On 16th November, Renzo Piano’s eagerly-awaited new Art Museums building at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts will open to the public. The Harvard Art Museums comprises the Fogg Museum, the Busch-Reisinger Museum, and the Arthur M. Sackler Museum which together have a stunning collection of 250,000 objects from ancient archaeological artifacts to contemporary art. Established as an academic resource for the university, it is now a collection of international importance. The aim of what is called a “renovation” but which in reality is a completely new facility is to provide much-needed additional space and also bring the collections under one roof. The choice of Renzo Piano as architect builds on a tradition of employing international architects with previous buildings at Harvard University by Aalto, Gropius and Le Corbusier and the last Fogg extension designed by British architect James Stirling.
The Arts Museums building, designed by Renzo Piano in conjunction with local architects Payette Associates, has carefully respected and preserved the historic building at 32 Quincy Street, opened in 1927, while creating additional new space to support the expanding programs which support the Art Museums’ teaching and research activities.
The project has taken six years, during which time the collection was relocated – said to be the largest museum collection move of its type ever carried out in the United States. The building itself was completed almost a year ago, since when there has been a programme of fitting out, moving staff and collections back into the building and setting up displays for the opening.
There are intriguing glimpses available on the Harvard Art Museums website on what we will see on November 16th when the doors open. A key feature of Piano’s design is bringing light into the heart of the building, something he achieved across the river at his extension to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, opened in 2012, and which Norman Foster also designed into his 2010 extension for the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Richard Rogers has said that “Renzo Piano is an absolute master of light and lightness. His structures are very elegant, very humanistic. They grow out of understanding how buildings go together and how light comes through them.”
The core space is the Calderwood Courtyard with its new roof, which Piano calls the “Light Machine.”, a sophisticated glass-and-steel roofing system which allows controlled natural light to cascade down into the building. The roof’s triple-insulated glass panels contain exterior and interior shades to control the light and keep out heat and also provide a protective filter against ultraviolet rays and is engineered to remain intact in the event of an earthquake. Other rooms have similar environmental protection.
“I love building museums. They are magical places where you preserve art, enjoy art, everything becomes durable. Enjoying art is a very intimate thing. It’s about you and the art.” (Renzo Piano)
One of the pleasant and perhaps unexpected outcomes of the move is the new relationships which have been forged between the Harvard Art Museums and other Harvard museums. The Museum made a decision, as part of its sustainability policy to reduce waste and energy, to donate storage cabinets and exhibition cases from the existing building to other institutions across the University. By happy chance, the Harvard Semetic Museum was considering upgrading its storage system for its collection of more than 40,000 Near Eastern artifacts, linked to a plan to make the institution more accessible to faculty, students, and the general public.
“The donation of more than 60 storage cabinets from the Harvard Art Museums has enabled the Semitic Museum to revamp completely its collections storage, marking a significant improvement over existing conditions,” said Joseph Greene, deputy director and curator at the Semitic Museum. Other existing exhibition cases found new homes at three other museums. This strategy has also strengthened the Art Museums’ relationships with these institutions and joint projects are now planned.
This new building will further reinforce Boston and Cambridge’s position as international centres for art museums, adding to what has been a remarkable expansion of buildings designed by international architects in the two cities this century starting with the Institute of Contemporary Art, which opened in 2002, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro.