With the opening of the Harvard Art Museums a week ago today, Renzo Piano was able to finally complete on a project which, in various guises, has been in progress for seventeen years. The relationship between Piano and Harvard began with a 1997 plan to build a new branch of the Fogg Museum on the Charles River and ended, after objections from locals and then the 2008 recession, in the decision to consolidate the university's three museums (The Fogg, Busch-Reisinger and Arthur M Sackler Museums) under one roof.
With its long history, restricted space, the listed facade of the original Fogg Museum and the ultimate difficult neighbor in Le Corbusier's Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, the Harvard Art Museums project was inevitably going to cause a fuss on completion. So how did Piano do? Find out what the critics said after the break.
"How do you pile too much stuff on a site that’s too small and still get a great building from a famous architect? Answer: You don’t."
Writing for the Boston Globe, Robert Campbell seems largely unimpressed, although after his opening outburst above, he has the courtesy to start with the good news:
"There’s one gutsy move so strong that it pulls the whole diverse complex together. That’s the atrium, a tower of empty air that begins at the beloved courtyard of the old Fogg, rises straight up through generous openings in the upper floors, and blasts through the roof to form a cupola that looks like a glass explosion."
However as soon as he addresses the building's exterior, that generous spirit slides away. Describing the Alaskan Yellow Cedar cladding of the extension, he says that "the strips are spaced differently in different places, a detail so delicate that it looks like a construction error."
"Things don’t improve as you explore the surroundings," he adds. "A public sidewalk passes a grim sunken service yard. A pedestrian ramp... is a caricature of the elegant ramp next door at the Carpenter Center." (Theme alert: this isn't the last you'll hear of that pedestrian ramp.)
Campbell concludes that "HAM isn’t one of Piano’s triumphs. The university and its architect have created a thoughtful building that doesn’t make it to the top drawer as a work of architecture." It is however, worthy of a detailed, floor-by-floor infographic in the Boston Globe that is worth checking out.
"A radical overhaul disguised as a modest intervention"
For the Guardian, Jason Farago is much more enthusiastic about Piano's design, opening with the exact opposite opinion to Campbell:
"Harvard is one of his better projects, perhaps because he faced serious constraints."
For Farago, the key to Piano's success seems to lie in having done as little as possible, visually, to disrupt the delicate balance of Harvard's campus:
"The mixing of brick, wood and glass on the outside is unspectacular, but perhaps better for that: embellishing the Harvard campus without disrupting it, and from the entrance facing Harvard Yard you can’t even see the new glass roof."
He has just one major objection: that pedestrian ramp again. According to Farago, it is "not a good move. It diminishes Piano’s work, as if all he was providing was connective tissue, and it affronts Carpenter Center, which should have been left alone."
"Indeed he has made something better. But, for a project costing $350m, is it better enough?"
In the Financial Times, Edwin Heathcote does not subscribe to Farago's belief in light-touch intervention:
"Piano is quieter than Le Corbusier, less bombastic, but sometimes architecture demands mass and shadow, darkness as well as light. His architecture here looks flimsy, unsure of itself."
As for the conundrum of how to respond to Le Corbusier's only building in the United States, Heathcote is blunt:
"Whatever the right answer might be, this isn’t it. In townscape terms, the first glimpse of the new building on turning the corner is awful – a flimsy, paper-thin façade that looks like it is still awaiting cladding and a pulled-out window bay supported on a clunky truss."
Once inside, Heathcote is much more impressed, describing the central courtyard as "light, bright and with the solidity and complexity that the exterior fails to deliver," although he does add that "the combination of classical stone below and steel and glass above is a little reminiscent of a 19th-century railway station."
For Heathcote, the most impressive spaces are those within the rooftop glass pyramid itself, saying: "once the building rises above the constraints of its site it seems to clear its head, freeing itself up to the sky." However ultimately, "Whether Harvard – and Cambridge – might have expected more for their money is a different matter."
"Variously elusive, alluring, and insistent"
Writing for Architectural Record, James S Russell mostly praises the building, particularly considering the complexity of the brief:
"Piano managed to stuff these jigsaw pieces neatly into a design that vigilant neighbors would find acceptable in size (204,000 square feet) and style."
Far from Heathcote's railway station analogy, Russell is particularly impressed by the central courtyard, where he says we "see Piano delicately blur the line between old and new," and he also praises the building's exterior, saying that it "feints at the Carpenter Center, Le Corbusier’s 1963 visual arts building next door, but keeps a respectful distance."
His one objection? Take a wild guess:
"Unfortunately, Piano grabs the end of the iconic ramp that cuts through the Carpenter as it descends toward Prescott and ungracefully stitches it onto his wheelchair-access ramp."