Visual Arts Review: Harvard Art Museums Reborn – Spectacular Art in a New Showcase

Starchitect Renzo Piano and his team did very well given their constraints. It is damn hard to build the right frame for so much abundant beauty.

Interior of Harvard Art Museums' Atrium. Photo: courtsey of the Harvard Art Museums

Interior view of the Harvard Art Museums’ Atrium. Photo: Courtesy of the Harvard Art Museums.

By Mark Favermann

The new Harvard Art Museums welcome the visitor with a marvelous sense of place and space: the building exudes institutional strength, art historical gravitas, and a powerful atmosphere of beauty and light. That said (and fully appreciated), the newly renovated and expanded Harvard Art Museums tries to put too much great art (and considerable educational resources) into what is essentially a good, rather than a great, structure.

Arguably housing the finest university art collection in the world (over 250,000 objects in all mediums), Harvard University’s Harvard Art Museums comprise three museums. The Fogg Museum was established in 1895, the Busch-Reisinger Museum in 1903, and the Arthur M. Sackler Museum in 1985. Through innovation in research, teaching, professional training, and public education, Harvard’s museums have played a leading role in the development of art history, the science of conservation, and the evolution of the art museum as an institution.

The Fogg Museum was originally housed in an Italian Renaissance style building designed by architect Richard Morris Hunt. In 1927, that building was replaced by a Georgian Revival style structure on Quincy Street designed by the firm of Coolidge, Shepley, Bullfinch and Abbott. In 2008, the Harvard Art Museums’ historic building at 32 Quincy Street in Cambridge, MA closed for major renovations and expansion. The renovated and enlarged structure integrates (with purposely little visual distinction) all three museums in a single state-of-the-art facility.

Starchitect Renzo Piano and his staff (Renzo Piano Building Workshop) designed the structure to increase gallery space by 40%, adding a stunning glass pyramidal roof as a skylighted canopy. The Boston architectural firm Payette collaborated on the project.

The new museum’s over 200,000 square feet is organized into nine very distinct areas. These include the new Prescott Street Entrance, the Calderwood Courtyard, the Art Study Center, the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, Exhibition Galleries, Lecture Halls and Seminar Rooms, the Lightbox Gallery, the Materials Lab and the Museum Shop and Café.

This is also a 21st Century very “green” project. Sustainability was a key aspect of the project. Wherever practical, the architects reused existing spaces. Nearly a 17% energy reduction was obtained by introducing new design and operations strategies as well as sustainable building materials and energy-efficient HVAC equipment. A water reduction strategy uses the building’s roof and landscaped areas to collect recyclable water in underground storage tanks. The project also made use of selected regionally and responsibly harvested materials.

An interior gallery in the Harvard Art Museums. Photo: courtesy of the Harvard Art Museums.

An interior gallery in the Harvard Art Museums. Photo: Courtesy of the Harvard Art Museums.

The encyclopedic art collection has been showcased in somewhat cramped quarters because of demands for site and architectural stylization, but it is a welcoming place.

To be fair, the brief for the architecture project was complicated. Not only did the expanded space need to display more of the museums’ great (and they are great) treasures, but it also had to incorporate extensive teaching, conservation, and storage functions.

The interior space is certainly better than the exterior. The interior gallery areas bring the art collection up to an elegant, 21st-century standard. A number of the galleries proffer curved and expandable ceilings as well as moveable walls and strategically placed windows. There is a strikingly refined difference between the old structure and the reopened galleries and passageways.

Architect Piano explained that at the core of the newly renovated Harvard Art Museums is a piazza, which acts as the communal heart of the museum, its commitment to serving as a public space. The various art gallery arcades, shop and café on the courtyard’s edges underscore this notion of a community square.

The high glass atrium brings wonderful light and a breathy airiness into the museum. This strong architectural gesture serves as a splendid unifying gesture for the museum, but it must be said that it takes up a lot of space that could have been perhaps used in other ways, such as additional exhibition areas.

Ever since Renzo Piano created the Pompidou Center (1977) in Paris with Sir Richard Rogers, his projects have used glass and steel to reveal mechanical building technology. His Harvard project has that signature guts-and-all look as well — major glass canopies, expansive courtyards and light modulating roofs, exposed vents and building mechanics.

