Reflections in the Fogg: the Renzo Piano Lecture

This fall at the Harvard GSD, Italian architect Renzo Piano shared his thoughts on trust, art and his work on the expansion of the original Fogg Museum, now home to the Fogg, Busch-Reisinger, and the Arthur M. Sackler collections as the Harvard Art Museums.

“Trust me, I’m an architect,” read the shirt he wore for the lecture; he was only partly joking. Of the building process he said, “It’s so difficult that really you need trust.” For Piano, it is trust that bonds client-architect relationships and design-team collaborations alike. Making concepts in architecture, like moviemaking or music, is about quality coming together. “This is one of the professions where you are never alone.”

To realize innovative design in the built environment is to set out to do the impossible, Piano argued. “When you design something, the first thing people tell you is that it’s impossible. I know this word in every language. The truth is people do what they’re used to doing.”

Of his 17-year rethinking of the Fogg Museum (Piano and Harvard started ideating on a new Fogg Museum back in 1997), he designed greater socialization into the space—especially the Calderwood Courtyard, which now has entrances on both ends and is free and open to the public. He likens it to a piazza in Montepulciano, Italy, “I hope people will set up a rendezvous point in the piazza.”

On a recent Saturday, the courtyard was abuzz when I came for my rendezvous. My friend, having taken a seat at one of the desirable people-watching tables lining the southwest side, was chatting with two voluble ladies. They were surrounded by the sculpture by Eva Hesse and paintings by Pablo Picasso; light poured down from what Piano calls “the lantern,” the building’s glass roof.

After their first visits to the museums,, Loeb Fellows Marc Norman and Thaddeus Pawlowski both spoke of the openness of the courtyard. Norman observed that light quality as well as programming made it a platform for social spontaneity comparable to that of a well-attended public exterior space. “The light that filters in is such that you actually feel like you are in a piazza. Movable tables and chairs with the requisite café, now de rigueur for all museums, encourage lingering, and it all happens before you hit the pay wall.”

Pawlowski added, “Overall, the Fogg courtyard is a great social space, top brand architecture open to the public.” He was also sensitive to a design that privileges the consumption of art as opposed to showcasing the spectacle of architecture. “Piano's museums do not stun or even excite us. They are predictable, allowing the art to be the event.”

That’s the point since this is, first and foremost, a new center for art at Harvard. “This is about community, but it’s also of course about showing art, it’s also about studying art,” said Piano. When it was built in 1927, the original Fogg Museum was the first purpose-built space in North America for training art scholars, conservators and museum professionals.

The expansion was designed to preserve this legacy. The new upper level art conservation studios and study rooms, like the new level of galleries below them, connect to the interior courtyard with glass walls, which not only let natural light into the conservation labs but reflect dissonant images onto a shifting canvas.

“Building for art makes the city a better place to live, that’s for sure,” said Piano. Piano’s audience seemed to trust him.

Photos by Barbara Epstein

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