Crystal Palace

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Legendary architects Foster + Partners have provided the overarching masterplan for the bold new expansion of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Recently realised in collaboration with Childs Bertman Tseckares Inc. the development is a substantial new contribution to Boston’s impressive existing cultural map.

Revisiting the approach taken with the British Museum in London and the Reichstag in Berlin, the plan involves the construction of a soaring steel and glass structure that effectively closes in what were previously outdoor spaces, providing expansive and inspiring new spaces for galleries and facilities such as a light and airy café.

As with the other lauded public projects, the aim here is to both provide more of a direct link with the local neighbourhood through increased transparency and to restore the logic of the earlier building, in this case designed by Guy Lowell. One might even say that Foster’s approach is a kind of unexpected post-modernism. Of course, this is not meant in the sense of aesthetic associations – one would never find the pastiche neo-classical decorative vernacular usually associated with the term in the work of Foster + Partners- but rather in the sense of understanding that any public building resulting from the addition to an existing building has the potential to become a composite of its own history unless that history is entirely obliterated. Here, as was highly notable in the case of the Reichstag, rather than attempting to disguise or substantially alter the core language of the earlier building, Foster + Partners have once again taken the approach of making it highly visible.

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Rather than masking or subsuming Guy Lowell’s bombastic architecture brimming with a certain nineteenth century municipal pride, the extensive use of glass for the extension projects only highlights Lowell’s original building all the more. In fact, one of the aims of the project has been to enable contemporary activities crammed into the old building not ideal for the purpose to be relocated, thereby enabling the restoration of its original logic. In effect, within the new composite building the original gains a kind of double function as both a working museum and a kind of museum to its own history.

With the former space problems alleviated, the visitor is now able to enter through the lofty Shapiro Family Courtyard, a veritable temple to culture, and partake of sustaining refreshments in the bright and airy New American Café, before or after taking in the art of the Americas housed in the new central galleries. In a kind of historical –if literally self-centric- logic, the art of Europe and other regions is housed in the older buildings forming the periphery, implying a kind of inner journey towards the new heart of the museum.

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