​How Renzo Piano Does It, in His Own Words: A Review of the New Harvard Art Museums

Renzo Piano was in an ebullient mood the evening prior to the ceremonial preview of the newly expanded Harvard Art Museums (HAM). He was to discuss the project in a conversation titled “How Did You Do It, Mr. Piano?,” held at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, and he appeared on stage wearing a white T-shirt with “Trust me, I’m an architect” emblazoned on it in red.

Daniel Rauchwerger Daniel Rauchwerger

The interior piazza at the Harvard Art Museums. Photo by Peter Vanderwarker.

Renzo Piano was in an ebullient mood the evening prior to the ceremonial preview of the newly expanded Harvard Art Museums (HAM). He was to discuss the project in a conversation titled “How Did You Do It, Mr. Piano?,” held at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, and he appeared on stage wearing a white T-shirt with “Trust me, I’m an architect” emblazoned on it in red.

The exterior of the Harvard Art Museums. Photos by Peter Vanderwarker.

Mr. Piano, a Pritzker Prize laureate who just turned 77, is one of the most accomplished architects of his generation. Students and faculty members queued outside the auditorium for over an hour to hear Piano, accompanied on stage by architecture historian Kenneth Frampton and HAM director Thomas W. Lentz. “How did you do it?” Piano himself began the conversation, jokingly repeating the talk’s title. “Well, very simple. I wasn’t alone,” he answered. Architecture, he observed, is always about collaboration, and is a mixture of many professions in one. “You have to be a builder, a humanist, a poet. You have to be everything. We started this idea [of the HAM expansion] 17 years ago, and I have a tremendous number of people to thank. This project is about community, showing art, studying art, and conservation.”

Radical as he was in the beginning of his professional career, with influential projects such as the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the NEMO museum in Amsterdam, Piano and his practice (Renzo Piano Building Workshop) have become somewhat synonymous with mainstream museum architecture today — especially in the United States. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum expansion, the Kimbell Art Museum expansion, the Modern Wing expansion of the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Whitney Museum’s new building in Manhattan are just a few of the firm’s projects. Stepping into the Piano-designed central courtyard at Harvard, which functions as the circulatory heart of the museum, the architect’s style is immediately recognizable. Hundreds of intricate construction details — thin handrails, beams, tension cords, little hanging lights, even air-conditioning tunnels — come together to create an atmosphere of precision and lightness.

The interior piazza. Photos by Zak Jensen.

“I am Italian, and there is very little I can do about that,” Piano deadpanned, “and by chance, this building has an interior piazza that copies a design from Montepulciano in Italy.” With his design, Piano opened up the piazza by allowing visitors to pass all around it and added a crystal-glass roof to let in the maximum amount of daylight. “From the bottom to the top, the building becomes lighter and lighter, until it is really just light, and at night it is a lantern,” he said.

The artworks on view in the museums — comprising the Fogg Museum, the Busch-Reisinger Museum, and the Arthur M. Sackler Museum — are part of an immense collection of roughly 250,000 works owned by the university. They are shown in simply designed galleries on the first three floors. A special permanent gallery presents a series of large-scale paintings by Mark Rothko that were created specifically for Harvard, though for a different building (Holyoke Center, designed by Josep Lluis Sert and completed in 1965). These works, named “Murals” for their size, have rarely been exhibited to the public since 1970.

Above the galleries, expansive light-filled spaces are dedicated to educational purposes and conservation labs. A wood-lined, 300-seat auditorium and a smaller lecture hall are located on the building’s lower level. On the entrance level, visitors can stop in a café and a museum shop. Piano stressed the importance of a series of small, glass-walled galleries, adjacent to the main gallery spaces. These, he explained, create “rest stops in the visitor’s itinerary.” They are also the only exhibition spaces in the building where the art can be seen against a background of exterior views.

An educational space in the building. Photo by Antoinette Hocbo.

The museum’s interior is indeed elegant, cultural, and European in character, and in this respect Piano has undoubtedly delivered what he was invited here to do. The exterior architecture, however, lacks this lightness. The large, wood-clad box that Piano erected seems heavy in its context. It seems almost clumsy and unimaginative next to its famous Brutalist neighbor, the Carpenter Center for Visual Arts by Le Corbusier (1963), which connects to HAM via a continuous concrete ramp.

A view showing the ramp connecting Carpenter Center and the Harvard Art Museums. Photo by Peter Vanderwarker.

“Architecture needs time to prove itself,” Piano said of the relationship between his work and Corbusier’s — the second time Piano has the chance to build next to a modern master’s major work (counting the Kimbell by Louis Kahn). “It is a difficult game. In this case it was about the ramp, and the assurance of its continuity. Overall, the dialogue between the buildings is quite frank. Buildings, in any case, deserve time to be judged, to become part of the city, like a forest. It takes time. I think that what we’ve done is worthwhile. It makes Cambridge a nicer place to live in.”

All images courtesy Harvard Art Museums.

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