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Building the New Harvard Art Museums Was a Story of Many, Many Constraints

The long list of difficulties Renzo Piano faced with this renovation and expansion point to why many architects prefer greenfield builds to infill.

An outdoor view of the Harvard Art Museums, by Renzo Piano. (Peter Vanderwarker)

Good urban design these days is all about infill redevelopment and adaptive re-use—reinventing existing buildings where they stand, and taking advantage of prime, pedestrian-friendly locations. But as Harvard University has found out, being “urbanistically correct,” to coin a phrase (and make up a word), can be an expensive and incredibly challenging undertaking.

Years ago, Harvard sought a brand-new museum to house the university’s major art collections, and enlisted Renzo Piano to design a big complex on Memorial Drive, on the banks of the Charles River. But neighbors in the area reacted vociferously—one resident essentially declared that if it was built, they'd blow it up—and the proposal was scuttled. Instead, there’s a park now at the site, previously a popular nursery and gardening store, with underground parking and graduate student housing on one side.

The university also contemplated new museum space across the river as part of Harvard’s Allston campus expansion. But ultimately, these sprawling ambitions were reeled in and the focus was brought back inward, to the existing Fogg Museum, right across from the main campus containing storied Harvard Yard. The result is the recently opened Harvard Art Museums, a renovation and expansion of the Fogg that includes among its works collections of the Busch-Reisinger and Arthur M. Sackler museums, now under one roof.

Piano was again chosen for the task of creating the space, working within dense urban fabric instead of the broader canvas of a greenfield site. The goal was not only to display more art but to provide extensive research, restoration, and arts scholarship space as well. But the challenges and constraints came in rapid fire. The Cambridge Historical Commission demanded that the unremarkable neo-Georgian façade of the Fogg, from 1927, must not be altered. That left the rear of the site as the place for the modern addition, but neighbors along residential Prescott Street were concerned about height and mass.

As a construction site, this one was a doozy, with virtually no room for staging materials and vehicles. The project team sought to lop off one end of the ramp of the neighboring building to open things up during construction. They promised to store it and put it back when done, but there was a problem. The neighboring building is the Carpenter Center, Le Corbusier’s only building in North America. In a nifty twist on historic preservation—the concrete-and-glass structure opened in 1963—there would be no messing with Le Corbusier, either. Defenders of mid-century modernism, of which there are many in Cambridge and Boston, made sure of that.

As the task at hand was to demolish and then rebuild 70 percent of the 204,000-square-foot interior of the original 1927 building, plus add a 154,000-square-foot, five-story addition, every step required walking-on-eggshells precision. Seven hundred tons of temporary steel had to be put in place to brace the existing walls; two huge frescoes, one a 10-foot-by-12-foot work weighing 15 tons, had to be extracted from a load-bearing masonry wall. This video by Skanska USA, the construction manager, shows that painstaking process. The engineering firm was Arup.

What else? The one tree to be salvaged, referred to by the hardhats as the "sacred oak," had to be carefully protected, as it was in the worst possible location—where most material entered or left the construction site off of busy Broadway. Seismographs and temperature gauges recorded every move, installed not only in the preserved travertine courtyard, but in the Carpenter Center.

The interior of the Harvard Museums. (Michel Denance)
The interior courtyard (Anthony Flint)

The end result of what my architect friends might call in other circumstances a “façade-omy” is the new addition, featuring elegant Alaskan yellow cedar and granite at the base. The new stuff balloons out at the back and washes up over the top of the red-brick structure. On the inside, visitors are greeted with the lovely preserved courtyard, now awash in light thanks to a soaring glass atrium crown. There is indeed extensive new gallery space, for contemplative wandering on a Sunday afternoon. And there are gleaming new state-of-the art research laboratories and libraries and high-technology curating space, with bright lights and brushes and razor-sharp utility knives. On the outside, though, there is no getting around the reality that the new has been glommed on to the old.

The back of the building shows the new blended with the old. (Anthony Flint)

Piano has become the go-to architect for museum additions, most recently working in Boston on the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The Italian architect had to deal with similar issues there, as he sought to connect a new addition to the 1903 original building, which was itself modeled after a 15th-century Venetian palace. (A sarcophagus had to be shifted, technically in violation of Gardner’s will, which decreed that nothing be moved).

It’s an ongoing design project, to juxtapose and blend the old and the new. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston pulled it off with a Norman Foster addition that is itself a kind of second attempt after the first contemporary addition by I.M. Pei. But the MFA, by comparison, had loads of space to work with.

The courtyard's glass atrium crown. (Nic Lehoux)

Harvard is proud, but has been a little bit on pins and needles about this project. “How do you pile too much stuff on a site that’s too small and still get a great building from a famous architect? Answer: You don’t,” wrote Robert Campbell, The Boston Globe’s architecture critic. James Russell was slightly more appreciative in Architectural Record, and Jason Farago at The Guardian deemed it a mostly successful reboot.

The ultimate question is whether Harvard has accomplished what it set out to do at this infill site so rife with historic and engineering constraints—and at what cost. (The university says it has raised $250 million for the project, where the budget reportedly rose to between $350 and $400 million.)

A little-known fact is that the university tried to work with the existing site before, somewhat unifying the collections at a fraction of that price. The proposal was for a pedestrian bridge between the Fogg and the building across Broadway housing the Sackler collection. But neighbors wouldn’t let that happen, either. The bricked-over portal for the lofty connection can be seen to this day.

All told, it certainly would have been easier to build an entirely new structure on an open site. In terms of infill and re-use, we sure don’t make it easy.

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