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Hub’s Museum of Fine Arts Readies for $425M Expansion

Wed May 08, 2002 - Northeast Edition
Kip Fry

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has long been known as the home of some of the world’s great masterpieces of art. Works by Van Gogh, Picasso, Rembrandt and Homer are regularly exhibited there.

But just as the paintings hanging on its walls are greatly admired, so is the building in which they are seen. Names known throughout the architectural world, such as I.M. Pei, Guy Lowell and Frederick Law Olmstead are connected with the buildings. Each one has played a major role in the museum’s many transitions, making it as much of a masterpiece as the artwork inside. Now it is time for the building to go through another change.

The museum, known as the MFA, announced in February its plans to expand facilities by 27 percent. Once work is completed on the project, it will have a total of 677,000 sq. ft. (60,930 sq m) of room in which to display its artwork. It is the 12th major renovation project for the MFA since lt opened in 1876.

Just as the museum has turned to masters in the past, it will utilize the architectural services of Foster and Partners of London. The firm, under the tutelage of Lord Norman Foster, has worked on such other impressive projects as the new international airport in Hong Kong — currently the largest construction project in the world — and the Great Court at the British Museum in London. Its fame comes from its sensitive incorporation of modern architectural elements working within the strictures of important historic buildings.

The master site plan for the museum has been called “stunning and innovative” by Malcolm Rogers, Ann Gund and Graham Gund, director of the MFA, because it will transform how visitors interact with the art. Access to the museum will be improved from all directions, especially the north, south and east, because I. M. Pei’s design primarily utilized the western entrance.

The architects quickly realized that what the museum really needed was a more efficient use of its space. For one thing, they studied the 1907 master plan and discovered how visitors have moved around the museum in the years since.

The changes are especially important, Rogers continues, to enhance the museum’s connection with the Boston community. With the current design, visitors don’t always realize how many different parts of the museum there are. The proposed changes will make the entire building more accessible to the public.

“The designs embody an architectural statement that is not only intensely beautiful, but also innovative and precisely functional,” Rogers said. “The architects have responded magnificently to the needs of the museum.”

Phase I of the plan includes the reinstatement of a strong central axis in the middle of the museum and the construction of a glass and steel “jewel box.” This section will link the Richard and Helen Fraser Garden Court to the new three-story East Wing, a central building being added within the “jewel box.” The box will not be completed within the timeframe of the first phase of construction (concluding in 2007), but it will actually stretch into Phase II, along with the completion of the east-west access. Museum officials estimate that the entire project will require 15 years to finish.

There also will be a 150-seat state-of-the-art film theater, a new restaurant, a refurbished gallery featuring European art, and enhanced and enlarged conservation and research studios. The American art collection will receive a 50 percent increase of gallery space, while contemporary art will have 40 percent more space. Educational facilities will increase by as much as 80 percent.

Foster also is enthusiastic about the project, saying that the different elements “will delicately unite courtyards and galleries both old and new improving orientation for visitors and strengthening the museum’s ties to its surrounding communities through an open and transparent structure.”

His firm was an appropriate choice for the MFA job. For the 35 years it has been in operation, the firm has received more than 260 awards and won 55 different competitions around the globe. Foster was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1990 and appointed to the Order of Merit by her in 1997. The jury chairman for the 1999 Pritzker Prize, J. Carter Brown, stated that Foster was “rooted in the grand tradition of 20th century modernism.” Because of that, he “transcends categorization. At whatever scale, from a glass elevator to an airport, his vision forges the materials of our age into a crystalline, lyrical purity that is highly personal, brilliantly functional and — shy as we are about using the word — just downright beautiful.”

The MFA has gone through many different looks over the years, so this master plan will simply continue this tradition. In the 1870s, John Sturgis and Charles Brigham created the original red brick and terra cotta Copley Square building in the Gothic revival style. It wasn’t long before additions were needed — 1879 and 1890 — and soon an entirely new building was required to house the rapidly growing collection.

The museum, designed by Guy Lowell, was moved to Huntington Avenue in Boston in 1909 and featured a 500-ft. facade of cut granite. Lowell also was asked to create a master plan that allowed the museum to expand in sequences so funding could be obtained as it was needed. Further expansions were needed several times throughout the 1920s. I.M. Pei was commissioned to design the West Wing, which opened in July 1981 and provided much needed gallery space for special exhibitions. In doing so, he utilized his modernist design aesthetic with an emphasis on natural light.

The master site plan includes a total price tag of $425 million, with $385 million earmarked for building and endowment. The remaining money will be used for annual operations. The museum is currently in a “quiet phase” of fundraising for the project, dealing primarily with the museum family and other patrons.

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