Critic's Notebook

New look rewrites museum founder’s vision for her guests

By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / January 21, 2010

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She was strong-willed, independent, and forward-thinking. We all know that. But it’s easy to forget that, by and large, Isabella Stewart Gardner had a hostile relationship with modernity.

Her extraordinary, inimitable museum was conceived in the midst of great debate about the moral and aesthetic effects of industrialization in Boston. And in this debate, Gardner and her intellectual circle were committed to preserving the past in the face of great social and political upheaval. Inspired by 19th-century Romanticism, they endowed this legacy with heightened powers - the promise of order and beauty, even healing potential.

Just as it did in her day, Gardner’s palace museum still invites us to turn our back on the driving rationalism of modern life: on standardization, on uniform lighting, on the rush to embrace the new. We are invited to enter through an exterior that is deliberately reserved and opaque, whereupon we find ourselves in the most extraordinary sanctuary - a place of mystery and medievalism, of marvels and eccentricities: a jumble of anachronisms that bizarrely combines aspects of a Venetian palazzo, an enclosed medieval garden, and a monastic cloister.

That is about to change.

Feeling the need to take pressure off Gardner’s original museum, the current caretakers of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum have opted for an extension designed by the renowned Renzo Piano Building Workshop of Genoa.

The new building’s modernist idiom of transparency and efficiency is the antithesis of Gardner’s palace museum. The disparity, said director Anne Hawley, is intentional. Paraphrasing Piano, she described the contrast between the “sacred’’ of the old building and the “profane’’ of the new one as “like yin and yang.’’

Unfortunately, I don’t buy it. Opposites are not always complementary. Often, they clash. Here the clash is as much about philosophy and principles as the buildings’ form (although the two things are finally inseparable).

Since the only public access point to the museum will be through the new building, it is bound to color the visitor’s experience in ways I don’t believe Gardner would have condoned. Instead of walking from an opaque exterior straight into an enchanted realm (prompting that sudden “Ah!’’ we all experience now), we will be forced to negotiate an open, glass-walled, sociable, and relentlessly modern space.

We will be encouraged, according to the museum’s press release, to get a “sense of a museum-at-work,’’ with “opportunities to walk through the Museum’s greenhouses, to interact with Artists-in-Residence living on site, and to observe educational classes and workshops from the lobby. The openness of the space has been conceived to encourage lounging, gathering with others, meetings, and conversation.’’

To my mind, this vision sounds like an awkward hybrid of a classroom, a café, and a club lounge at an airport. It is, at any rate, a radical rewrite of Gardner’s own very deliberate and theatrical vision for encountering her creation.

Architecture reflects the ideals (and inevitably the confusions) of its time. Today, the dominant ideals are transparency, efficiency, clarity, and maximum illumination - buzzwords that are so prevalent throughout our society (especially in the corporate and political realms) that we assume they are eternal values. They were not, however, the values to which Gardner subscribed, and the strongest evidence for this is her museum itself.

The nostalgic, anti-modern convictions of Gardner and her intellectual circle - among them Henry James, Bernard Berenson, and Charles Eliot Norton - may be antiquated, but they are surely, in this case if nowhere else, worth respecting. There is, after all, nothing else like the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, or anywhere in the world.

The current administration has quoted Gardner’s friend James, praising the museum on a placard at the front of the museum. But in the very same essay from which the quote is pulled, James laments the swift destruction of Boston’s past in the name of progress. He deplores the speed with which history “could be unmade’’ in the name of “parochial schemes of improvement’’ (he could not have foreseen the current administration’s demolition of Gardner’s Carriage House to make way for the new wing) and recoils from “the horrific glazed perpendiculars of the future.’’

Personally, I do not associate glass buildings with a dystopian future. I am a great admirer of Renzo Piano - he is one of my favorite architects - and I hope the new building proves itself less out of tune with the ideas of Mrs. Gardner than it looks in the design provided by the museum. I can see that shifting some of the functions, especially the shop and café, out of the current building is a great idea. And although I think many will miss attending musical performances in the tapestry room, I am particularly interested in the new concert hall, with its tiered, four-sided seating. I suspect it will prove to be the most celebrated feature of the new extension.

But if a new building on this scale really is required, why not at the very least keep the current entrance open, giving visitors a chance to bypass all that “museum-at-work’’ nonsense if they want to? Why not, in other words, allow for the experience Mrs. Gardner intended?

Sebastian Smee can be reached at