Flood of ideas on Boston Harbor

Times Staff Writer

Over the last decade, a couple of surging trends have begun to reshape American cities. Daniel Libeskind, Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid and other theoretical designers started picking up commissions for public buildings, shedding their reputations as so-called paper architects. And cities, particularly on the East Coast, have been rediscovering their waterfronts, moving to replace sagging infrastructure with new cultural facilities.

The two developments flow together in dramatic if somewhat mannered fashion at the new Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, which opened Sunday. The $41-million building sits just southeast of downtown, jutting out from its site at Fan Pier toward Boston Harbor.

The ICA is the first museum built here in more than a century. It's also the first American building by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, a New York firm that has long been known for its cerebral but often playful essays, museum installations and multimedia projects.

Though its founders, Elizabeth Diller and her husband, Ricardo Scofidio, were the first architects to win the MacArthur Foundation's "genius" prize, in 1999, the firm's only permanent building is an apartment complex in Gifu, Japan. With its newest partner, Charles Renfro, DS+R is at work on projects for Lincoln Center and along the High Line, an old train corridor on the west side of Manhattan now being transformed into a collection of museums, condo buildings and shops.

Perhaps inevitably, given the firm's intellectual firepower and how long Diller and Scofidio have waited to build in this country, its design for the ICA is overstuffed with ideas. Conceived as a machine for looking -- and, at the same time, and loftily enough, as a place for thinking about the idea of looking -- the building reflects the architects' interest in exploring seemingly every intersection new museums have to steer through these days. That means not only combining public with private and active with contemplative space but also bringing together what architect Renzo Piano, a veteran of museum design, calls the sacred and the profane.

Sometimes this flood of concepts and strategies verges on the distracting. That's certainly the case in the lobby. Entered off-center, from an entryway squeezed into one corner, this spatially complex room includes a sloping ceiling formed by the descending rows of seats of a theater above; an odd-shaped wall (the Sandra and Gerald Fineberg Art Wall, officially) now given over to a mural by Japanese artist Chiho Aoshima; a sunken gift shop; partial views of the water; and a front desk pulled so long and thin it becomes the stretch limo of its type. Like a few other lobby spaces in new museums -- the one at San Francisco's De Young, by Herzog & de Meuron, comes to mind -- the room manages to seem overwrought and banal at the same time.

But elsewhere the main themes of the design come into sparkling focus. The first place that's clear to see is on the northern side of the museum, where it meets the water. A huge slab of the building, cantilevered 80 feet toward the water, hangs over a plaza below that is lined in a South American hardwood, Santa Maria, stained a blue-gray color. The plaza then curls up to line the underside of the cantilever, producing the feeling of a clubby interior space blown up to huge urban scale.

A giant outdoor stair -- a set of bleachers, really, with a view of the water instead of a football field -- climbs up from the plaza and attaches itself to the side of the building. From there you can also see directly into the 325-seat theater, which is lined on two sides by glass.

This surprising, shifting interplay between inside and out -- and between transparent and opaque spaces -- continues once you step inside. A short trip through the lobby takes you to an oversized elevator that rises through the center of the building. Wrapped entirely in glass, the elevator provides views of the architecture and the cityscape outside. It delivers you, in a few seconds, to the galleries, and makes their sense of complete enclosure all the more dramatic.

Illuminated by skylights that capture northern light and filter it through translucent fabric panels, the galleries are windowless. The floors are polished concrete, the ceilings high, the walls pure white and rectilinear. Nearly all the art looks terrific. The success of the galleries is a sign that when it comes to showing art the architects are confident enough to tone down the bold engineering and the vibrant mixture of materials that define the rest of the building.

The most memorable space in the museum -- if also the most inanely named -- is a small room, entered from the fourth floor, called the mediatheque. Suspended from the bottom of the cantilevered wing and tilted down in the direction of the water, the room offers several rows of computer terminals that visitors can use to look up information on the collection or about one of the exhibitions.

At the bottom of the room is a huge picture window, angled so it shows only a pure rectangle of rippling water. (No skyline, no horizon, no shore can be seen.) The room is stunning -- a smart exploration of the idea of screens and frames that also operates on a purely aesthetic level and, for good measure, out-Turrells any room by the artist James Turrell. Seen from the plaza below, it looks like a trap door that has dropped down from the museum's ceiling.

The ICA was founded in 1936 -- just seven years after the Museum of Modern Art in New York -- and was located for seven decades in the Back Bay neighborhood. During those years it wasn't a collecting museum, and it wasn't until it started raising money for a building that it decided to start buying art. One of the shows on view for the opening is a smart selection of pieces from the ICA's brand-new permanent collection.

This expanded mission raises questions about the design -- specifically, whether it's adaptable enough to house the kind of institution that the ICA apparently wants to become. The new building includes 17,000 square feet of gallery space (out of a total square footage of 65,000), which already feels tight. Like most new museums, the ICA has decided, or has been forced by economics to decide, that it needs a huge auditorium and a waterfront cafe -- and a public plaza on the water -- more than it needs one more suite of galleries. It will be interesting to see how wise that calculus seems a decade from now.

By that time, incidentally, the new building will likely be surrounded by shops and residences, an ambitious but lagging project that was initiated by the Pritzker family's Hyatt Development Corp. before being taken over by another developer, the Fallon Co. But for now, as seen from the city, the ICA is an architectural object in the Los Angeles sense of the term, a gleaming piece of virtuoso design hemmed in by surface parking lots. As a result -- because it anticipates a crowded urban context on its southern side that has yet to materialize -- the facade on this edge of the museum, where most visitors will first glimpse it, seems not only mute but a little forbidding.

It's on the other side of the building, the one facing the harbor, that the architects have spent most of their energy. For centuries Bostonians have had an unusually interdependent relationship with the water that surrounds and slices through their neighborhoods. Now they have a piece of architecture that thoroughly engages it.

christopher.hawthorne@ latimes.com

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