Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Evening view of Special Exhibition Gallery at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
Nic Lehoux

Quirk is not Modern. And idiosyncrasy is not now a value concomitant with strong character the same way that it was in 1903 when Isabella Stewart Gardner threw open her house museum on New Year’s Eve inviting all Boston to come enjoy some champagne, donuts, and 30 centuries of art masterworks.

Take that individual verve buffed by a century of visitors accumulating fond memories of music recitals in the medieval-ly Tapestry Hall, annual Spring pilgrimages to see nasturtiums blooming in the Venetian courtyard, and tea sandwiches served within intimate reach of John Singer Sargent’s combustible El Jaleo flamenco dancer. Again, take that intimate engagement with a space as idiosyncratic as they come, and you have a near impossible architectural challenge when it comes time for an expansion.

The Evans Way Park lobby entrance to the new Gardner Museum wing (left) and the interior of the Special Exhibition Gallery (center, right).

It was a difficult task even for the suave design-making and ingeniously accommodating talents of Renzo Piano, who was charged with providing rooms for all the popular programs but none of the actual art works for which the museum is famous. Working closely with long-time director Anne Hawley—loaded with personality herself—Piano had to redefine the museum’s accessibility mandate for the age of mass culture consumption.

The result is heart-breaking, not due to any fault in the architecture which is scaled to perfection, replete with interesting details, and spatially rich. The fault is in us—our demands for elevators, signage, audiotape tours, coat lockers—rather than personal engagement with art. Civic space today looks like it was made to be hosed-down; it is devoid of the inimitable.

The new central grand staircase with textured walls of green copper.

Piano clearly understood what he was up against and strove to turn it to advantage. Instead of the ephemeral, he provided geometry; in place of the mysteriously opaque, he introduced uplifting transparency. Piano succeeded in reinventing the Gardner for today’s museum-seekers. And wherever possible, he does orchestrate experiences.

There’s the glass entrance pavilion that extends into a frond-filled greenhouse so that arriving employees can smell the flowers; the lobby halls are lined with bookshelves, loaded with actual books. There is the so-called Living Room—with no precedent I can think of—with couches and floor lamps, love seats, and birdcages, with actual tweeting birds. Propped on an easel, there is a poster-sized interactive iPad providing the museum’s and Isabella Gardner’s history. Tea will be served in the afternoon. Cozy library in spirit, the Living Room is encased in glass—and like almost all the spaces in the new $114 million addition—casts all its views back across the yard to the old palace, which Piano notes was really just a warehouse. The striving to be quirky extends even into the bathroom where a flower pattern etched in glass on the wall is based on an electronic flower arrangement Director Hawley composed and sent around on a bad day during construction.

The new restaurant called Café G (left) and The visitor-orientation space called the Living Room with custom bookshelves (right).

A café, gift shop, impressive education rooms and a very wide hall fill out the rest of the ground floor. The real experiences are upstairs, reached by a splendidly ostentatious cable-hung glass and steel double staircase.  Two 36-foot cubes clad in speed-greened copper float atop the glassy ground-floor podium. One is a recital hall for 300 and does, in fact, achieve real personality thanks to its three extreme vertical tiers of one-deep seats on all four sides of the cube. The competition between listening to players performing dead center below and eyeballing audience members directly across the way will be intense. The other cube is for exhibiting, presumably not swallowing, art, but the former may prove difficult. The 36-foot proportion makes an enormous distraction out of the floor-to-ceiling glass wall. The art currently on display and commissioned for the space, Tapestry (Radio On) by former artist-in-residence Victoria Morton couldn’t hold a candle to the view of the back of the palace silhouetted against the northern sky. The scrim ceiling can be lowered, and that may help refocus attention. On occasion, some of the masterpieces from the collection will be cycled in for display although most have probably never before been seen in blasts of so much daylight.

Exterior view of the Evans Way Park entrance (left), looking through the grand staircase toward a wall of shelves (center), and a stage view of Calderwood Hall (right).

I feel unequipped to comment on probably the most important feature of the addition—the connector. Those who know the Gardner recall the extraordinary experience of arriving in a small, dark, and compressed anteroom at the front of museum and the enchantment of then stepping into the expansive courtyard, a moment referred to as the “explosion.” People have very strong feelings about that particular experience, even though the actual entrance was moved around a lot over the years. I never felt the “explosion” and so walked along the 50-foot glass corridor joining new addition to old with virgin eyes. And I liked it, especially looking upward to see the sky like a pond rimmed by the copper addition at one end and the palace’s balconies at the other. The “umbilical cord” as Piano calls it ushers into a dark brick space seamlessly akin to the cloister and then, boom, the steamy Italianate courtyard with its potted palms dappling coy marble nudes and other lushnesses.

Those 50 feet of separation work wonderfully well at demarcating the divide between the efficiency-minded culture venue that is a 21st century museum today to yesterday’s randomly-arranged, laxly organized, and poorly-lit but entirely magical wonder rooms of old.