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New ICA building emerges into the light

From cramped and awkward quarters in an old police station in the Back Bay, the new Institute of Contemporary Art has emerged into the light like a cave dweller into sunshine. When it opens next week, the public will see the most inventive, most interesting piece of local architecture since the Hancock Tower of a generation ago.

There are a lot of ways to describe the new ICA; that's part of its richness. One way is to talk about how it relates to its site. The site is in South Boston, at the edge of the harbor. With the possible exception of a lighthouse, there's probably never been a building more intensely involved with the sea. The ICA and the harbor enjoy the architectural equivalent of a dating relationship.

The ICA's architects, who are partners in the internationally recognized firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro of New York, play many games with the water. The museum's top floor, for example, which contains the main galleries, thrusts forward toward the harbor like a telescope. The floor hangs there without visible support, held by powerful steel trusses in the walls. The glass wall at the end is like a lens, and from there visitors can stand and look out across the water.

They will see skylines and islands, planes, lobster boats, pleasure craft, bridges, cars, and off to each side, even a few hardy pedestrians. They'll be voyeurs of the busy city.

Or take the small auditorium called the Mediatheque, which is mostly for kids and their laptops. This room slopes to frame a very different seascape. Its glass wall points downward, framing a view of nothing but waves. "It's like a screen," says Elizabeth Diller. "The mood of the water changes all the time." She thinks of the ICA as being, in part, a huge machine for collecting views of the world outside. By framing them in unexpected ways, the building makes them into art.

Diller and Ricardo Scofidio -- Charles Renfro is a more recent partner -- are a married couple who first became known for their art, not architecture. Their installations often commented ironically on pop culture. A famous one used models and photographs to investigate the many cultural meanings and myths embedded in "The American Lawn," just as they've done with the water here.

In 1999, they received the first MacArthur "genius" grant ever awarded to architects, a $375,000 windfall. The prize allowed the partners to devote more time to their architectural practice. Both are also professors of architecture, Diller at Princeton, Scofidio at Cooper Union.

When they were chosen in 2001 to design the new ICA, they had built very little. "We wanted someone who hadn't yet done a prominent building in the United States," says ICA director Jill Medvedow. "The ICA has a long tradition of supporting the work of emerging artists."

Many feared that the ICA would feel lonely and isolated on the mostly empty waterfront. That hasn't happened. The big simple shapes are bold enough to command the site. As Medvedow says, "This is a building with strong muscles and strong lines."

The architects are as good at details as they are at big ideas. Take the wood, for example. It's Santa Maria, a gray-brown hardwood from South America. Starting at water's edge as paving of the Harborwalk, the wood surface acts like a continuous wide carpet. It approaches the building, bending and stepping upward to become a kind of outdoor bleacher. It continues from there into the building, to become the floor of the ICA's 325-seat indoor theater, where films will be shown and live performances given. The wooden "carpet" then curls upward to become the rear wall of the theater, then curls again to become the ceiling, then continues outdoors as the underside of the gallery.

From outside, you can trace the path of the wood through the building as a brown folding ribbon on the facade. It works as a sort of brown wrapping paper, enclosing and defining the parts of the building that are public but are not gallery space.

The art galleries at the top of the building, by contrast, are enclosed in pale surfaces of stucco and translucent glass -- materials that speak of light. Where the lower parts of the building rise out of the ground, the galleries seem to have come down from the sun. The white interior walls are washed with light from north-pointing skylights. At night, the glass will glow, becoming a lantern floating in the air above the harbor.

The building is filled with similarly expressive ideas. The elevator, for example, is an entire room that moves from level to level, big enough to carry 50 people, with floor and ceiling like those of the rooms it opens onto.

As it rises, it offers a series of framed and varied views of the harbor through its glass wall. "It's like a sofa in front of a TV," says Diller. "The building is a visual tease, almost like porn. We wanted to distribute the view in small doses."

One aspect of that tease is missing. At the water end of the galleries is a space the ICA calls the Founders' Gallery, with that voyeur's view of harbor and city.

Originally this wall was to be made not of clear glass but of panels covered by a lenticular film, resulting in glass that is clear when looked through directly, but which gradually blurs at both sides.

The loss of this wall is the one distressing feature of the ICA. As board members and staffers came to the construction site, they were wowed by the view and insisted that the glass be clear. But what the architects had planned, brilliantly, was a way to convert the harbor view into one more work of art for the ICA collection.

Today the view is terrific, but it is virtually the same as from any high-rise boardroom in Boston. It isn't art, and the ICA could have done better.

The ICA arrives as a sort of miracle. Its birth was plagued by problems. The proposed huge Fan Pier redevelopment, of which it was originally supposed to be part, collapsed years ago. The ICA went ahead bravely and alone.

Then it was dogged by construction problems. The general contractor, Macomber Builders, fell into disarray, partly the result of a disaster last April when scaffolding on a Macomber job fell on a Boston sidewalk and killed three people.

By the time of the accident, the ICA had already asked another builder, Skanska USA Building Inc., to take over management of the project. Meanwhile, construction costs were rising faster than they had in decades. (The ICA's final construction cost is about $41 million; $37 million was the projected cost when the design was first made public.) The public opening, originally set for September, was delayed and is now scheduled for Dec. 10, though festivities for donors and art-world figures begin today. Even by the public opening, details and finishes may still be in progress. As is common with out-of-town architects, a local firm, Perry Dean Rogers Partners, has been working with the New Yorkers.

Diller Scofidio + Renfro admit they learned a lot from doing the ICA. The firm is now on a roll, though, partly thanks to this success. Other choice commissions have been streaming in. The most interesting, perhaps, is the renovation of the High Line in Manhattan, an abandoned elevated rail line that is to be turned into a 20-block-long aerial park.

The architects remember that Medvedow, way back at the beginning, told them she wanted "an important civic building." Medvedow herself recalls asking for "a civic destination, a modest-sized building with a lot of presence, a place that brought people down to the harbor."

They've more than achieved those goals.

Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell can be reached at camglobe@aol.com.

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