Comment / Gardner update

Unlike Keith Olbermann I do not make a practice of Special Comments.  But the rather too stately flow of these rather scholarly historical blogs hardly seems to allow  for the occasional timely comment on the affairs of the day as these impact Boston-Centric Global Studies. Thus these occasional comments which will appear from time to time as issues arise.

Reading the news from the Gardner Museum last Thursday about the debut of Renzo Piano’s design for the museum’s addition,  I happened to  be in one of my favorite Beacon Hill cafe’s.   I am partial to restaurants with good views of good architecture and when I need a cup of coffee or whatever I inevitably head for the closest on my list of  restaurant’s with a view. 

 Border’s Cafe at School and Washington,  for example,  offers through its  huge glass facade a lovely perspective of the Old South Church;  the courtyard level restaurant in the White Building of the Massachusetts General Hospital is even better  — this time the view is of my best-liked Boston landmark,  the MGH’s  majestic Bulfinch Building,  its facade so superbly proportioned and detailed . A particular favorite is the restaurant at the Sports Club / LA,  which offers a stunning outlook on the  Art Deco marquee and upright of the Paramount Theatre. 

My locale Thursday happened to overlook the  new  Liberty Hotel at Charles Circle on Cambridge Street,  the old Charles Street Jail   whose  robust granite stonework makes for excellent architecture watching .  Happening thereat to look up from my Times whilst reading  of the news from the Gardner,  the modernistic streetlights the hotel has placed around it on its grounds caught my eye.  They are as good modern design as the old jail is  good Boston Granite Style design.  The  cool,  metalic finnish of the frankly modernist street lamps is alike to the crystaline glint of the historic granite stonework,  while the sharp-edged,  saucer-like space-age profile of the lampheads   makes for a  stimulating counterpoint and contrast to the massive  granite blocks.

Glancing sideways at the official City of Boston street lights  on Cambridge Street nearby — the usual mindless Victorian reproductions one has come to expect  in or near historic districts like Beacon Hill — I thought at once,  never mind that repro is never anything but a pale echo of the original,   of poet Robert Lowell’s lament that  reproduction anything next to the real thing invariably dumbs down the genuinely historic it is hoped the repro will set off,  and in the end the lazy eye,  as I like to call it,  is lulled,  Disneyland-like,  into not being able to tell the difference ;  neither past from present,  nor the real thing from the prompt or reminiscence

All this ran through my mind in a second or two as I found myself rather glowing actually over what a triumph Renzo Piano’s Gardner designs look to be from the  half page color spread the Times gave to them.  And how vindicated I felt by critic Nicolai  Ouroussoff’s  comment:  “the preservationist’s should put away their torches and pitchforks”.

They won’t,  of course;  they never do.  More than one of these zealots has been in touch with me the last year to explain Isabella Stewart Gardner’s purposes and design concept to me.  That I am her only living biographer and thus have some claim to be the leading authority in such a matter,  of whom they should,  perhaps,  be asking more questions than demanding my agreement  with their own views;  that matters to them not at all.  Not even that I was fair enough to see that the Boston Landmarks Commission was given the relevent scholarship on the  carriage house which  no one else proferred,  even though I  favored that buildings destruction in aid of Piano’s addition. 

The Globe published a really quite complete and balanced story on the matter,  by the always competent Geoff Edgers,  but no architectural criticism worth the name .  (Edger’s alerted me to the fact,  for which I thank him,  that the Globe’s excellent architecture critic,  Robert Campbell,  could not play his usual role because he had been a consultant to the Gardner for this project) ,  In any event,  readers of “The Art of Scandal”,  my biography of Isabella Gardner,  will know already how open she was to  the modernist aesthetic. 

The Times,  which is rivalled only by the Boston Phoenix in its Boston arts coverage these days,  did very well indeed by Piano’s design,  publishing — as the Globe did not — the architect’s perspectives as well as his model.

Ouroussoff doesn’t like everything about the new scheme. Nor do I.  We both regret the necessity of giving up Isabella Gardner’s own dramatic entrance into her museum.  But he delights,  as do I  — but let me quote him — in the “ideal balance between old and new without compromising the identity of either”  Piano has achieved,  and in what he calls  “the gorgeousness of [Piano’s]  forms”.  I myself was especially pleased to learn that Gardner’s Buddhist temple room,  the lack of which in the face of her Anglican chapel is very distorting,  is to be restored.  It is the one part of Gardner’s  latest and most sophisticated designs that has indeed  been wantonly removed  —  where were the preservationists then?

As I have made plain I have more reasons than most to oppose the present regime at the Gardner.  In prefering an outdated and sexist biography of the museums’s founder to my own,  which  tries to take  some account of Gardner’s true genuis,  the present regime has harmed Gardner studies considerably;  never mind deprived me,  I’m sure,  of more than afew royalties!  But  for all those flaws,  Director Hawley has been a good,  even an inspired , director of the Gardner,  and she and her board have  otherwise invariably made the right decisions every time, including this time

“To live is to change”  is one of my favorite sayings of John Henry Newman, who like Gardner herself,  stood at the intersection historically of Pre-Modernism and the stale aesthetic it replaced.  And like Newman,  Isabella Stewart Gardner was in that and in several other respects a brilliant fifth columnist whose museum for that reason  is ever alive and ever changing.



Edgers, Geoff. “Gardner 118 million expansion set”  BOSTON GLOBE  (21 Jan 2010)

Ouroussoff, Nicolair  “An  Architect pays respects to a dowager”   THE NEW YORK TIMES  (21 Jan 2010)

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