The Boston Globe

January 17, 2012, The Boston Globe

Renzo Piano’s Gardner Museum is a Contemporary Counterpoint

Addition buttresses Isabella Stewart Gardner's collection

For all its acclaim, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum had been housed for over a century behind a dull, largely unadorned exterior, concealing the magical array of treasures within. From the outside, the original building is not much more than a tall, buff-colored brick shed crowned by a glazed roof.

Along comes Renzo Piano’s addition to more than double the museum’s space. Set back a respectful 50-foot distance from the faux Venetian palace dedicated in 1903, sloping glass walls and copper-sheathed cubes lend it the air of a cutting-edge science laboratory that wandered across the Charles River from the MIT campus.

Yet the addition, which opens to the public on January 19, fits in with the institutional neighbors that now surround Mrs. Gardner’s once solitary home facing Frederick Law Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace. With modern-day structures from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design on one side and Simmons College on the other, why should a contemporary architect pretend he’s confecting another palazzo along the Grand Canal?

Construction of the new addition sparked intense controversy leading to a high court ruling, and meant razing a 1907 carriage house and a 1930s annex, but the Renzo Piano Building Workshop, based in Genoa, Italy, has kept the integrity of Gardner’s personal vision intact. Piano, the Pritzker Prize-winning architect of a lengthening string of museum additions around the United States, celebrates simplicity and light. The interiors of his crisply lined expansion stand as an assertive counterpoint to the muffled, damask-draped and wood-paneled chambers of the historic museum.

But compared with the startling beauty inside the original structure, there’s little in the extension to prompt a gasp, even if Piano has delivered an estimable, highly functional complement to what was initially known as Fenway Court and is now popularly called the palace. More important, Piano and the museum’s leadership team have squared a circle by ensuring future programmatic evolution for an institution Gardner’s will dictated must never change.

In Gardner’s day a few thousand people visited each year, but the museum has drawn 200,000 annually in recent times. Director Anne Hawley, whose tenure began with the Gardner becoming the scene of the world’s biggest art heist in 1990, devoted herself after that rude wakeup call to improving the once parlous state of the museum, upgrading security, lighting, and climate control. With the addition, attendance is expected to rise to 250,000 a year.

To accommodate this, Piano has shifted the entrance away from the heavily trafficked Fenway to Evans Way, around the corner. There, those who feared the Gardner’s ruination will be relieved to find that the new part, by permitting the off-loading from the palace of ticketing, cloakrooms, cafe, and shop, has alleviated mounting pressures on the original museum. This aspect of the addition motivated a 2009 Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling that the addition amounted to a “reasonable deviation” from Gardner’s wishes since it would extend the old building’s life and enhance art viewing there.

To avoid overpowering the palace, Piano made his work slightly lower and divided it into distinct elements, the upper portion clad in corrugated pre-patinated green copper, which echoes the rooftop of Graham Gund’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts addition across Evans Way Park. The luminescent expansion, including apartments for resident artists, offices, conservation labs, and a classroom, starts at its far end with a raked facade over greenhouses supplying palms, ferns, and bromeliads for the original Gardner courtyard. The greenhouse connects to a glass entry pavilion with views of the park and palace.

A bold double-ramp staircase floats at the center of it all, with open risers fashioned from the same bluestone paving the palace’s ground floor. Upstairs, a temporary exhibition gallery has an adjustable ceiling to vary its height between 12 and 36 feet. Adjacent stands a wonderfully intimate, 296-seat concert hall, paneled in honey-stained white oak. There is no elevated stage, so musicians will find themselves surrounded on the main level by two rows of concertgoers, while three balconies of one row each extend upward into the cube-shaped hall. Clear balustrades topped by delicate oak handrails allow good sightlines from all but the topmost level, and audience members will have ample chance to eye one another across the room.

Back on the ground floor, instead of an overblown, ultimately vacuous atrium like the one that Foster + Partners provided for the new, nearby Art of the Americas Wing at the Museum of Fine Arts or that Piano put into his own 2006 expansion of the Morgan Library & Museum in New York, the Gardner now has a modestly proportioned “living room.”

Furnished with comfortable sofas and shelves stocked with art books for visitor perusal, the cozy room is intended for relaxation and contemplation. You could also see it as a rebuke to the argument that the Gardner has gone corporate, losing the eccentric flair of its founder. Piano’s intimate scaling, the red brick interior walls, and the rough bluestone floors signal this place doesn’t pretend to rival the MFA’s marble grandeur. But placing caged canaries, potted plants, and tea service in the room seems an overly contrived way of paying homage to Gardner’s quirky legacy.

More pristine is the glazed corridor leading from the extension to the palace’s densely packed display of Medieval and Renaissance artifacts and paintings by Titian, Rembrandt, Velazquez, and Manet. An elegant, crystalline variation of the jetways for boarding airliners, this hard-edged passageway is softened by its setting in a mix of evergreen and deciduous trees. After traversing it, museumgoers experience an aesthetic takeoff.

From the corridor, they enter a new, low-ceilinged brick vestibule Piano devised to successfully replicate the startling drama encountered in the museum’s original entrance. Visitors move from a compressed, hermetic space into the soaring, light-filled courtyard, suddenly confronting its lush greenery, pink walls, and Venetian balconies. With Piano’s new concert hall, the museum has been able to restore the largest palace chamber, the Tapestry Room that for decades housed concerts and lectures. Now cleared of a stage and seating that had obscured the 16th-century Flemish tapestries, Italian furniture, and a stone fireplace, it appears again as in Gardner’s time.

Other than ongoing conservation and a thorough dusting of the 2,500 artworks and objects, the rest of the charmingly hodgepodge arrangement remains essentially undisturbed. A Michelangelo drawing hangs cheek by jowl with etchings by Matisse and Whistler on movable wooden panels designed by Mrs. Gardner (1840-1924); the creaky but reliable elevator, dating from 1903, ferries visitors unable to navigate the travertine stairs; and vitrines laden with Gardner’s memorabilia and correspondence are cloaked in velvet sheets labeled “Visitors May Lift Cloth.” The dim lighting has been gradually upgraded since 2004, but the courtyard — plastered in rose hues, like blush applied to an aging dame, some of it originally splashed on by Mrs. Gardner herself — has been left alone.

Circulation through the palace promises to be improved. Prior to the addition, on busy days visitors entered via a cramped foyer and clustered in the subsequent Spanish cloister. Congestion thwarted optimal viewing of John Singer Sargent’s show-stopping work “El Jaleo,” depicting a sensual Gypsy dancer in a play of light and shadow. Now with the entry elsewhere, this vibrant painting — framed by a Moorish arch to highlight it — regains unfettered pride of place. A few steps away, the removal of the café and gift shop installed in the 1970s has enabled reopening a subterranean room Gardner used as a shrine for Asian objects.

For sure, smaller private museums like the Gardner must battle to retain their character and idiosyncrasies as they broaden their appeal to diverse audiences, but growth here has been carried out in a considered fashion that helps buttress the original collection. Despite the anxieties the expansion provoked, Piano’s solution is not the travesty perpetrated on another collection built by a kindred soul to Gardner, Albert C. Barnes, in Philadelphia, where the Barnes Foundation is being wrenched from its historic home into a modern behemoth. Boston can take pride that the Gardner remains the Gardner, only better.