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Distractions from Gardner’s Visceral Mission?


The new addition to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, designed by the Renzo Piano Building Workshop, in Genoa, Italy, was completed in this month and opened with much fanfare.

A bit about the 1902 Palace is in order, to start. We know that Isabella Stewart Gardner was literate, well traveled, and deeply interested in art. It’s easy to imagine that such a connected, wealthy, and vibrant woman would have known about some of the ascendant thinking about art in her day. In the second half of the 19th century, one group of thinkers believed that art should be personally felt, intense, and unaffected by the corrupting influence of too much Classical learning. Art was more than just an object to be studied intellectually. Rather, art was part of a whole environment that included dance, music, and furnishings. Art for them gained meaning and effectiveness by its surroundings.

Palace Court (John Tittmann photo)

These thinkers included critics like John Ruskin and artists like William Morris and Rossetti, who emphasized the virtues of the medieval over the Late Renaissance, then the touchstone of taste. One brotherhood’ called themselves Pre-Raphaelites because they preferred to be influenced by artists that preceded Raphael — before, they said, the corrupting and cerebral Classicism took away a personal and visceral connection to art. John Ruskin, as the foremost spokesman of this way of thinking, brought attention to Venice, where the architecture is largely medieval. The appeal to Ruskin and others was that Venice was Pre-Raphaelite architecture. Venice embodied their Romantic approach.

Commensurate with how the Pre-Raphaelites saw art, Gardner chose the Venetian style intentionally and with artistic purpose. For her, a Venetian court provided the perfect vessel for her holistic approach to art and how the viewer should interact with art. (Sebastian Smee covers this topic well in the Jan 15, 2012 article in the Boston Globe.)

And so Boston has a piece of Venice on the Fenway. It’s an exotic, certainly, but very much a native, too. Gardner, a pioneering woman, a Boston woman (it’s hard to imagine her flourishing in New York), lived independently after her husband’s death in 1898 and traveled internationally. She was thoroughly modern in a way that seems normal to us but was highly unusual in her day. Her new thinking is exemplified in the Pre-Raphaelite building that is the Palace.

Taken in this light, we needn’t find her vision ‘embarrassing’ as Sebastian Smee wrote in his otherwise excellent article. There’s a sense in many circles today that Gardner’s vision is, well, a little weak intellectually, and that a Venetian palace on the Fenway is silly. We live in a rational age, and are for the most part uncomfortable with the Romantics. However, the child within us all is still overcome with awe at the site of the courtyard and its plantings: this awe is part of the experience of art that Gardner wanted her visitors to have. The Palace has a strong sense of place, a presence, and a collection of memorable spaces.

The Predicament

Somehow the museum that Isabella Stewart Gardner founded has survived the almost 90 years since she died in 1924 at the age of 84. But all those visitors in the intervening years have been putting a significant strain on the building. Something had to be done to keep the museum, now known as the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (ISGM), from essentially being loved to death. The strain of taking care of the visitors (up to 200,000 annually) through selling tickets, hanging wet coats, and providing a café, bookshop, toilets, as well as housing the museum’s offices, was not sustainable. Furthermore, since 1927, the ISGM has been hosting a music series, bringing in each year some 10,000 people to traipse through the galleries to the Tapestry Room to hear the concerts. Music, of course, is an essential part of the total art experience that Gardner endorsed, and seemed integral to the ISGM.

Enter the 21st-century Architect

Entry from Evans Way (John Tittmann picture)

And so the ISGM hired Renzo Piano, the world acclaimed architect from Genoa, to build an addition. Now completed, the public can see what has been so long in planning and construction. The addition, as intended, has successfully and indeed triumphantly removed the functions that were eroding the Palace. The entrance has been moved to the flank of the property, now fronting Evans Way Park. From the new entry the visitor passes through a lobby to find a coat room, a welcome area known as the Living Room, a café, and a museum shop, all done in a 1950’s retro style. Between the Living Room and the café, a glass passageway connects to the Palace. A grand stair leads up a level to the Special Exhibition Gallery and to the Calderwood Performance Hall. Museum offices are stacked up behind the Gallery and the Hall. South of the Entry, along the side of the Park down to Tetlow Street, is a wing that houses a small greenhouse and two visiting artists’ apartments. The service entrance is off of Tetlow Street. Restoration work was done within the Palace, particularly in the Tapestry Room now that music concerts will no longer occur there. The Palace has been saved. The museum is now on surer footing that it has ever been. The functions have been perfectly arranged. Boston’s grand dame on the Fenway should be thrilled. Or should she be?