The Genoa born Piano is the world’s master museum architect of our time. He has built a couple of dozen museums, including 14 in the U.S. Though a few are spectacular, overall his buildings are a mixed bag.

Boston’s Gardner Museum boasts a very sensitive Piano expansion of its New England Venetian palazzo; the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas is a gleaming contemporary homage to the three dimensional form; and the Art Institute of Chicago addition houses the museum’s huge contemporary sculpture and canvases in a big- shouldered manner that befits the personality of the city.

Exterior view of Harvard Art Museum from Prescott and Broadway. Photo: courtesy of the Harvard Art Museum.

Exterior view of Harvard Art Museum from Prescott and Broadway. Photo: Courtesy of the Harvard Art Museums.

On the more questionable side: Oslo’s Astrup’s Feanley Museet is awkwardly arranged so visitors have to walk outside to go from one gallery to another even in Norway’s very white winter. NYC’s Morgan Library is oddly organized so that the oversized courtyard overwhelms the old and new galleries, which makes visitor circulation rather clumsy.

Placed in this list, the Harvard Art Museums sits as a very good if not top tier Piano project. This is partly due to the planning constraints that the Pritzker prize-winning architect (1998) faced. For example, the Quincy Street entrance to the old Fogg Museum is historically landmarked and had to be maintained – these and other restrictions (size of the site, need for educational spaces, etc) presented a puzzle with no one clear answer. Add to this Harvard’s longtime reputation as a client who does not necessarily get the best out of starchitects like Piano. Perhaps this is a case of just too many chiefs having to answer to too many demands.

Finally, a few exterior criticisms of the Harvard Art Museums: the Prescott Street entrance is not inviting -it is corporate rather than cultural; the extended ramp of the neighboring Le Corbusier Carpenter Center adds little to the project; and the attempt to make exterior wood slats look like metal comes off as gratuitous.

But enough carping: Piano and his team did very well given their constraints. It is damn hard to build the right frame for so much abundant beauty.

An urban designer, Mark Favermann has been deeply involved in branding, enhancing, and making more accessible parts of cities, sports venues, and key institutions. Also an award-winning public artist, he creates functional public art as civic design. Mark created the Looks of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta, the 1999 Ryder Cup Matches in Brookline, MA, and the 2000 NCAA Final Four in Indianapolis. The designer of the renovated Coolidge Corner Theatre, he has been a design consultant to the Red Sox since 2002.


  1. Marvin Hightower on August 20, 2023 at 1:05 am

    Mr. Favermann, I have most belatedly discovered your excellent review! Judging from various photos and a Google virtual walk down the block, I share your reaction to the renovation: nice job inside, not so nice outside. (I find the Prescott St. exterior inelegant and downright ugly. It’s one giant clumsy brutalist brick, with cantilever shadows that can make the entrance look like the portal to the Caverns of Doom! Decidedly “not inviting.”)

    I wanted to offer one clarification. This project could not have done anything about the Carpenter Center ramp. As an essential part of the original Le Corbusier design, the ramp is untouchable. (It begins on Quincy St. and runs through the open-work form to Prescott St., acting like a skyway that lets passing visitors peer into studios on either side.)

    What’s more, because the Carpenter Center belongs to the Art, Film & Visual Studies Dept., the Art Museums (in the History of Art and Architecture Dept.) had no authority to change anything about this neighboring structure — and given the building’s unique historic status (Le Corbu’s only building in North America), AFVS would never have consented to mess with it, even if HAA had asked permission to do so.

    I also suspect that there might well be legal strictures against major alterations here. Josep Lluis Sert put many restrictions on his roughly contemporaneous Holyoke Center (now the Smith Campus Center), where I worked for over 35 years. Decades before that, benefactor Eleanor Widener imposed restrictions on alterations to Widener Library that took considerable architectural ingenuity to get around as recently as a few decades ago!

    Thank you again for your sensitively observed piece!

    (The author is a retired senior writer and archivist of the Harvard News Office who spent many years covering the Harvard art museums. )

  2. Mark Favermann on August 21, 2023 at 4:57 pm

    Mr. Hightower,
    Thank you for your clarification about the ramp. At the time of the building’s opening, it seemed like a piece that somehow got disconnected from the Harvard Art Museums’ renovation. You made it clear that nothing more could have been done.
    Mark Favermann

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