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Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, USA, Foster + Partners

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[Building study] Foster + Partners’ ‘Art of Americas’ wing for Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts reinvigorates one of the city’s most cherished institutions, writes Brian Edwards

Huntington Avenue is Boston’s premier architectural street. At one end stands HH Richardson’s Trinity Church and McKim Mead and White’s Boston Public Library and at the other the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), recently extended and refurbished by Foster + Partners.

In between there is a collection of civic, university and cultural buildings designed mainly by named architects including the John Hancock Tower and Christian Science Headquarters, both by IM Pei.

In addition, there is the Emerald Necklace, a network of urban nature parks instigated by Frederick Law Olmsted in 1887, running behind much of Huntington Avenue.

Against this background Foster + Partners (working in collaboration with local architects Childs Bertman Tseckares) had the task of enlarging and restructuring the MFA, one of Boston’s most cherished monuments.

Foster + Partners has established an enviable reputation for sensitive yet innovative renovation and extension of historic structures. Besides the practice’s work at the Reichstag and British Museum, one could cite the earlier example of Carré d’Art in Nimes where there is clever dialogue between historic and modern architecture.

In this sense the MFA builds upon a body of work with existing buildings which many ignore in favour of more glamorous Foster projects. Yet in these stringent times such output has particular relevance.

At MFA, there were formidable architectural and organisational problems to address as the client sought to create three new galleries, including the large ‘Art of the Americas’ wing, while also clarifying inherited spatial arrangements.

One of the main problems was the organic pattern of earlier expansion which had undermined the clarity of entrances and linking concourses.

Built in 1909 to Beaux-Arts plans by Guy Lowell, there had been at least three large extensions, including that by the Architects Collaborative in 1966, and IM Pei in 1981 which included its own entrance. The original grand portico entrance on Huntington Avenue was replicated by the Fenway entrance facing the Back Bay Fens, a park created by Olmsted as part of the Emerald Necklace.

Lowell saw the MFA as one of the pearls on the necklace but failed to fully open his galleries to the park. So in spite of the Fenway entrance, much of the external landscape remained largely invisible.

The approach of Foster + Partners, under the leadership of Lord Foster and Spencer de Grey, was to re-establish the primacy of the two main entrances by creating a grand north-south axis through the museum. This axis formed by clearing later encroachment becomes the new museum spine which leads to gallery wings at right angles where the four main collections of the MFA are located and where the new fifth one is accessed.

The former collections were reorganised so that they wrapped around two central courtyards flanking the axis. The decision by Foster to roof-glaze one of these courtyards provided the opportunity to create a grand internal square accessed directly from the spine which in turn would lead to the new galleries required by MFA to house its ever-expanding collection of American art.

The four-storey gallery known as the ‘Art of the Americas’ wing is flanked by two further galleries joined by a perimeter glazed promenade which brings into play for the first time the adjacent parkland landscape and urban scene.

Hence, visitors can enjoy the art of Rothko and Hopper, as well as experience – while they move between rooms – the city-scapes that have been a perennial inspiration to American art. Foster has opened up the dialogue found in other recent gallery extensions, such as at the Kunst Museum in Copenhagen, between art and landscape thereby connecting the collection to the city. 

There is a delightful play of contrasts between the two original courtyards. One is left with its mature plantation of trees, the other is glazed in the manner of the Great Court at the British Museum. This contrast helps give organisational clarity to the restructured MFA, particularly to the spatial relationship of old and new galleries.

The new glazed courtyard acts as a gateway space to the extensions and a place to meet friends or take a meal in the new gallery cafe located here. By reinforcing old hierarchies and downgrading the significance of some of the later additions, the architects have given order to what was at times a rather labyrinthine collection of gallery rooms.

This has been helped by lining up doorways between galleries using major art works to terminate the long vistas down wings. By strengthening the relationships between parts the disparate architectural nature of the different extensions has been downplayed.

There is a marked difference in approach between the Pei and Foster wings. Pei created an inward world for the ‘Wing for Contemporary Art’ while Foster seeks dialogue with the outside. Necessarily, the new ‘Art of the Americas’ wing is inward, in part, in order to create the right conditions for conserving the collection, but there are also external promenades where oil canvases and sculptures are displayed in daylight and with proximity to views.

The ramifications are enormous in terms of exterior expression and internal fatigue. So Foster’s wing, unlike Pei’s, breaks open the Classical and Modernist armoury.

As in much of the recent work of Foster + Partners there is clarity in the relationship between architectural and environmental strategies. The client required attention to running costs in a city where LEED has focused attention on the links between sustainability and construction. Under the project, Foster + Partners has been able to reduce energy demand by 10 per cent in the existing building and 20 per cent in the new galleries.

As in much of the work by the practice, new technologies have been discretely employed in the drive for a sustainable solution.

Besides using natural ventilation to reduce the air-conditioning load by 33 per cent, there is day-lighting in many of the new spaces (using vertical triple-glazed side lighting and high-level diffusing roof lights in upper floor galleries), solar shading and measures to reduce water consumption and utilise ground cooling.

However, the project is green without intruding on the art and the same is true of the overall design which Spencer de Grey calls ‘quite a grand but not over-assertive framework’.

The selection of materials and the articulation of elements is greatly influenced by the original design from 1909. Finely tooled granite, clear glazing in thin frames, oak flooring, furnishings and finishes are found in Lowell’s design and Foster’s intervention.

Beaux-Arts proportional systems are also employed in much of the new construction – squares and vertical rhythms – with sculpture and daylight terminating vistas.

These are themes reinterpreted by Foster particularly in the Shapiro Family Courtyard, the name given to the new glazed square in honour of a major donor. Here what was once an external facade becomes an internal wall providing an inherited order that influences much of the new construction.

But while the original is in solid masonry, the new is lightweight and framed in steel with clear and opaque glass, limestone panels and louvred shading.

The detailing is of a high order and so is the workmanship. As at the Reichstag, there is respect for inherited craftsmanship and a proportional discipline which helps unify the whole in spite of architectural authorship.  Since Foster’s office had responsibility for the whole, including display cases, there is polish and sophistication throughout, even in the upgraded Pei wing.

The new ‘Art of the Americas’ wing contains art and artifacts. Besides orthodox galleries there are period rooms which, as at the Burrell Gallery in Glasgow, are re-creations of domestic life based on collections by wealthy Bostonians.

Generally, the art becomes more contemporary as the galleries rise. However, since each gallery has a different theme, there is an attempt to create separation within a unified whole. Rooms have their own colour scheme (inspired by the collection housed) with a grey band of granite flooring and surround at each entrance.

New public museums are seen increasingly as expressions of democratic order. The $345 million investment at MFA has altered the perception from a museum with inward-looking spaces lit by artificial light to galleries open to the city, its populace and the natural world.

The process is two-way, both visibly and environmentally. The new wings, galleries and promenade spaces can be viewed from city streets and draw much of their energy from local sources, and people inside can now reflect upon the world the art seeks to capture.

Professor Brian Edwards is Emeritus Professor at Edinburgh College of Art

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