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Warehouse or Museum?

Harvard's Bout With Modern Architecture

By Jennifer A. Kingson

It runs 160 feet along Quincy St., 128 feet along Cambridge St., and carries a $6 million price tag. The New York Times calls it "the architectural event of the 1980s," but some say the striped building looks more like a parking garage. About a year and a half ago, President Bok tried to cancel plans to build it. And it may never get the connecting bridge the University wants to protect and transport its priceless contents.

The Arthur M. Sackler Museum, which next fall will become home to the University's collections of Islamic and Oriental art, is nearing completion--maybe.

Today, two large, cylindrical columns stand expectantly outside the Sackler, facing its sister, the William Hayes Fogg Art Museum. Right now they serve as ventilation towers for the Museum's heating and air conditioning systems, but, the Museum staff hopes, they may someday become supports for the connecting bridge.

But without the bridge to insure the sate transport of artworks, the University will have to undertake an elaborate moving scheme next month, in which unmarked security vehicles will move some 30,000 artworks across Broadway, from the Fogg building to the Sackler.

The building itself needs only minor work on its floors, lighting system, and climate control system to ready it for public perusal. The more complex process of packing, moving, loading and unpacking thousands of delicate and irreplaceable art objects by truck will continue through the fall and winter.

According to Elizabeth Buckley, construction coordinator for the Sackler, the migration of artwork will be "at a slow and easy pace," with each collection transported separately. Acting Director of the Fogg John Rosenfield terms it an "inconvenience," but says, "The new building is designed to work with or without the bridge." The Museum's security staff will supervise the operation, and Buckley says the Museum rented a van to move the faculty offices, library materials, and early Christian Coptic reliefs into the new building.

Aside from the initial move, Fogg officials estimate that 3470 art objects will need to move annually between the two buildings. Although the Sackler building is ostensibly autonomous, Chairman of the Fine Arts Department Neil Levine says that, for both functional and aesthetic reasons, "the building would be immeasurably helped by the bridge."

While the Fogg and the Sackler have yet to be physically joined, the two museums operate as a single entity, with a single director and a unified program. Each contains galleries for the general public, storerooms for art works not on display, a library, classrooms, and faculty offices. Most Museum service departments, such as Photography, Registrar, and Carpentry, are in the Sackler.

The construction of the Sackler doubles the Museum's office and classroom space and allows a 75 percent increase in display space for the Museums' collections--the Fogg building can only accomodate 3 percent of its holdings. When the Sackler opens permanently next fall, it will house the University's collection of Islamic and Oriental art. The Fogg building will be reserved for American and European art, while the Busch-Reisinger Musum, the third component of the University Art Musum, will continue to display Northern and Central European art.

"We have one director, one budget and one deficit," says Rosenfield.

Museum officials and members of the Fine Arts Department agree that construction of a connector bridge is essential to the psychological unity of the institution. They add that an estimated 1000 visitors, students and Museum staffers will pass from one building to another every day, and this flow of pedestrains could cause traffic problems on Broadway.

Plans call for the bridge to be 150 feet long, 18 feet high, and 20 feet wide. The proposed bridge would provide more gallery space, a resting place for visitors, and an easy way to transport art objects, Harvard officials say. The blueprints for the bridge show that it would be a long gallery, top lit and lined with showcases. Halfway across, large round picture windows on both sides would provide an "orientation/restroom" area for visitors. The bridge's stucco-coated exterior would be colored red and buff, to echo the colors of the Sackler building.

In order for the University to construct the bridge, the Cambridge City Council must approve its plan. But because of apparent community opposition, Harvard has not yet sought the Council's permission, nor does it have any immediate plans to do so.

Rosenfield says that "we are not going to do anything that would rupture the community's increasing good feeling toward Harvard," and adds that it is possible the bridge may never materiallize.

Last April, Harvard attempted to gain approval from the Mid-Cambridge Neighborhood Association, a local forum that helps influence the Council's decisions. Only a two-thirds majority vote would allow the Association either to endorse or oppose the bridge plan, but the vote--with 98 members opposed and 74 in favor of the plan--proved inconclusive.

Harvard is willing to pay great sums to get its bridge. According to Peter L. Walsh, public relations director for the Museum, bridge construction alone would cost about $1 million. The Museum also proposes to spend an additional $300,000 creating a small plaza and avenue of trees to improve the streetscape surrounding the bridge, and would pay the City of Cambridge an annual fee of approximately $16,000 in "air rights," for the right to build over Broadway.

Walsh says that before the Mid-Cambridge neighbors deliberated over the connector proposal, Museum representatives met regularly with community members to discuss the plans, and sent a mailing to all Mid-Cambridge residents, detailing the design and listing its pros and cons. The mailing cost about $2500.

About 30 percent of the general public who visit the art museum are Cambridge residents; more than 1000 of them hold memberships. But opponents of the bridge say that it would be large and obtrusive, blocking light and distracting motorists. Some feel that the University's willingness to pay $16,000 in "air rights" is an implicit admission that the bridge would be intrusive.

Members of the Neighborhood Association have also voiced fears that the connector would serve as a precedent for other organizations that want to build bridges. One similar bridge about a mile away already spans Broadway, connecting Draper Laboratory buildings in Kendall Square.

