Isabella Stewart Gardner Expansion / Renzo Piano Building Workshop

Gardner Museum director Anne Hawley and Jim Labeck, the director of operations, look over a model of the Gardner's new wing (center). The original building (right) sits in front of it. (John Tlumacki / Boston Globe Staff)

Opening in 2012, the $118 million steel, glass, and copper-clad expansion to Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum by Renzo Piano Building Workshop will more than double the size of the current facility. Included in the project are a new entrance, music hall, gallery space, and other amenities for an institution that has remained largely unaltered since opening in 1903.

The original facility, a Venetian-style palazzo completed in 1901, will remain almost untouched as the new wing is connected to the original museum through a glass passageway. Rather than radically alter the museum experience, the design is intended to augment what is already there. Piano’s new four-story building will host visitor services, now in cramped quarters in the palace; a new 300 seat music hall, allowing the Gardner to stop holding concerts in its delicate and often overcrowded tapestry room; a triple-height gallery for temporary exhibitions; as well as new lobby space, offices, and conservation facilties. A second, smaller structure with a sloping glass roof will house a greenhouse and apartments for artists-in-residence. In total the wing will add 70,000 square feet to the museum’s current 60,000 square feet.


Forget light–I think Piano’s plan for the Gardner is all about drawing. I think that there’s something to this comment posted by Boston Globe arts writer Geoff Edgers on paper’s EXHIBITIONIST blog:

If you’ve ever been around Renzo Piano for, say, 30 seconds, you see how this guy just needs to draw. He has a pencil with him at all times and seems to need to scribble constantly. Turns out he rocked the commission old school when asked to come up with the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s new project.

The building itself is drawn, not just in its representation but in its conceptual construction. The building seems drawn from its institutional context, a remix of existing phenomenological fragments cobbled together into a something new but uncannily familiar. The relationship between the new wing and the original is like that of a drawing to that which it depicts–the translation of the reality of that which exists onto blankness and into a new world. The building makes skillful and eloquent reuse of the palazzo court’s verticality in both the soaring temporary exhibition hall and the new music hall, in which performers are placed the ground floor, ringed by three balconies just one row deep. In its materiality the expansion seeks a presence little more than ink lines on paper, its walls of glass and white copper offering containment while the space is left to define itself.

Rendering from Evans Way Park. © RENZO PIANO BUILDING WORKSHOP, 2010.
Section through the New Performance Hall and Special Exhibition Gallery.© RENZO PIANO BUILDING WORKSHOP, 2010.

This was, of course, what the client wanted. Bill Egan, a museum trustee and chair of the Gardner’s building committee, said Piano’s design needed to respect the existing building. ”The whole goal here was to make sure that we didn’t change the experience of the palace, and only enhance that,” Egan told the Globe. “I think we’re going to have one of the great small concert halls in the world, but you know what? We’re not going to have as many seats as [music director] Scott Nickrenz would have liked because the size was basically controlled by how big Renzo felt it could be as compared to the palace.” (It’s also worth noting that the new building is 11 feet shorter than the 70-foot high museum, and the all-glass first floor affords visitors clear views through the site.)

Light does play a large part in Piano’s design, but one that is secondary to the new wing’s function as an institutional auxiliary. Glass lines much of the extension’s ground floor, from the entryway and linking corridor to the sloping wall that allows passers-by to see into the greenhouse and artists studios. As Piano told the Globe: ”The sense of lightness is a fundamental element, so it doesn’t compete with the palace. The new building will be more visible, more accessible, more understandable from the outside,” he said.

Piano’s ability to transform and effectively recreate what he sees led to a reasonable approach to this project, appeasing both the client’s desire for change and for stability, but I’m not convinced that such reasonable architecture is ultimately responsible for the institution.  The political and economic situation is already radically different from when planning for the expansion began in 2004, which raises questions as to whether Piano’s model of transitive evolution is actually produces the sustainable architecture for which he is so frequently praised; or if his radicalization of the readily apparent, as a reification of the status-quo, negates the possibility of other more interesting, innovative, and durable solutions. Such questions don’t concern the design in and of itself, as it is presented in this post, but rather the social and financial impact of that design over time. Also, Piano’s design leaves a lot to be desired: the Museum still needs to raise about $40 million to pay for it. The Gardner’s current capital improvements campaign is certainly justifiable, but its timing raises questions about our ethical responsibilities as practitioners.  As architects we should be aware of our role in shaping the life of the institutions we work for beyond merely shaping the spaces they inhabit. What if the Gardner struggles to recoup construction costs or maintain their new larger facility?  Of course capital improvements help build social capital, but what is the value of a building if its construction and maintenance  are a fiscal burden? Then again, who among us has the expertise or humility to tell a well-funded institutional client that their new building might not be unnecessary…?

Architect: Renzo Piano Building Workshop in collaboration with Burt, Hill
Location: Boston,
Project Team: Emanuela Baglietto (partner in charge), Toby Stewart, Yugon Kim
Geothermal Design:  Allied Consulting Engineering Services, Inc.
Lighting Design, Security Design: ARUP
Structural and MEP Engineer: Buro Happold
Exterior Wall System Design: Front Inc.
Audio Visual Design: Harvey Marshall Berling Associates
Code Engineer: Hughes Associates, Inc.
Geotechnical Consultant: McPhail Associates, Inc.
Acoustician: Nagata Acoustics
Civil Engineer: Nitsch Engineering
Conservation Lab Consultant: Sam Anderson Architects
Cost Consultant: Stuart-Lynn Company
Graphic Design Consultant: 2×4, Inc.

Cite: Jacobson, Samuel. "Isabella Stewart Gardner Expansion / Renzo Piano Building Workshop" 08 Aug 2011. ArchDaily. Accessed 27 May 2015. <>
  • Adam

    The picture of the museum directors is so creepy. I’m a little scared to visit the museum, these two might lock me in the basement with their other “children” feeding us rice krispie treats until we’re plump enough to eat.

  • sean

    worst pre petina copper, although really excited for it to be done though. Now we will have Foster, i.m. pei and renzo all within view from the park seen in front in the renderings.

  • Pingback: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Opens New Wing Today / Renzo Piano Building Workshop « shi0ri