Harvard U. Begins Museum Renovations—With No Plan for Stirling’s Sackler Building

Harvard University’s plan to close its main art-museum building for a five-year renovation by the architect Renzo Piano is sure to fever armchair architecture critics. Fans of the existing Fogg Museum, with its Georgian facade and columned courtyard, will want to have their say, as will people eager to praise or disparage Mr. Piano’s alterations—which The Boston Globe says will be unveiled Sunday. Mr. Piano’s work has come under fire lately because he has developed—at least according to Bloomberg’s architecture writer, James S. Russell—a habit of recycling his early masterpieces.


(Harvard U. image)

What Harvard’s plan downplays, though, is the uncertain fate of the wonderful 1985 building that currently houses the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, which has collections of ancient, Islamic, Asian, and Indian art. The building, a masterpiece of the Postmodern movement, was designed by the British architect James Stirling, who died in 1992. Its exterior is subdued, to say the least—alternating bands of tan and dark-gray brick decorate a long wall overlooking Quincy Street, and bold blocks create a cyclopean window over the entrance, on Broadway. The doorway itself takes its shape from ancient architectural forms. (You can see a larger photograph here.)

What makes the Sackler building so memorable, though, is a spectacular stairway that organizes the interior for visitors, carrying them down from the ancient-art galleries on the third floor and the Asian galleries on the second floor to the entrance at street level. Pierced by interior windows and interrupted by landings, it also serves as the building’s main aesthetic statement and chief pleasure—it’s the big wow. A picture wouldn’t begin to do it justice—it’s architecture that has to be experienced to be appreciated.

The columns on either side of the Sackler building’s doorway were originally intended to hold up a bridge that was to connect the Sackler to the main museum complex on Quincy Street. There the Fogg is housed in a 1925 building by Coolidge, Shepley, Bulfinch, and Abbott, and the Busch-Reisinger occupies an adjoining structure. But the bridge plan is long since forgotten. When the Fogg and the Busch-Reisinger close this summer, the Sackler building will be converted to a home for changing exhibitions of items from all of the university’s art collections. It will be interesting to see how creatively the building serves different exhibitions over the next five years.

But after the Piano renovation is complete, the Sackler’s collections will be housed in the main complex. What Harvard says about Stirling’s delightful building is not exactly encouraging: “The long-term use of the building at 485 Broadway is currently under review by the University.” That could mean anything—either “Two deans are fighting over who gets this gem” or “We need that lot for something else.” With any kind of luck, it will be the former.

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