Walsh says, "the bridge is very noticeable, but the intersection is ugly. A lot of the objections are not architectural, but have to do with feelings about Harvard and our role in the community."

"One community misconception is that the bridge is strictly for our convenience," Walsh adds.

The Museum has explored the alternative of building a tunnel to connect the buildings, but rejected the idea because it was impractical and expensive. Because of the water, telephone and sewage lines buried beneath Broadway, a tunnel could be no more than eight feet high and would be placed so deep underground that the general public would not be able to use it.

The Itch To Expand

As far back as the early 1970s, officials at the Fogg were considering expansion ideas. Blueprints were drawn up and funds raised in the early '80s, but President Bok abruptly cancelled the project early in 1982, saying the complex needed a larger endowment to ensure operating costs would be covered. After protests throughout the art community and more fundraising, the expansion plans were revitalized. Finally, on September 19, 1983, Harvard announced the reorganization of its museum complex into three facilities under one central administration, and construction of the Sackler began.

"The Fogg building had become a rabbit's warren, with offices divided and subdivided," Rosenfield says, "And Dr. Sackler said, 'Why think small?'"

Dr. Arthur M. Sackler, the Museum's principle benefactor, is a research physician, an international medical publisher and a collector of Oriental art. His charitable contributions include major donations to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. His gift is the largest single contribution ever made to Harvard for its art museums.

Harvard entrusted the job of designing the new building to James Stirling, a prominent London architect. But the great variety of buildings surrounding the site posed terrible aesthetic problems. Walsh explains that "the architect's opinion was that there was nothing you could build on this site that would harmonize."

The eclectic range of neighborhood structures include the Neo-Georgian style Fogg Museum, built in 1927; stark, aggresively modern Gund Hall; and high Gothic Memorial Hall. Stirling attempted to integrate the discordant themes of the area into the building, striping the outside of the building with bands of red and grey to echo the red, yellow and green tiles of Memorial Hall, for example.

Parking Garage Or Warehouse?

Museum officials agree unanimously that they are pleased with the result of Stirling's effort, but outside the community, reception of the Sackler is less than enthusiastic.

Rosenfield explains that Stirling's conception of the Museum included "adventurous and advanced" experimentation with proportion and scale. Stirling compares the structure to a car battery, in its density and compactness.

Like an ugly child that only a mother could love, the Sackler is most often praised by its parents in the Museum staff and by members of the architecture community.

"Most people who just come in to visit think it is hidcous," says Sackler security guard Michael Pelham, "The design students and professors come over from Gund Hall to laugh at it."

Pelham says that the only parts of the building he truly likes are the galleries and the entrance, where he sits. Even the entrance, he says, "they could liven up with some plants or something."

But Museum officials defend the structure vehemently. Rosenfield says, "We at the Fogg love it. I think it's just gorgeous. Of course, my friends and fellow academics hate it and think it looks like a parking garage."

Levine agrees, "Lots of people are looking for something more assertive, like the Science Center. You call that good architecture? I think it has a lot more dignity than that or, say, Gund Hall."

"Some say it looks like a warehouse or a garage. If it is the garage and the Fogg is the house, then they need to be connected," adds Levine, "I personally think the exterior looks fine, but the interior is much the more splendid part."

Although the banded brick exterior, with its randomly placed windows and oversized entryway, may not be very popular, the staff hopes that the inside will win people's hearts. Philip Parsons, assistant director of operations for the Museum, says, "What you see from the outside looks like a human habitation, not a museum. But almost everyone who comes to know the inside grows to understand the outside."

The Sackler Itself

The museum's peculiar exterior is delusive. The deep bands of brick glazed in earth tones correspond to analagous bands of color inside, where they denote the building's five stories. What appears to be an irregular window pattern from the outside makes sense upon entering the building, since the windows are placed to give maximum illumination for the rooms behind them.

The architect's play with scale is apparent in the monumental entrance to the building, which rises 57 feet and leads into a foyer of heroic proportions. This light, open area includes an enormous staircase that rises to the top floor of the building. Alongside the stairway, early Christian Coptic reliefs are inset in the bands of color--these are the only pieces of art currently inside the Sackler.

"The entryway provides a sort of intimate type of monumentality," says Parsons.

The stairway divides the building in half, with one side containing five levels of administrative offices, and the Rubel Asiatic collection (a part of the Fine Arts Library), and the other side comprised of three levels of galleries. Downstairs, there is a lecture hall that will be used by Fine Arts classes as early as next semester.

According to Parsons, the gallery on the first level will be reserved for temporary and loan exhibitions. It contains movable partitions to vary the design of the exhibitions, and has a complex system of both natural and artificial lighting. The gallery on the second level has little natural light, and will be reserved for light-sensitive objects on paper from the Museum's permanent collection.

The gallery on the third and top level is also reserved for items from the permanent collection; the four spacious rooms have skylights that will cast natural shadows on the artwork. These rooms will house Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Mesopotamian art.

Now, a series of cutout cardboard models of sculptures--labelled "Aphrodite" or "Panathenaic Amphora" or "Southern Italian Vases"--occupy the rooms. The Museum staff is experimenting with the new space and deciding which display cases to order, Parsons says.

Despite its lack of popular approval, this muticolored, asymmetrical giant will soon contain some of the finest art objects in the Boston area.

Levine advises, "It's something people should look at and learn from rather than criticize immediately--like all new art.

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