Sunday, February 21, 2010

ICA = Internal Confusion Articulated

When Boston's "new and improved" Institute of Contemporary Art finally opened its doors (if you could find them) on December 10, 2006, $51 million in the making and three months behind schedule, this architecture-as-sculpture glass-and-steel gimmick was much ballyhooed as not only the signature building, declarative statement and defining landmark of Boston's New Frontier (the as-yet barely-built Seaport District), but also the daring, bold, radical new architecture for which Boston had been pining through Postmodernism since the completion of City Hall in 1969 and the John Hancock Tower in 1976. In other words (that is, mine),

Boston's first new museum since 1909,
The wave of the future in modern design.

Rave reviews

Photograph by Christopher Peterson,
"So let's applaud the ICA and, of course, its nervy and creative architects, Elizabeth Diller, Ricardo Scofidio, and Charles Renfro of New York," commented Robert Campbell in The Boston Globe. "Let's hope they've broken through to an era of Boston architecture that will be just as exciting as it is thoughtful, responsible, and courteous to its surroundings."

"That entrancing image sums up the museum’s goal of resensitizing its audience to the world’s tactile surfaces, its patterns, its range of scales — whether the subject before us is the city or a solitary work of art," wrote Nicolai Ouroussoff in The New York Times. "It is the architecture of empathy, welcome therapy for a self-involved age."

"The Institute of Contemporary Art is the new crown jewel of Boston’s waterfront, featuring innovative design that effortlessly weaves together interior and exterior, producing shifting perspectives of the waterfront throughout upper-level galleries and various public spaces," says Wolfgang Puck, who caters for the ICA's Water Café, where patrons and passers-by can indulge in gourmet breads, pastries, Peet's Coffee, signature sandwiches and salads, homemade soups, grilled panini, or Sherry Yard desserts on a breezy harborview deck in warmer months or an airy café when it's colder.

Even I couldn't help getting caught up in the hoo-ha over that harborside spectacle. For no waterfront wonder had so captivated my gaze since Fort Independence on Castle Island, which shares the characteristic of a functional yet monumental geometric form of clean lines and planes with its new fellow South Bostonian, despite being 160-something years its senior.

And, of course, the razzle- dazzle of light that pops, pours and permeates through the ICA's translucent glass skin at night certainly makes fireworks on the waterfront — though it will never be to Boston what The Pier is to St. Petersburg, Florida (right). For in that Tampa Bay tourist tank, nightlighting and nightlife are one.

Art critic

Yes, a recent visit to the ICA with some friends left me with the feeling that it's not all it's cracked up to be. For one, it clearly violates the architectural principle coined by Louis Sullivan and practiced by his Modernist successors, "Form follows function." Here, function follows form, in that its oddball (make that oddsquare) configuration forces its interior spaces to conform to its exterior structure in a way that makes the floor plan devoid of the logically coherent flow from artwork to artwork, from gallery space to gallery space, that an art museum of any size, shape or style has always entailed for artistic continuity's sake.

For starters, the entrance isn't exactly "entrancing" in comparison to those of its forbears, both classical and contemporary. Take Guy Lowell's Museum of Fine Arts: its front-and-center entrance with symmetrically projecting wings welcomes us right in from Huntington Avenue with open arms, aided spatially by an airy plaza and symbolically by the arms-to-the-sky gesture of the equestrian Native American statue out front. The Gardner Museum's houselike frontage and sidewalk abutment seem to say, "Welcome home." Clarity of entry is also obvious in all three of Harvard's art museums: the axial centeredness of the Fogg, the pylon-flanked glass gateway of James Stirling's Sackler Museum, and the prominent on-ramp orientations to the entry points of Le Corbusier's Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts.

But what kind of an entrance is this? It doesn't exactly say, "Come on in, the door's open." Not only is the door not clear right away, but this facade lacks what Robert Campbell calls "face." For its main face is its harborside end. As we approach its entrance, we are greeted with the facelessness of a husband who can't look up from his desk, computer or drafting table when his wife walks in. Nor is the randomized mishmash of opaque glass panels particularly empathetic. Furthermore — and Ouroussoff and I are one on this one — "the main entrance is set at the corner and cuts diagonally into the lobby, creating an awkward leftover space just inside the street facade. The space functions neither as a lobby nor a contemplative corner." Self-involved, indeed!

