MFA 1, Gardner 0

Recent highlights from the Ideas blog

By Christopher Shea
July 11, 2010

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Charles Birnbaum, president of the Washington-based Cultural Landscape Foundation, recently weighed in on two Boston museum expansions--those of the MFA and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The two projects, he argues, reflect diametrically opposing approaches to preserving a building’s historic relationship with its surroundings.

The MFA gets a thumbs up, while the stewards of the Gardner museum earn a raspberry, the basis of comparison being how the respective plans treat the museums’ relationship to the Back Bay Fens, part of Frederick Law Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace--”the first urban greenway in the world and...a potential World Heritage site, according to many landscape historians.”

The MFA understandably closed its Fenway entrance in the 1970s, because the park had fallen into disrepair. But it reopened the entrance two years ago, as part of the expansion (orchestrated by the firm Foster + Partners). Birnbaum applauds this decision, and the reasoning of the MFA’s director, Malcolm Rogers, who has said he wants to ”make the museum part of the park.”

Contrast that approach to that of Renzo Piano, the architect in charge of the Gardner expansion. Isabella Stewart Gardner herself had a close connection to Olmsted--she consulted with him when she was building her Brookline estate, and she chose a site adjoining his Back Bay Fens for the villa that would become the museum. (She named it Fenway Court.) Yet Piano has reoriented the museum away from the park, closing the Fens-side entrance (except for special events).

Whatever the aesthetic merits of Piano’s addition, Birnbaum concludes that its disregard of the neighboring park is myopic. ”Let’s see every student of architecture, planning, landscape architecture, historic preservation, and museum management high tail it to the Back Bay to compare and contrast and judge for themselves,” Birnbaum writes.

Nothing says romance like a kiss from a thirsty gerbil
Organizers of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest ask participants to devise the worst imaginable first line of a novel. (The contest’s namesake, Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, opened his 1830 novel ”Paul Clifford” with the much-cited ”It was a dark and stormy night.”)

Last week it was announced that Molly Ringle of Seattle won with the following gem: ”For the first month of Ricardo and Felicity’s affair, they greeted one another at every stolen rendezvous with a kiss--a lengthy, ravenous kiss, Ricardo lapping and sucking at Felicity’s mouth as if she were a giant cage-mounted water bottle and he were the world’s thirstiest gerbil.”

The contest’s organizers offer prizes in a number of sub-categories, including adventure, detective lit, children’s lit, historical fiction, and romance. The winner in the adventure category, Adam McDonough of Reedsburgh, Wis., deserves a special nod for walking the fine line between the egregious and the plausible. You can imagine cracking open an actual thriller and coming across this: ”The blazing equatorial sun beat down on Simon’s head and shoulders as he dug feverishly in the hot sand with the ivory shoe-horn his mother had given him before the homecoming game with Taft, when the field was so wet that he’d lost his low-tops seven times in the cold sucking mud.”

Take the college motto quiz
Match the Latin motto with its institution of learning:

1. Vox clamantis in deserto. (”A voice of one crying out in the wilderness.”)

2. Veritas vos liberabit. (”Truth will free you.”)

3. Tyrannis seditio, obsequium deo. (”Resistance to tyrants, obedience to God.”)

4. Civium in moribu rei publicae salus. (”The welfare of the state depends upon the character of its citizens.”)

5. Mihi cura futuri. (”My anxiety/concern is for the future.”)

a. Hunter College

b. Johns Hopkins University

c. The University of Florida

d. [Glenn] Beck University

e. Dartmouth College

[Answers: 1 e, 2 b, 3 d, 4 c, 5 a]

Christopher Shea is a weekly columnist for Ideas. He can be reached at