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Boston's ICA | icon 044 | February 2007

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words Bill Millard

This signature waterfront building is Boston’s first new museum in a century.

The expansion of the Institute of Contemporary Art cantilevers out to the water, creating a powerful symbol for the modernity-phobic seaport city.

Diller Scofidio + Renfro winning the commission was somewhat of a coup for the New York-based practice. As a multimedia studio and a contributor to diverse projects (dance collaborations, the Seagram Building’s Brasserie, a pachinko-parlour installation and internet art projects), DS+R has exhibited worldwide and garnered prizes in a remarkable range of fields, yet its realised buildings to date are few. Its best known structure, the Blur Building in Switzerland, stood for only six months and, arguably, was barely there at all. The fog-spewing frame above Lake Neuchâtel may have been as close as architecture can come to a formless, self-erasing anti-artifact. How would the hypercerebral winners of the MacArthur “genius” award, and manipulators of mist, electrons and abstractions, handle the realities of nuts, bolts, wind stresses and building codes?

Negative opinions of innovative architecture and major engineering projects can be particularly loud in Boston, where the history of modern construction is best described as colourful. Locals recall the John Hancock Tower (IM Pei and Henry N Cobb, 1976) raining glass on Copley Square, or the “Big Dig” tunnel project (1991-2006) that ran billions of dollars over budget and involved rampant corner-cutting on materials, widespread leaks, criminal proceedings and death by ceiling collapse. The ICA’s construction delays have been far milder, but a large-scale development plan for its neighbourhood, the 20.5-acre Fan Pier on the South Boston waterfront, has repeatedly stalled, leaving the ICA to soldier on ahead of the proposed hotel, residential and office complex. As the ICA opens, its neighbours are a single restaurant (the legendary Anthony’s Pier 4) and a vast parking lot.

The ICA’s expansion occurs at “a moment when Boston is turning back to the harbour,” says chief curator Nicholas Baume, and it took more than a leap of faith to designate DS+R as the brain trust for such a key project. This institution, founded in 1936 as Boston’s equivalent to MoMA, long outgrew its old site, a converted police station near the Back Bay’s overbearing Prudential Center super-block. In a city of fairly staid museums, the ICA has energetically tended the avant-garden, particularly in new media, but its old building never had room for a permanent collection. Its new facility makes that critical step possible, triples exhibition capacity to 1,500sq m and makes Fan Pier a prominent visitor destination. That’s a lot to ask of a firm with no experience on this scale, but if the ICA building is DS+R’s qualifying exam, it has passed with honours. By thinking through the institution’s public and private functions, DS+R has produced a well-balanced building that can stand up to the demanding responsibilities the city is asking it to shoulder.

Elizabeth Diller, addressing a media briefing, described the basic strategy: “to design the public spaces from the ground up ... and the more contemplative spaces for viewing art from the sky down.” DS+R avoided materials and forms traditionally associated with Boston architecture (red brick, stone, anything even hinting at the Beaux-Arts) while taking Boston itself, in its hardnosed working-class aspect, as the relevant context. Muscular industrial details, all polished concrete flooring, hardwood planks and clear glass, come first, before one ascends to the exhibitions. The ICA’s cantilevered gallery spaces, with the exception of the Mediatheque, are circumspect, content to let the curatorial choices do the talking. Its main attention-getting features are its external profile, atrium, theatre and outdoor decks with grandstand, all united by a wide extended ribbon of grey-brown Santa Maria mahogany.

The daring 24m cantilever shelters an external platform comprising a segment of the city’s 43-mile Harbourwalk. With the west face laying the building’s internal structure bare to the view from downtown, the transparent northwest corner of the 325-seat theatre, and the 72-person-capacity elevator similarly transparent right down to its lift mechanism, the ICA is a remarkably open building. Its dematerialising manoeuvres are more intricate and more functional, in serious ways, than the Blur Building’s; its variations on the theme of insides on the outside and vice versa entice the general public into the building and carry an implicit critique of everything a random Bostonian might find exclusionary or offputting about contemporary art.