Lofty lobby

Yet the picture does change when we enter the lobby, which is therapeutic in its comfort, convenience and clarity. The cathedral ceiling creates an airy ambiance that internalizes the district's open-air seaport scene. The glass curtain wall lets in generous light for the current introductory exhibit along the long wall. Benches are handy. The gift shop, coatcheck and admissions desk are in plain sight. But, as you'll see, it ain't so for the show of shifty, rather than shifting, perspectives that's to follow.

Flight of fancy, flight of flatness

As I mentioned, the continuity of artistic circulation is missing, and to continue the visual voyage one must climb or liftoff three flights. Fortunately the latter can be done by a lofty, elbow-roomy great glass elevator. But Willy Wonka's factory this isn't by a long shot — for two flights of faceless white walls and doors, floor-slab structures and factory-fab elevator parts pass us en route to the eye candy. (As an alternative for the physically up-to-it, the stair has enough metallic, angular quirk to dazzle the design-sensed.)

Fourth-floor flow

Alight at floor four, and the fun restarts. The top floor's cantilevered projection out over the building's seafront expresses the very expanse of its exhibit space, which pops out poignantly upon walking in, finally yielding the roominess artworks need to display themselves most distinctly and we need to contemplate them most completely. And just like a museum ought to do, spaces lead into spaces of a wide variety — large and small, light and dark.

The dark side

On the dark side of my museum visit was a room within a room: Polish artist Krzysztof Wodiczdo's ...OUT OF HERE: The Veterans Project, a projection of the image of the grimy industrial windows of an abandoned factory warehouse onto the unlit walls of a windowless room. On exhibit from Veterans' Day 2009 through March 28, 2010, this audiovisual meditation on the ambiguity, uncertainty and trauma of firsthand experience of war combined unanticipated sound effects with ever-changing visual images of a war in a third-world country. Serene scenes of skies outside the 13-foot-high windows were disrupted with nerving noises of "outside" Arabic chatter, choppers, carbombs, and gunfire, some smashing right through the windowpanes and walls of our warehouse hideaway, shattering our illusion of safety from the killing fields. Under cover, or under fire? Safe, or suspect? Should I stay, or should I go, risking casualty either way? These and other jarring conundra — war vs. peace, life vs. death, safety vs. vulnerability, innocence vs. experience, survival vs. surge — were all explored in this point-blank presentation of the devastation, unpredictability and irresoluteness of war, especially the imbroglios we're in now in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Go inside (if you dare)...

Blue skies. Fluffy clouds. Children's laughter. Arabic chatter. Radio crackle. Obama: "We need to use diplomacy to resolve our problems wherever possible." Reporter: "A senior Hamas official has told Al Jazeera that this is a Martin Luther King moment.” Peace. Peace be within thy walls...

Uh oh — helicopter shadow... chopchopchopchopchopchopchopchopchopchopchopchop...

Kidlaughter. Thump. Ball bounds up. Thump. Crack! Hit window. Yikes. What now...

Cutcutcutcutcutcutcutcutcutcutcutcut... copter gone... vehicles rumble down... whew.

“We were here before. Remember that?” Keep down. Keep quiet.

“What’s going on?”

“Get the kids out of here!"

“Look at that pile of trash.”

Thump. Kid screams. Bang.

“What’s going on up there?”

Bang. Blam. Pow. Pop.

“On the balcony!”

BOOM! Smoke outside. Pow. Blam. Rat-tat-tat-tat-tat. Ak-ak. Boom-boom. K'tuk-k'tuk. Cries of pain, shouts of terror. Bang bang bang bang.

“Second window on the left.”

BANG-CRACK! Pane broken. Oh no. Can they see me... are they in here... do they know who...

“Miller’s down.”

“Shut that dog up!” Bang bang. Yelp yelp. Dog gone.

“Taking fire.” CRASHBANG! Pane shattered. Cut and run? Duck and cover? Run for cover?

BLAPP! Panes out. Frames bent. They're coming. They're here. Covered? Cornered? Help...

PYONGGG! Hole in wall. Missed me. Ugh. Me next? Heartpoundpoundpoundpoundpound...

Skies clearing. Storm over. All quiet on the...


“The kid’s been hit.”

Take him or leave him? Me or him?

“Let’s get out of here.” Rummmmble-roarrrrrrr...

Arabic cries. “Yasmin!” Wail. Silence.

The shot walls and windows dissolve into their prewar state. Safe... only a movie... only a memory... exit laughing... or leaden... but...OUT OF HERE!

