Harvard's startling Sackler. Challenge was to fit museum into `architectural zoo'

When Harvard University opens a new museum, it's not your average, timorous scholarly occurrence. Even before the Arthur M. Sackler Museum was built, the designs of distinguished British architect James Stirling (released to the public in a special exhibition in 1981) produced a flood of critical acclaim guaranteed to alert the cognoscente to imminent momentous events. Ada Louise Huxtable, architecture critic for the New York Times, called the building ``the architecture event of the '80s.'' The Boston Globe called the interior ``brilliant . . . a gem of dramatic three-dimensional space planning,'' while Architectural Review praised the Sackler's ``sheer spectacle and power.''

The accolades continued in architectural circles; Stirling's celebrated colleague Philip Johnson lauded the Sackler as ``one of the best museums I have seen to date . . . one of the great buildings of the world.''

The triumvirate of Harvard art museums, which includes the Sackler, Fogg Art Museum, and Busch-Reisinger Museum, will now rank among the world's leading teaching museums. Since its last expansion in 1927, the university's permanent collection has grown from 6,000 to over 100,000 objects. Yet lack of display space has kept an astounding 95 percent of these riches inaccessible to the public. Major works were only erratically pulled from storage to illustrate art history seminars, and unless you were a pro fessor, student, or curious citizen coincidentally present at the right moment, you would most likely be unaware of Harvard's hidden treasures.

All that has changed with the opening of the Sackler, which now houses the collections of ancient, Oriental, Islamic, and Indian art. Harvard's superb collection of Western paintings, sculpture, drawings, and prints will be on semipermanent display at the spruced-up Fogg, while the Busch-Reisinger will concentrate on the art of northern and central Europe.

Architect James Stirling, who is best known for his 1984 design of the Stuttgart Museum in West Germany, was chosen to design the Harvard museum from among 70 noted architects. Yet despite copious critical praise, the Sackler's startling exterior has aroused considerable controversy among local observers. Most pointedly, law professor Charles M. Haar opined, ``The Sackler is even uglier than the Burr Lecture Hall that was there before it. The site must be cursed by Apollo.''

At any rate, the site presented Stirling with the challenge of what he eventually termed ``an architectural zoo.'' The Sackler's idiosyncratic neighbors include the Italianate Fogg, the starkly modern Le Corbusier-designed Carpenter Center for the Arts, the incoherent mixture of Gothic and classical motifs known as Memorial Hall, and the concrete and glass fortress of nearby Gund Hall.

The initial shock of encountering the Sackler's alternating striped brick faade and glass and metal corbeled arch entranceway (flanked by monumental columns painted a surprising Kelly green) is softened by viewing the design as a heroic, though not fully successful, attempt to integrate into the confused architectural surroundings. For example, the stripes are placed to both correspond to Gund Hall's horizontal strip windows, and to echo the intermittent stripes of Memorial Hall. The use of brick instea d of concrete avoids an impenetrable modernistic grouping, while the blue slate flooring of the Sackler's interior staircase recalls the Fogg's classical courtyard.

Objections will no doubt be quelled by a view of the Sackler's interior, which is a marvel of ingenuity and innovation. Stirling has divided the five floors of academic and administrative offices on the left from three floors of galleries on the right by a spectacular, monumental staircase. The exterior stripes have ``bled through'' to the stucco walls lining the stairway, in dulcet tones of lavender and cream. Inlaid in the stucco are fragments of actual 4th- and 5th-century Roman-Coptic reliefs, MDBR which immediately bring one into contact with original works of art.

In 1981, Stirling became the third winner of the Pritzker Prize, the ``Nobel'' of the architecture profession. Although he eschews the term post-modernist, Stirling (along with Michael Graves and Robert Venturi) is generally thought of as one of the new architecture's leading exponents. In the Sackler, Stirling's use of unexpected color and brash industrial materials collaged with ancient motifs is smoothly integrated; the building's surprises are filled with wit and generosity, rather than aggressive c onfrontation.

The pi`eces de r'esistance are the galleries themselves -- magnificent, high-ceilinged rooms exquisitely conducive to the art they display. On the top floor, ancient and Oriental sculpture receives new vitality bathed in the gentle, constantly changing illumination of skylights employing elaborately designed baffles. The walls are painted an unusual reddish-toned cream; this, combined with red oak floors, creates a warm ambiance rarely found in modern museums, lending a subtle contrast to t he cool marble and metal on display.

Downstairs an inaugural exhibit of ``Modern Art at Harvard'' brings into view such little-seen masterworks as Monet's ``Cliff at Entretat'' (c. 1868) and Picasso's ``Plaster Head and Bowl of Fruit'' (1933). Although Harvard's modern collection is not extensive, it is, predictably, choice. Sterling examples of the work of Philip Guston, Frank Stella, and Morris Louis, among many others, fill both the Sackler's temporary galleries and the Fogg and Busch-Reisinger. All in all, the Sackler should prov e a most welcome addition to Boston's and the nation's culture, for its interior architecture is a delightful complement to art, and the art it at last discloses is revelatory.

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