By James Foritano
BOSTON-The press day for the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s was a whirl of personalities, expectation, art, architecture and commercialism.
For me, the star personality was the Pritzker Prize winning architect Renzo Piano. He charmed everyone with his eloquence and humility as he stood in the middle of the new, sleek music hall and thanked all the people who contributed to its final design from the acoustics expert to the director of musical programming, to the board.
The music hall is a cube with the same dimensions of height, width and length, which, along with the single row seating, gives it a very democratic feel: no matter where you sit, you won’t be looking over anyone’s shoulder to see the musicians or squinting over distances.
It was all very intimate, although spare of ornament. Additionally, and not incidentally, this new hall frees Isabella Gardner’s Tapestry Room not to have to double as a concert venue. Without all those folding chairs it will look once again as she envisioned it and lived in it: a room of baronial dimensions, where the tapestries will shine unimpeded in their very own space. Maybe an intimate dinner party, now and then, but no folding chairs — ever.
Renzo Piano’s new wing seems to be designed very much with the same attitude as Renzo himself. It steps aside from the spotlight and accommodates Isabella’s palazzo in so many ways.
The new contemporary gallery stretches, at the height of its moveable ceiling, to a majestic 36 feet, with a north-facing window of the same height. Light floods in to enliven the most nuanced art, while the outlook is all antique Venetian grandeur. A perfect balance, since conservative ‘old Bostonians’ can turn their backs on the contemporary, or, at least, take a breather, while we ‘moderns’ can dance with the generously lighted sounds and materials and colors of our inimitable twenty-first century.
Victoria Morton is the first artist to exhibit in this space, and with her mixed media installation of sculpture and sound and richly layered oil paintings she seems to be using all of it.
The new wing will expand educational facilities for the community, as well as conservation and restoration spaces. An adjoining greenhouse will enable the Gardner’s famed courtyard to be freshened by new plants and flowers yet more speedily than trotting them in from the Brookline facility.
And, last, but not certainly not least, the new gift shop and restaurant will invite you, suffused with art and music, to open your wallet and contribute. Your contribution, whether just admission or the whole works, will be lightened by knowing that the energy efficiency of the new wing is such that the Gardner is aiming for an LEED Gold certificate from the U.S. government, the very highest award. So, while you spend, you also save — in a manner of speaking.
As a postscript and personal note to the above, I’d like to add that although I appreciate, very much, the new wing’s multiple accommodations to the main attraction, Isabella’s grand palazzo, I also wish it was a bit less self-effacing.
Several times, as I turned a corner on the main staircase or on a connecting corridor, press kit in hand, the building seemed to disappear altogether. This was disconcerting if there was no grand view or even a scattering of noisily approaching art lovers or paparazzi; it tended to seem momentarily like a dream, you know the kind — where one floats up heights, walks through walls as if they weren’t there. They are there, of course, so stay grounded. Us the doorways, even if it seems shorter to just go through a wall.
And another thing: Where was the grand façade to this wing? If I’d spent all this money and time, I’d want, at least, a few columns, or one centrally located Palladian window. If they were there, I missed them.
Or maybe I looked right through them.
And yet Renzo Piano’s smile does float above and through all this minimalist modernism, stepping aside, moving graciously with Isabella Stewart Gardner’s grand presence.
(The renovated Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 280 The Fenway, Boston, is now open. Call (617) 566-1401.)