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ISGM Addition: Flaws in Positive Intents

By Alan Pinciaro

Renzo Piano’s addition to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum attempts to facilitate the original museum building’s ability to support certain functions that Isabella Gardner wanted to perpetuate as part of her legacy.  The new music hall, artist work-live studios, and the new gallery space offer specific programmatic spaces for particular functions that she was so adamant about including as part of her legacy.  Gardner supported local artists by giving them studio space and displaying their work within the original building, and believed that the relationship between music and artwork was beneficial to the museum visitor.  Because of Gardner’s passion and support of these functions it was a perfectly logical decision for the museum Trustees to construct an addition able to “properly contain” these artistic functions.  While the original intent of the addition was to extend her legacy in a positive manner, and as much as I enjoy the new additions, I feel that Renzo Piano’s design unintentionally fosters several changes within Isabella Gardner’s envisioned museum experience.    

Designing and building a music hall that is separate from the gallery spaces, the museum now denies the visitor the ability to experience the simultaneous relationship between music and art.  Before the addition, performances were held within the original building’s gallery spaces.  The integration of performance and artwork framed the musician’s performance as another object of culture that Gardner wanted to share with the visitor.  With the addition, the isolated cube of the music hall denies this relationship that Isabella Gardner originally intended.  

Similar to the music hall, the new gallery establishes a very different experience for the visitor than what I feel Isabella Gardner intended.  Due to her testament not to allow new or changes to the art displayed within the original building’s galleries, the new gallery space is necessary for displaying the work that resident artists create.  However, while the gallery space itself is necessary and has a positive intent, the manner in which it was designed detracts from the experience of the museum as a whole.  By designing and building a gallery space that is modeled after the white cube display method, the work within this space becomes something separate and foreign to the rest of the museum’s collection.  While it is possible to make the argument that the work within the new gallery is “contemporary,” I believe Gardner would not want such a drastic differentiation in the displays.  An example is how Gardner displayed and treated John Sargent’s completed artwork, the first resident artist at the ISGM.  At the time, Sargent’s work was considered “contemporary,” however, Gardner displayed his work in a similar manner and, at times, adjacent to older, more classical pieces.  She was not concerned with the objectification of a piece or the “time” period when it was created, but rather, she wanted to display her cabinet of curiosity, a legacy that the white cube display contradicts.

In addition to the spatial layout of the music hall and the different display method of the new gallery, the orientation of the new addition and its threshold sequence to the original building both have an impact on the entire museum experience.  The new addition is located approximately thirty feet away from the original building, and the two buildings connect through a narrow glass tunnel.  It is a nice new feature, however it changes the movement through the museum.  The original entry sequence brought the museum visitor into a dark threshold moment, which then opened up to the beautiful courtyard space with an abundance of natural light.  This elegant, yet complex experience removes the museum visitor from the day-to-day experience and immerses them within Isabella Gardner’s legacy.  The glass façade system of the addition and the glass tunnel to the original museum no longer foster this amazing entry sequence.  As it is now, the museum visitor enters through glass doors on a glass façade, walks through a glass tunnel, enters a dark room, and eventually arrives at the interior courtyard, the area that makes the ISGM spatially powerful.

Ultimately, if the ISGM’s new addition was a separate building and not part of the sequence or experience of the original building, then architecturally and spatially it would be a powerful building.  However, the new addition is now the main entrance and the first experience that the museum visitor has.  While the original intent of the addition was to extend and protect her legacy, the design methods and spatial relationships implemented within the new building are flaws founded in positive intentions that negatively impact the experience.