Making a city with buildings

Tetlow Street Corner (John Tittmann photo)

One of the roles of individual buildings in a city is to define the public realm, to define streets and gathering-spaces like squares and parks. The Piano building does a poor job of shaping Evans Way Park. It seems surprising that an Italian architect, from a country with the world’s best street spaces and piazzas, would be so insensitive to this aspect. The south end of the building along Tetlow Street, where the service entry is, makes no effort to define its corner.

Defining corners, or shaping the street at corners, is how city blocks define themselves. The Greenhouse and Artist Apartment wing has a 45ºplane of glass slanting away from the street, seeming more like a sound deflector at Logan Airport than street-shaping building face. Clearly the architects were not interested in making Evans Way Park a better defined chamber of space. The ISGM controls one wall of the three walls of the Park: shouldn’t they have contributed to the public domain? Buildings may be brilliant individually, but the aggregation of buildings makes the city. This role of building making — of architecture — to shape streets is the equivalent of good citizenry and is an essential point by which buildings are evaluated. So on this point, the addition to the ISGM seems more suburban than urban, where street shaping is less important.

The Music Hall

The most interesting space in the new building is the space where music will be played. It’s a cube, 44 feet to a side, and 44 feet to the ceiling. The hall seats 300, arranged on four levels. There are two rows on the stage level and one row on each of the three balconies.  The audience seating completely surrounds the performers, so that some of the audience will necessarily be behind the performers. This arrangement may work for some types of music, but any music that is best presented frontally, like say a violin, or a singer, will have to perhaps modify the presentation. It is an awkward space for speakers, as was made clear during some speeches last week. Speakers and performers will have to learn to turn around constantly to communicate with those seated behind them. The ISGM will sometimes have illustrated talks, at which time the seating will be aligned to face the permanently installed drop-down screen. 

The sightlines from the top balcony are almost untenable. A viewer sitting normally in one of the top balcony seats can only see half of the stage. To see the full stage one must lean over the rail, nearly 30 feet above the performers, getting a good view of the tops of their heads. The sightlines from the middle balcony are better, but still awkward. The lower balcony, just above the main level is excellent — as long as one doesn’t sit behind the performers. Of the 300 seats, only about half are good for viewing. 

This reviewer, listening to the rehearsal of the orchestra, A Far Cry, found the acoustics excellent, warm and vibrant, on the main stage level, and on the first balcony. They were also excellent when leaning into the space on the upper two levels, but less so when sitting back in the seats where the glass panel seems to block some of the ranges of sound from below.

Renzo Piano's back (John Tittmann photo)
View from third balcony (John Tittmann photo)
Calderwood Hall (John Tittmann photo)

The Special Exhibit Space

Special Exhibit Gallery (John Tittmann photo)

This room is also a cube shaped room, 44 feet to a side and 44 feet high. It is described as ‘flexible,’ meaning that the ceiling can be set at three different heights — one third, two thirds, and full height. It’s quite an undertaking to adjust the ceiling, since plumbers and the Boston Fire Department must be called in each time to re-set the fire sprinkler system.

The curators say that some exhibits will be better suited to lower ceilings. And there may also be a work of art 30 feet tall that needs the full ceiling height. The current exhibit has small (relatively) paintings hung at eye level and near eye level. The wall above is empty. 

Abstraction is a distraction

And so this brings us back to what Gardner’s vision is, and what looking at art means. Gardner was interested in the totality of the experience. Looking at a painting was not a disembodied intellectual experience, but something that was felt as much as understood. This approach is why she integrates furniture, decorative objects, and paintings together in a sympathetic architectural setting. Like at the Frick and other “collection museums’’ (again, thank you, Sebastian Smee), art was for her more powerfully presented in a total environment that included music, and even the aroma from flowers. Her vision is intensely humanist: she combines all the viewer’s senses together. Her vision is not abstract or rational. It is visceral and syncretic.

In the new addition, the two primary spaces for music and exhibits are the opposite: they are cerebral and rational. The architects were intent on making a matching pair of platonic cubes of space. Why else would these two rooms just “happen’’ to be 44 feet by 44 feet by 44 feet? The artistry of their work is platonic. It is not felt, but intellectually understood. Had the messy, un-platonic needs of viewers — things like sightlines, and the shapes of human bodies, and how sound, and smell and memory interrelate — been part of the design-think, the abstraction would have been compromised. Piano and his team were not interested in that concession. Their architecture is highly technological, and very far from Gardner’s Pre-Raphaelite vision.

Piano and his team are masters. The addition is a technological marvel that solves the practical problems of the Gardner. But what of Gardner’s vision? Has the new addition missed the point? Has all the abstraction become a distraction?

John Tittmann is an architect in Boston.  He is a principal at Albert, Righter & Tittmann Architects, Inc.

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