The bright side...but not the right side

Photograph by Christopher Peterson —
Lightening us up from that dark danger-zone are the real windowpanes of the Menino Room (named for Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino), a long, tall hall with an all-glass wall boasting the most sky-high, sea-wide, free-as-a-seagull panorama of Boston Harbor you'll ever see, next to being on the Water Café. Spanning the fourth floor's frontage, this outside-in bedazzlement serves no purpose other than as a function/reception room where champagne, Chauvignon, cheddar and chit-chat can be indulged in amid the oohs and ahhs of harbor heaven.

Photograph by Christopher Peterson
Poor judgment, in my view — a lost opportunity for another great gallery space. Of course, the sun from the window-wall would fade artwork hanging on the facing wall, which renders that wall useless, wasted space (except for refracting the window-wall light to make the room brighter). Thus the solid wall cries out for some kind of artistic identity, especially when it exhibits its blankness through the glass from an across-the-harbor point of view: So this is the Institute of Contemporary Art — so where's the art? No clear expression of the building's purpose for the seafaring onlooker; no "face," in Campbell's words. Therefore, solidifying the seaside wall — and emblazoning its exterior with the museum's moniker in large, luminous letters — would provide the Menino Room with ample surface area for a special exhibit or traveling exhibition of one artist at a time, enabling us to see that artist's oeuvre in continuity from end to end and back again.

Photograph by Wallygva
(This could be seen as a linear version of the great spiraling ramp of Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum in New York. This 1959 curvilinear concrete masterpiece benefits from being windowless, for the continuity of wall space Wright intended for viewing an artist's work from start to finish without barrier or corner interruptions, except for the thin, eave-concealed ribbons of glass that illuminate the artwork from above.)

Between the layers

So what lurks behind the blank walls and doors of the middle floors? I'll tell you: two very fluid, functional spaces that serve their purposes very well but don't contribute to a satisfying totality of visual experience in the museum.

Photograph by Christopher Peterson —
On the second floor is the Barbara Lee Family Foundation Theater. Three glass curtain walls bring in harbor sun and sea as a breathtaking backdrop to any performance or presentation. In this way the walls "extend" the stage outside onto the bleachers, which step down to the Harborwalk beneath the gallery overhang, continuing the descent of the theater's rows of seats toward the water. 

Photograph by Christopher Peterson —
This inside-outside bridge is enhanced by a continuity of wood that envelops the bleachers, stage and seating, as a natural neutralizer of the mechanical mundaneness of the cables, lights, poles, rails and metal framework. The wood also celebrates Boston Harbor history as the material that built its wharves and ships. Yet wood-warmth and steel sterility are like oil and water, and we warm up to the wood up close but hardly notice it from afar, because of how the steel structure shelters it in shadow.

On the third floor is the Mediatheque, a computer lab where the ICA's collection can be viewed on screen. The rows of computer workstations step downward with the bleachers so that the room diagonally pops out from under the gallery cantilever. This yields a direct glass-wall view of the harbor water for the effect of a mobile painting, a glass-bottom boat, a cabin-cruiser trip, or wherever your artistic imagination takes you.

What does it all stack up to?

Photograph by Christopher Peterson —
The ICA's communion with the harbor is clear in other ways as well. Its glass faces mirror the clarity of the water. The cantilever's prominent horizontality parallels that of the seascape, the wharves, and neighbors such as the Boston World Trade Center. Yet the ICA's articulation of its individual parts, and its awkward internal transitions between them, precludes it from stacking up to a coherent unity. Furthermore, the visual emphasis of its bleachers, Mediatheque and Menino Room over its entrance makes it appear to be built backwards, and may mislead newcomers into thinking its harbor front is its entrance.

Photograph by Garrett A. Wollman
Compare this to its predecessor, the old ICA on Boylston Street in the Back Bay (now part of Boston Architectural College), built in 1887 as a police-fire station from a Richardsonian Romanesque design by city architect Arthur Vinal. The police section was renovated in 1975 by architect Graham Gund, who masterfully mined a fluid, soaring interior out of the historic foursquare shell. The station's grand entrance arch provided a clear, dignified intro to the museum off the street, like the museums mentioned above. The old building's Arts and Crafts influence made a strong artistic statement appropriate to its new use, and the naturalistic hues and tactile surfaces of the brick and brownstone made it an organic whole greater than the sum of its parts. 

This is where its successor falls short, scoring on the parts but skimping on the whole, clarifying its diverse functions but discounting the unifying elements of an enticing entrance and an artistic continuum essential to a museum experience. In this way the ICA is courteous to its surroundings but discourteous to its visitors.

For more information on the Institute of Contemporary Art, visit

Thank you for visiting. I welcome your comments!

1 comment:

  1. The problem with the ICA is that the art inside the building cannot compete with the spectacular view of Boston harbor!