Visual Arts Commentary: The ICA — The Limits of Being an Icon

The nagging question: why didn’t the ICA create a building that offered options to be developed vertically?

Institute of Contemporary Art in the Seaport District, Photo: ICA/Boston

Institute of Contemporary Art in the Seaport District. Photo: ICA/Boston.

By Mark Favermann

The desire of architects who design museums is to create buildings that function as pieces of sculpture. Architecture as art. At their creative best, they hope to design icons, drawing on an alchemy that creates gold from steel, glass, and other contemporary building materials.

A building or structure can be considered an icon when its image becomes larger than its physical self. It is easy to conjure up in our mind’s eye the White House, the Eiffel Tower, and the Golden Gate Bridge. All are architectural icons and they are usually embraced or vilified by the public. Reactions are rarely neutral.

Architect Frank Gehry created an instant icon with his 1997 Bilboa Guggenheim Museum. This was a visual counterpoint to Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic 1959 original Guggenhiem Museum on New York’s 5th Avenue. These, like all iconic structures, go beyond function and location; they exhibit a metaphorical presence, a sense of place that makes a visually optimistic and symbolic statement that’s full of magical meaning and wonder.

Frank Gehry’s success encouraged other prominent designers to attempt to create their own instantly iconic structures. Somehow, with Bilbao, Gehry made it look easy. The truth is that few other architects are as gifted or as successful. So many attempts at creating iconic buildings have not been pulled off with the same results or the same brilliance.

The late Bauhaus architect Marcel Breuer designed the museum building for the Whitney Museum of American Art. Though iconic, the completed 1966 design created severe problems for the future expansion of the museum.

Outgrowing its exhibition and storage space, the Whitney Museum of American Art has hatched on-again, off-again expansion plans over the past three decades or so. Perhaps the worst proposal was the first one, a 1985 design by Michael Graves. This concept literally wrapped the existing building in a collage of the architect’s Post-Modern pseudoclassical references. The visual language would have essentially obscured Breuer’s original work. Almost fifteen years later, a structurally aggressive proposal from architect Rem Koolhaas was rejected because of post-9/11 economic uncertainties and the design’s overwhelming inappropriateness for the site.

Though more conservative, the third proposal, from Renzo Piano, of an adjacent skyscraper seemed to the neighborhood too large and non-contextural. It turns out that none of the proposed designs seemed to work functionally or visually. This is because the Whitney Museum of American Art is an iconic building and Breuer’s visual language was non-expansive and non-adaptable. Three prominent architects’ proposals could not get it right.

The Whitney Museum of American Art gave up on building expansion and built a new museum (2015) by Renzo Piano downtown in NYC’s Meatpacking District adjacent to the High Line. The old Whitney (Met Breuer) now houses the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new 20th and 21st century galleries.

Like Breuer’s Whitney, Diller Scofidio+Renfro’s Institute of Contemporary Art building in Boston (2006) is similarly self-contained, a whole unto itself. The cantilevered museum is a sculptured form sitting on the edge of the harbor. Unfortunately, the structure turns its back on the City of Boston. Recently, taller, more massive structures have grown up around the ICA building, obscuring it even further. There is no room around it, or potentially connective space, that can be used to enlarge the museum. Expansion to the ICA can only occur with additional or satellite building.

When the ICA’s “new” building first opened — well before the proliferation of smart phones — I wrote in a 2006 piece for the online site Berkshirefinearts:

The performance spaces both inside the theater and outside on the harbor will attract many old and new ICA visitors. Contemporary performance venues are few and far between in Boston. This will be a major niche for the ICA. But will the visual art shown be viewed by the public as meaningful or relevant as digital and more techno art develop?

It took over a decade, but the Institute of Contemporary Art now agrees with my early assessment. Recently, the ICA has announced that it is planning a major expansion across the harbor in East Boston. Filled with immersive, large scale artworks and free to the public, the new facility will be located in a former long unoccupied 1920s copper pipe factory at the Boston Harbor Shipyard and Marina. Visitors will use a water taxi to get from the ICA to the new satellite location. It will be called the Watershed.

The ICA has signed a letter of understanding to take over the old copper pipe shop, and is working out the details of a five-year lease with the landlord. The new facility is a central component of the ICA’s recently completed five-year strategic plan.

Boston Harbor Shipyard & Marina

ICA Director Jill Medvedow estimates that the renovation and programming costs for the initial five-year term will cost roughly $10 million, which she said the museum can raise without launching a formal capital campaign. The new space is projected to open in summer 2018.

In the current ICA building’s 65,000 square feet, there are only 17,000 square feet dedicated to exhibition space. The Watershed will almost double this amount, adding 15,000 renovated square feet, though only seasonally. Initially, access will be limited to warmer months. According to the ICA, the Watershed will have a raw, industrial yet flexible space for large-scale site-specific projects. The architectural firm of Anmahian Winton Architects (AW) has been hired to renovate the facility. The building will provide space for exhibitions, programming, and workshops along with an orientation gallery.

Hopefully, all will work out well. In 2015, with similar fanfare, the ICA entered negotiations to take up a couple of floors in the high rise that was being constructed next to it. This was planned to be a 17-story adjacent tower developed by the Fallon Co. There was even talk of a sky bridge over to it from the ICA. The expansion would have increased the museum’s exhibition space by 19,000 square feet. It was to cost $10 to $12 million. But, apparently, the deal fell through.

The nagging question: why didn’t the ICA create a building that offered options that could be developed vertically? Instead of building satellite facilities, the ICA could have viewed its iconic, 11 year old building as phase one for later expansion.

An urban designer, Mark Favermann has been deeply involved in community 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. Mark writes on architecture, design, and the fine arts.

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