Fame isn’t always glory. That’s one lesson of the career of I.M. Pei, that most underrated of overexposed architects. Though best known for later baubles like the Louvre’s glass entrance pyramid, in the ‘70s and ‘80s he produced buildings of remarkable (yet all-too-often unremarked) competence and diligence. Many of these are to be found in Boston, a city whose small size, long history, and hub-of-the-universe aspirations complemented Pei’s sense of scale and proportion, his balance of deference and showbiz, and his capacity to complement old sites with new interventions. His works in that city, such as the 1974 Christian Science complex and 1971 Harbor Towers, evince monumentality without grandiosity, modernity without brutality, and the acknowledgement of historical neighbors without maudlin imitation of their forms.
The best of these is his 1981 West Wing at the city’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA): a long laconic bar along the edge of Guy Lowell’s original neoclassical edifice of 1909. With a confident economy of means—a single window, a single coppery cylindrical column, a single sly inward curve of the lower facade at the entrance, a single glass vault above an attenuated atrium—Pei brought legibility and lucidity to the experience of entering, accessing critical amenities like a cafe, coat check, and gift shop, and embarking on a drifting navigation into the inviting warren of rooms containing the museum’s pedigreed collection of Sargents and Monets.
Now that intervention is joined by a recently-opened 120,000-sqare-foot addition from Foster + Partners, which inserts galleries, administrative offices, period rooms, and 12,000 square feet of atrium into a courtyard-like inlet facing Boston’s downtown across a picturesque Olmstedian park. Unlike Pei’s work, Foster’s addition has very many parts. The new atrium fills the inside half of the inlet, and adjacent to it are four levels of galleries on a similar footprint. At the outside corners sit two cubical pavilions (which in their studied casualness of vertical glass and stone veneer striations recalls the best work of Foster’s compatriot David Chipperfield), and these flank a big glass curtain wall. The atrium has a big cantilevered staircase, and big peripheral columns between glazing. A cafe with dainty grayish counter-cubicles sends the reassuring scent of espresso and mayonnaise up through the atrium’s 63-foot height.
As usual with a Foster + Partners production, the details are flawless, from the firm’s signature washroom sinks through the pleasantly panelled-and-channeled metal cladding of auxiliary spaces, to the comfortingly compulsive alignments of everything from switch-plates to air vents. And also as usual, it’s almost certain that this building prevented a worse one from happening in its place: one in which a more self-fascinated designer might have attended more to formal polemic than to Foster + Partners’ sensitivity about architectural fundamentals like daylight, circulation, and distribution of program.
And yet here, some of that characteristic sensitivity seems wanting. The many gallery rooms are underscaled, requiring artworks to be arranged with visible intelligence but palpable determination. The freestanding walls are literally baffling, constricting circulation to the edges of key thresholds; the thickness of the two middle walls of the gallery block’s tripartite plan (while useful for HVAC) prevents otherwise useful oblique views between rooms. The landings on that big staircase are strikingly shallow, with merely six feet or so between railings and a glass wall where one would expect an entrance, requiring a fussy little turn where a grand glide is desired. The top of the atrium (unlike that balletic swoop with which Foster + Partners spanned the British Museum courtyard) is a heavy-looking suspension of milky glass rectangles that presumably attain the usual environmental efficiency, but without Foster’s customary élan. In short, not much mediates between airport-scale and human-scale. Being in that atrium, closely hemmed in by adjoining courtyard walls under a not-uncommon grayish Boston sky, is a surprisingly cramped experience for a space of such dimensions. Pei, with his glass-vaulted promenade in the West Wing, did more with less.
Chuck Choi (Left) and Foster + Partners (Center, right)
Indeed, the entire East-West cross-section of the new addition could usefully be flipped: the glassy East facade would then illuminate atrium and cafe, not narrow stone corridors and two tiny auxiliary galleries. And the best visual connection with skyline and landscape would be with the social and circulatory heart of this part of the museum rather than, as now seems to be the case, with staff offices. The feints at contextual classicism—the quasi-stringcourse that runs along the base of those corner pavilions, and the tectonic misdirections where what appear to be Miesian I-beams (apparently themselves mere millimeters thick) suspend stretches of glass and stone veneer—would discourage Foster’s teachers Paul Rudolph and Buckminster Fuller.
What makes Foster + Partners an essential institution in world architecture is their neo-modern seriousness, both technological and rhetorical, about architecture as a form of environmental and cultural problem-solving. This powerfully counterbalances a contemporary tendency towards trivial formalism and material excess, especially in large-scale cultural buildings of this type. Their work at the MFA, while no doubt effectively addressing some dilemmas particular to this museum, falls short of that mission. While Boston is famous for its red-brick Georgian gingerbread, it’s also a city graced by the modern diligence of Gropius, Sert, Rudolph, and indeed Pei. It deserves something still more glorious.