Designed by architect Renzo Piano and opened last November, the renovated and expanded Harvard Art Museums in Cambridge, Massachusetts, unites the university’s three art-collecting institutions — the Fogg Museum, focusing on European and American art; the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, featuring Asian, Near Eastern, and ancient holding; and the Busch-Reisinger Museum, which focuses on Central and Northern European work — under one roof for the first time.
From the outside, the new facility appears to be no more than a yellow-cedar-clad addition to the venerable Fogg, a 1927 Georgian-revival building, the landmarked redbrick façade of which remains unchanged. But the interior of the old structure was almost completely gutted and now blends seamlessly with the new wing to create 204,000-square-feet of gallery, conservation, research, study, and teaching space that, together with a gift shop, café, and 300-seat basement theatre, spreads over six levels.
The Pritzker Prize-winning Piano has worked on dozens of art museums around the globe — 13 in the US alone, including the Menil Collection in Houston, the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, and the Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago. In Cambridge, he has retained one of the Fogg building’s most distinctive internal features: the central Calderwood Courtyard, a two-story travertine-colonnaded piazza modelled after a 15th-century façade in Montepulciano, Italy. But the architect removed the old courtyard roof so the space now soars the full height of the building. A new, very elaborate glass-and-steel roofing system allows controlled natural light to stream down into the atrium, illuminating the glass-walled conservation facilities, study centers, and exhibition galleries that line its upper storeys.
With approximately 43,000 square feet of gallery space — 40 per cent more than previously — Harvard is now able to display much more of its 250,000-piece collection. The design and installation of the new galleries, which occupy most of the first three floors, was assigned to wHY, a young interdisciplinary design studio with offices in New York City, Los Angeles, and Louisville, Kentucky, that specialises in planning and designing cultural institutions.
Before forming wHY in 2004, its Bangkok-born founder and creative director, Kulapat Yantrasast, worked for Japanese architect Tadao Ando, where he was closely involved with a number of international art gallery projects, including the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in Texas. Within a month of opening shop, wHY received its first major commission — a $70-million building for the Grand Rapids Art Museum, in Michigan — which inaugurated a continuous stream of art world assignments, among them the reinstallation of several older galleries at the Chicago Art Institute, though not Piano’s Modern Wing.
‘The Harvard commission was unique in that first and foremost, it’s a teaching museum,’ says Yantrasast. ‘While they certainly want to attract and accommodate the general public and other visitors, the main focus is to serve the students and faculty as well as possible.’ This meant designing galleries that can function as impromptu classrooms. ‘We created spaces that allow a professor and 15 or so students to gather round an artwork or object, to really look at it and have an in-depth discussion about it,’ the designer continues.
‘In Chicago and other big-city museums, you’re dealing with a large number and variety of visitors. You generally want them to get an immediate panoramic sense of a collection, so it’s displayed in a way that gives them ready visual access while they move through it freely. At Harvard, there’s an emphasis on making strong connections with individual works, so when possible we display objects in the round where they can be seen up close and studied from multiple angles.’
In the galleries, wHY employs a simple and elegant design language to create a unified art viewing experience that places total emphasis on the objects themselves. The lighting and placement of works are carefully judged ‘to minimise the artificial construction of context or narratives that may distract from art observation,’ Yantrasast explains. The only architectural flourish is the shallow barrel-vault ceilings Piano designed for the galleries in the new wing, a subtle reference to the courtyard’s arched colonnades. In fact, those barrel vaults are the sole internal sign that you’re in a gallery in the addition and not in the old building.
The custom wall and floor vitrines used throughout are equally subtle and restrained. ‘We developed the casework in association with Goppion, an Italian manufacturer we’d collaborated with previously on the reinstallation of the Jaharis Galleries of Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Art in Chicago,’ Yantrasast says. ‘It’s a highly flexible modular system that’s uniform in appearance while allowing each work to be presented in an optimal way.’
The caseworks’ modularity — which, along with integrated light fixtures, drawers, shelves, magnifying-glass systems, and the possibility of adding interactive media, incorporates ‘conservation compartments’ for regulating humidity and air purity —assures their contents are not only seen in the best light from the best angle, but also stored in an ideal environment. The ability to create vitrine-specific microclimates is of particular importance to the Harvard collections, which does not display its numerous works on paper in separate galleries, but integrates them with its sculptures, paintings, ceramics, decorative objects, and other less environmentally sensitive holdings.
wHY worked closely with Harvard Museums’ curators, art handlers, senior administrators, and faculty members throughout the design process. The Sackler’s extraordinary Asian art holdings, formerly housed in a 1985 building by the British architect James Stirling, were the first of the Harvard’s three collections to be installed in its new home. ‘It served as a ‘test kitchen’ in which to explore installation ideas for the rest of the museum,’ says Yantrasast.
Getting the gallery lighting right was a particularly painstaking process. Because the atrium introduces a lot of changing natural light into many of the spaces, it became a question of creating a sense of balance and continuity through the day and into the night. ‘We collaborated with Arup, the building’s lighting designer, to ensure that while the level of illumination was always adequate, it wasn’t the same everywhere, which creates fatigue.’ Once the recipe for varying the lighting was perfected, it could be adapted for the installation of the other collections. Like every aspect of wHY’s thoughtful design, it was carefully calibrated not to draw attention away from the art.