series of Piano’s designs for United States cultural institutions that have received a mixed critical response. The Menil Collection in Houston, the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, and an addition to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston have been widely admired, but other projects, such as the Morgan Library & Museum in New York and an addition to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, have been less celebrated.

The Harvard commission was not without its hurdles, in terms of both design and function. Not only did Piano have to deal with a site encircled by neo-Georgian, Romanesque Revival and postmodern buildings, but he also had to consider the directly adjacent Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Le Corbusier’s only built design in the United States and his last major structure. This startling concrete form, which has won both admiration and loathing, is wedged onto a site so narrow that it looms within 20 feet of the museum building.

Piano retained the Fogg’s neo-Georgian red-brick facade dating from 1927 as well as its arcaded Calderwood Courtyard. But the east-facing section of the building is entirely new, replacing a 1991 addition by Gwathmey Siegel & Associates. In its stead, Piano created a mammoth rectangular box, clad in Alaskan-cedar strips stained a light gray that echoes the New England–style wood clapboarding found on a few neo-Colonial buildings sprinkling Harvard’s campus.

The museum stands just outside Harvard Yard, the group of quadrangles composing the historic core of the university founded in 1636. Looking from the Yard toward Piano’s renovated building, one can clearly see a modern glass pyramid rising from behind the Fogg’s traditional brick front. The crystalline peak signals the museum’s openness to the new, topping the central courtyard and allowing natural light to reach much of interior.

Right next door stands the bold gray Carpenter Center, looking like “two elephants copulating,” according to an often-repeated Harvard jab. When Le Corbusier’s building opened in 1963, New York Times architecture 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.”

The Harvard Art Museums, during renovation and expansion, showing the new addition. PETER VANDERWARKER

The Harvard Art Museums, during renovation and expansion, showing the new addition.

PETER VANDERWARKER

Now—and somewhat ironically—Piano’s structure is causing its own, more muted scandal, with some architectural experts voicing indignation that the revamped Fogg pays insufficient deference to Le Corbusier’s legacy. There’s particular ire over Piano’s link with a celebrated ramp of curving concrete that Le Corbusier designed to intersect and draw visitors into his building. Piano has extended the northeastern end of the ramp with a gray granite-encased segment so that it connects the Carpenter Center with the art-museum complex. Thus, Piano and Le Corbusier’s designs directly abut each other in a manner that has set architectural feathers flying.

“This was a crime against humanity,” says Princeton University architectural historian Beatriz Colomina—not known for understatement—about Piano’s treatment of Le Corbusier’s structure. “It’s such a mythical building and it is being destroyed by somebody who is a good architect. ”

But Alex Krieger, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design who served on the university’s review committee for the new museum project, says that Piano deserves credit for restoring the ramp to the alignment originally intended by Le Corbusier after it was rerouted by the Gwathmey Siegel addition and an earlier building on the site by Josep Lluís Sert. Still, Krieger agrees that the direct connection between Le Corbusier’s ramp and what Piano added is “less than brilliant.”

Hayden Salter, a 1994 graduate of the Graduate School of Design who now works in the Madrid office of architect Rafael Moneo, says: “This is a case study for a poorly handled interaction between new and not-so-old architecture. It’s shocking and seems so unnecessary. It’s hard to imagine that a museum of all things should treat campus patrimony so poorly. The Carpenter Center is a jewel.”

It’s not the first time Piano has confronted Le Corbusier. Architectural historian William J. R. Curtis, who has written extensively on Le Corbusier, calls Piano’s project just one of a series of “encroachments” on Le Corbusier designs around the world. Curtis has argued that the Piano-designed visitors’ center at Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, France, opened in 2011, undermines Le Corbusier’s work there. In a 1978 book about the genesis of the Carpenter Center, Curtis hailed the ability to move through the Harvard building on the ramp as “the fulfillment of a primordial dream of the Modern Movement in painting and sculpture: projection of the spectator into the heart of the work of art to experience its facets, illusions and ambiguities from within.”

Meanwhile, within the Harvard museum’s walls, there is a subtle acknowledgement of the interplay between the two buildings. Chief curator Kao says that the Busch-Reisinger collection was intentionally installed in new galleries with floor-to-ceiling glass windows looking out on Le Corbusier’s creation. Thus, Bauhaus objects and early 20th-century paintings by artists such as Max Beckmann and Lyonel Feininger are placed in dialogue with an extraordinary Modernist monument.

“There’s a wonderful serendipity to be able to look at the Le Corbusier building within the context of that European modernism,” Kao says. “It’s a compelling way to take stock of that legacy. It ends up being very fitting for the Busch’s collection to have that dialogue.”

Michael Z. Wise writes on culture and foreign affairs and is cofounder of New Vessel Press.

A version of this story originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 54 under the title “Confrontation at Harvard.”

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