The heralded 2012 opening of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum's extension by Renzo Piano Building Workshop was seen as ushering a new era for the Gilded Age Boston estate turned art museum. Originally built to evoke a 15th-century Venetian palace, the museum now boasted an additional, thoroughly 21st-century aesthetic.
Now that the frenzy over the famous architect's touch on the Gardner has died down, Architizer took a sneak peek inside the complex's courtyard for a glimpse of the just-completed redesign of the Monks Garden.
Ensconced amid the museum's distinctive architecture, Monks Garden illustrates the power of thoughtful museum interventions and quiet green spaces in a time of sensational, amenity-rich institutions and urban parks designed to compete in a challenging market of global cities.
Landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh has imbued the refreshed Monks Garden with a hushed privacy through a matrix of sinuous black brick pathways shrouded in a miniature forest of 66 new trees and lush fern beds. This serenity stands in contrast to the busy four-lane street that separates the museum from Frederick Law Olmsted's rambling Fenway Park.
Which is just what the iconoclastic Isabella Stewart Gardner intended when she allotted for the garden in 1901. Originally designed in a classic Italian format with a pergola, the garden has been reimagined as a third dimension; its distinctly airy environs complement the hallowed halls of Gardner's turn-of-the-century home, while its curving, organic lines offer a counterpoint to the stark right angles of Piano's addition.
If Piano's addition and the Fenway are all about graceful connections between useful nodes, the meandering paths of the Monks Garden speak to the need for aimless wandering in the modern city. "The paths not being straight and rational is obviously what the garden is all about," says Van Valkenburgh. "I think this started out with the realization that it's not about getting from here to there. Maybe it's not about getting anywhere."
Van Valkenburgh's meditative moment is in some respects a microcosm of the architect's concurrent ongoing project, the massive Brooklyn Bridge Park, which has been praised for its conversion of the Brooklyn waterfront's derelict piers into a necklace of promenades. Instead of the wide-open green spaces of Central Park's meadows, Van Valkenburgh has strung winding paths reminiscent of those found in the Monks Garden, with adjacent coves for respite—although on a 1.3-mile-long scale with vistas of the Lower Manhattan skyline.
The architect's eye for waterfront redux has also remade the way citizens relate to Pittsburgh's Allegheny River, Toronto's Don River, and Chicago's Lake Michigan. Perhaps it's the inherent winding shape of waterways that inspires Van Valkenburgh's choreography of curvilinear topography, an effect that humanizes public spaces in contrast to the harsh axes of classic urban parks. He recalls a colleague visiting his studio and asking, "What's with all the curves?" His reasoning: "It's sensual, and the other thing about a curve is it's always disappearing to the right or left. It's not taking you from here to there, so it's more of a meander. My work has realized that people are hungry for that immense intimacy."
The role of public greens has entered an unprecedented level in architectural discourse as urban spaces transition toward privatization and stages of dissent, from New York's Zuccotti Park to Istanbul's Gezi Park. Van Valkenburgh describes the Monks Garden as an "in between" space: "It's not private at all, but at the same time, to get into it, you have to enter the museum."
The $15 admission price relates more to access of the art collection rather than the landscape, and if anything, Isabella Stewart Gardner's intention was to make the private space of the upper echelon less rarified.
"The reason that somebody comes to this museum is reflected in the garden," says Van Valkenburgh, "and a park has a completely different aspirational quality, so you exploit the potential of landscape in a completely different way. It's totally different but also the same." He emphasizes that Gardner's egalitarianism is channeled through the Monks Garden's directionless paths, explaining, "The garden doesn't tell you what to do, which to me is what makes it democratic. Just come out here and wander around—and chill!"
He argues that the prerogative to "chill" is sometimes lost on other museum gardens, particularly those that form the central courtyard at the Museum of Modern Art. "You don't have to pay admission, but it's brooding and ponderous," says Van Valkenburgh. "It's capital A-R-T, and the Monks Garden is something that's really different from that."
Image via the Museum of Modern Art
The assertion of the power of "immense intimacy" offers a refreshing counterpoint to the trend of grand urban schemes, in which mammoth designer museums and CGI-visioned parks too often result in alienating landscapes steeped in civic debt. On the opposite side of Boston, Diller Scofidio + Renfro's Institute of Contemporary Art is docked at the port, luring visitors with its dramatic cantilever and broad frontal staircase. Yet as the first new art museum the city received in a century, the ICA and its luminescent materials and intense geometry—theoretically meant to conjure a gantry crane—deny the city's New England maritime charm.
Image via MIMOA.eu
The city-facing facade casts a dark shadow on the rest of the harbor side district, making its innovative programming seem farther removed from Boston's cultural landscape. That once solid landscape is also in flux as Renzo Piano is coalescing the Harvard art museums. Whether the projected gray encasement of the Le Corbusier-designed Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts will offer the same genius of stitching together architectural eras as Piano's additions to the Morgan Library and Art Institute of Chicago remains to be seen until the 2014 opening.
Of course, the biggest of Boston's grands works is the Big Dig, the lowering of Interstate 93 that ran through the heart of the city into a 3.5-mile tunnel. The negative publicity as the most expensive highway project in the U.S. and fatal design flaws overshadowed the realization of the expansive Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, a dazzling series of parks and public spaces that capitalize on the ground that covers the former automobile artery. Yet the invention of this public space, like the infrastructure it disguises, feels a bit over engineered. What should be downtown's greatest amenity feels desolately sterile on an average day:
In effect, the Monks Garden represents a moment of necessary response to local place. It isn't striving to be Millennium Park or the High Line, nor a hermetic private garden. Its embodiment of a "third way" of arranging urban green was perhaps best articulated in 1907 by Henry James, as he writes in The American Scene:
To attempt to tell the story of the wonderfully-gathered and splendidly-lodged Gardner Collection would be to displace a little the line that separates private from public property . . . . . It is in presence of the results magnificently attained, the energy triumphant over every-thing, that one feels the fine old disinterested tradition of Boston least broken.
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