Having worked in so many gallery and museum contexts themselves, the DS+R principals have a keen appreciation of artists’ and viewers’ needs. “We’ve been on the other side of the wall most of our careers,” Diller says, “the artist side or the performer side. The opportunity to actually make the wall” was a welcome challenge. The result is “a building that looks at looking – the primary activity of a museum,” she says. Transparencies and exposed surfaces heighten the visitor’s awareness of the various structures that make art viewing possible (such as the definition of distinct spaces, glazing and lighting). One strategy is to enclose and unite public segments with the multifunctional wooden ribbon that extends from the boardwalk up through the outdoor stepped seating and into the building. The ribbon provides the indoor theatre’s stage, seating and ceiling, becoming the sturdy supporting plane of the cantilevered gallery level. Through this device, the ICA shares common DNA with a design that Charles Renfro wistfully says is now “relegated to a pretty well-stocked archive of unrealised projects” – the Eyebeam Museum of Art and Technology in New York. Another distinctive touch is to fill the galleries with gently diffused natural light through industrial-style sawtooth rooftop skylights and a gridded ceiling scrim, using blackout shades where projected or video-based works require darkness. Renfro compares the gallery space to “a warehouse in a dress”.

The column-free, five-metre-high galleries give curators flexible options. A structural wall separates east and west sections, letting one exhibition be mounted while another remains open; other internal walls are movable. Translucent side walls and the clear-plate glass of the north-end Founders’ Gallery give the upper segment, when internally lit at night, a profile resembling a mammoth lightbox.

Viewed from either inside or out, the ICA is at its best after dark; the really enviable nocturnal vista is from the theatre stage downstairs, where performers get a direct view of the city lights reflecting across the harbour. One ingenious detail was vetoed by the client: the Founders’ Gallery window was originally to bear a lenticular film of microscopic vertical lenses allowing roughly perpendicular viewing angles, but before this feature was installed, the conventional panoramic harbour view so impressed ICA officials that they insisted the window stay unfinished. But DS+R’s tactic of restraining perception prevailed elsewhere.

The most aggressive and controversial feature is the Mediatheque, a computer centre hanging vertiginously from the gallery floor above the boardwalk. A sharply skewed picture window, some 30º from vertical, directs the viewer’s gaze down at the water, with no horizon visible. To any eye not glued firmly to a screen, this background is arresting, but some visitors find it a little nausea inducing. “It’s really a cantilever off of a cantilever,” Diller admits. “It’s what you tell your architecture students not to do: don’t put more load on something that’s already vulnerable. But we have very good engineers [Arup].” “The intention is to produce a very calculated boredom,” she continues, about the view of the water’s surface. Ricardo Scofidio adds, “You walk in there and you go ‘Oh’. You’ve never seen water like that. You’re going to look at water very differently now ... I’m a very strong believer that you don’t really understand what you see until it’s been mediated.”

One gets the impression that collective critique sessions for DS+R are intellectually exhilarating, comical, occasionally bordering on brutal (Diller reports that they “argue until the least bloody person is the one whose ideas survive”). One also gets the sense that DS+R is scholarly enough to have learned considerably from the ICA construction process, adding experience in planning pedestrian traffic flows to its mastery of information flows and flowing forms. Features that puzzle some critics, particularly the large, somewhat formless atrium and enormous front desk, in fact show refreshing common sense (they’ll cut down on long queues extending out the front door: a wise thing amid Boston winters and harbour winds). Three high-profile New York projects will soon incorporate DS+R’s ideas: the High Line, Lincoln Center, and (with OMA) the Brooklyn Academy of Music Cultural District. Now that they’ve shown what they can do on the blank canvas of undeveloped urban space, it’ll be fascinating to see what they make of the constraints these tricky sites present.


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