Boston — How many architects could elevate the need for new traffic routes -- a circulation system with pauses of space to eat and see -- into even the semblance of architectural elegance?
Assigned the mundane task of adding an appendage of corridors, shops, and exhibit areas to the old gray elephant of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, I. M. Pei has created an impressive, even luminous, addition.
His new three-story West Wing may manage to upstage the old beaux arts edifice by Guy Lowell in behalf of the consumer-oriented parts of a "today" museum, but it is designed with enormus finesse. Pei has executed a complete plan, down to the details of where to place the imported yellow roses for this week's opening festivities.
The museum's $22 million has created 160,000 square feet of new or refurbished space (80,000 square feet of each), plus air conditioning for the old quarters, of course. But beyond that, the airily elegant new building not only orients the older structure to its western side, physically, but reorients its approach, functionally.
If the aim of the old grandiloquent museum was to awe and delectate, the aim of the new museum is also to stay alive without benefit of patron. To do so, it need not only satisfy the aesthetic, but feed the hungry, sell to the curious, and edify or entertain the audience by more than art, according to current thinking.
Such functions, as much as Pei's aesthetic, dictated the design.
Both following and forming this program, Pei created the Spartan gray Remis auditorium, the somewhat overelongated superspace of the Gund Gallery for traveling shows, restaurants (three of them: a public street-style cafe, a cafeteria and a fairly routine dining room), and a spirited bookstore.
The main plan, then, was to keep this service section separate as a kind of supply side to be "iron curtained" off and stay open extra hours.
Thus, the wing is isolated, yet integrated -- linked by vistas, yet secure from the old museum after hours. It is punctuated with works from the old museum (here an Egyptian sampler, there the stunning banner of a 30-foot painting by Friedel Dzubas), yet it is separate and pristinely modern turf.
It is at once an entryway to the ancient edifice as well as a new arrival that crowds out the old sense of the 1909 original.
Light, radiant or shifting, is Pei's chief gift to the Museum of Fine Arts.
"Free the daylight" is his phrase for his aim. Gridded skylights and barrel- vaulted gallerias have passed into cliche in the world of commerce, Hyattized and mall-ified to tedium. But their incorporation here works for the art.
Jan Fontein, the director, dismisses the "jewelry store" look this way: "The era in which gold is shown on black velvet and pinpointed by spotlights is over." The more than 200-foot gallery now showing "The Bronze Age of China," and soon to hold other crowd-pulling shows, needs no artificial illumination. The Pei light fixtures in the three-story galleria are more sculpture by the architect than lighting.
The axial connections, long vistas that now lead into the old museum, add to this clarity of conception. The chance to close the loop and end the retracing of steps of the old museum layout would alond justify the new construction. So, of course, does its chance to raise money for climate control and for the needed exhibit organization, placing the contemporary collection in proper chronological order.
"You see from the light to the light," Pei describes the design aptly. Indeed, the way the layout enables the visitor to catch the greenery of the Fens as relief from "museum fatigue" is marvelous.
Above all, however, the Museum of Fine Arts West Wing repositions the cultural institution to a new way of looking at the world, at art, at the public.
For good and ill, museum styles have changed, and Pei's addition personifies the flux.
Visitors no longer want the dim and lugubrious grandeur of the old Classical Revival concoctions allotted to our cities for the last century, we are told. So we have an escalator and skylights. We have Pei saying that the ground-floor space, the "heart of the museum," should have "very works of art" shown there, as he did with the East Wing of the National Gallery in Washington.
Furthermore, he insists that people don't want to come back to see and resee, say, Monet's water lilies. They need an "orientation film," we hear, and new show after new show after new show in the new and major public space.
You can shake your head and criticize all this, feeling like an old fogy all the while, but it is impossible to put down the concern and suave attentiveness of an architect who imports his roses from South America and his ficus trees from Miami.
Pei's true failing, the failing of our time, though, is visible here, too: here, as at the early Massachusettes Institute of Techonology or John Hancock buildings on the same Boston landscape. For Pei's inability to link his jewel boxes to the bigger world is part of a staggering myopia which he himself criticizes in his complaints about the Guggenheim's "lack of concern with context."
The Museum of Fine Arts was designed, like its peers, as art in the park. Like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, it was sited next to Frederick Law Olmsted's greenery.At no time does the new addition, which its drive-around entryway, nod to that neighboring "emerald necklace" from the past.
True, Pei defers to the structure of the earlier museum exterior. Dispensing with the concrete of the White Wing, he matches the new wing's stone with granite from Deer Isle, Maine, and, despite the long and leaden shape of the structure, he parallels the lines of the old facade.
"We paid our dues," Pei says. But the architect's debt, while clear and striking in the interior and near-exterior, never goes to the neighborhood beyond.
Activist have criticized the Kevin roche-John Dinkeloo addition to the Metropolitan in New York for its intrusion in Central Park's greenery; Pei's doesn't intrude at all. It excludes, reinforcing the old isolation. No connectors, no linkages, suggest the beckoning landscape outside. Instead, the West Wing turns its side and misses the chance to make a countrylike connection to either the park or the subway connector on Huntington Avenue to downtown.
What the West Wing becomes, then, is a suburban building for the most urban, urbane of enterprises. It is, as the Kennedy Library was, the supermarket structure par excellence on an asphalt lot -- by a man who for all his talents is trapped in inhospitable times.
Pei is a pragmatist who understands the mall; he is a Late Modernist who can handle today's technology with pristine exactitude and exemplary craftsmanship; he is, of course, an artist.
Had he possessed that extra urban consciousness, here as elsewhere, the title "master" might be his.