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Three Museums Merge into One

By T.R. Witcher

The tight urban site of the Harvard Art Museums challenged architects and engineers working to create a unifying structure.

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Two galleries, including the one above, cantilever from the main mass of the new addition. The galleries are meant to provide a place in which visitors and students can recharge. © Nic Lehoux

March 17, 2015—When Harvard University officials and architects at Renzo Piano Building Workshop (RPBW) began planning the ambitious consolidation of three Harvard art museums under one roof, they asked themselves what a 21 st -century art museum should be about. They envisioned the new Harvard Art Museums as not a static treasure box of art, but as a dynamic research facility.

At the heart of the Harvard Art Museums are three once separate and now joined museums. The oldest, the Fogg Museum, dates to 1895 and houses European and American art. The Busch-Reisinger Museum opened in 1903 and specializes in the art of central and northern Europe, with a focus on German-speaking countries. The Arthur M. Sackler Museum, which opened in 1985, includes significant holdings in Mediterranean countries, Islamic countries and South and East Asia. Combined, the three museums contain about 250,000 objects—making the new facility one of the largest art museums in the country.

But the unifying project is about more than art. In addition to 43,000 sq ft of gallery space, the $250-million center houses a 10,000 sq ft art study center where students and researchers can actually study, face to face, individual pieces from the collection, rather than merely studying slides. The facility also houses the Strauss Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, dedicated to the science of art conservation.

The Fogg moved into its current space—a Georgian Revival building designed by Coolidge, Shepley, Bulfinch and Abott—in 1927, and over time the other museums moved into additions nearby. The three museums were next to each other but not really together—the "newer pieces didn't talk to each other," says Justin Lee, AIA, an architect with Renzo Piano Building Workshop. Further, curators had a difficult time bringing the collections into conversation with each other.

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The historic courtyard, modeled after an Italian piazza, is joined with a glass roof skylight that brings natural light into the heart of the building. © Nic Lehoux

So in the beginning, to move forward, architects kept the original building and demolished its additions. The result is a dynamic merger between the Georgian brick of the Fogg and a new, wood-clad addition. A large pyramid-shaped skylight joins the two buildings.

Of course, consolidating three museums on one tight urban site presented its share of challenges. For one, a new subterranean drainage system had to be installed to keep archived materials dry; the basements were very close to the water table. "The new basement mechanical room was built much further into the water table than the existing building was," explained David Jones, P.E., an associate with Arup, who responded in writing to questions posed by Civil Engineering online. Arup conducted the mechanical, electrical, plumbing, fire protection, lighting, daylighting, facade, and fire engineering for the project, and also served as the code and sustainability consultant. "In order to prevent groundwater from seeping into the building, significant efforts went into waterproofing and drainage. Groundwater captured from below the slab was piped into a storage tank, where it is treated and then reused as irrigation water."

The city storm sewer is located beneath the street, adjacent to the art storage spaces, he explained. "All building storm water needed to be routed to this side of the building below the art storage spaces," he said. "The elevation of the city sewer within the street was such that storm piping leaving the building is just barely below the art storage slab."

The original 1920s building lacked air-handling and humidity-control systems that meet modern standards. "The amount of MEP [mechanical, electrical, and plumbing] that went into the space was astounding, and you needed to find pathways for all of that [[in and around the] structure," says Michael Auren, P.E., an associate and director of Robert Silman Associates, who works in the firm's Boston office. Silman conducted the structural engineering for the project.

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The Harvard Art Museums combine a historic Georgian Revival building with a new, wood-clad exterior; a pyramid-shaped skylight dubbed the Light Machine joins the two structures. © Nic Lehoux

The architecture, mechanical, and structural systems all wanted to live in the same location, Auren says, and the design team was constrained by floor-to-floor heights of the original building. "We had some massive penetrations through many of our steel beams," Auren says. "In some cases, we increased the depth of steel beams simply to create room to go through them. We couldn't make them shallow enough to go underneath.

Jones added, "The mechanical spaces that existed in the original building at the lowest level were reused for the new building. These spaces were originally used only for ductwork transfers from other locations into the gallery shafts. This low-height space was utilized in the new building for much more new ductwork and piping, as well as integrating storm-water and groundwater storage and treatment."

Jones explained that a new basement had to be constructed at a lower level under the new building. "In order to prevent undermining of the existing building foundations, large areas were carved out of the mechanical equipment room in the basement, and not excavated," Jones said. "As the basement was already pushed to the edges of the site, there was a great deal of pressure on the available space for mechanical equipment. In response to these challenges, the design and construction teams created one of the most volumetric, efficient mechanical rooms in a building of this type." 

Aboveground, the new addition utilizes cantilevers on three sides, so that the whole structure appears to float off the ground. Designers added two additional galleries, one on the north side and one on the south, that cantilever further off of the main cantilevers, for a total of around 20 ft. "When we start getting into the complexity of multiple cantilevers, even if it's just two, we begin starting to go into the realm of construction sequencing," Auren says.

The key was to plan for movements at critical moments during construction—such as when the steel went up, or when the concrete was placed. This affected the drywall installation, too, he says. "If you're a sheetrocker, you show up on the job, tape all the joints, add three more stories, and then cantilevers move another inch," Auren says, as a hypothetical. "The sheetrock cracks or joints open up. At what point is it safe to say, 'Let's snap a line and put some trim up?'"

Those protruding galleries arose from observations that RPBW made about the experience visitors often have in art museums—namely, that it can be exhausting. Eyes and minds become fatigued trying to engage with so many pieces of art on so many walls across so many rooms. Additionally, light levels inside museums are often low, which can further strain the eyes.

So the new galleries are designed as breakout space, where visitors can step out of the main flow of the museum, sit down, rest and reflect, look outside. They also give curators new environments in which to showcase art.

The old and new buildings are joined by an elaborate skylight structure, dubbed the Light Machine, which establishes the building's presence on the campus skyline and brings daylight down to the first level of the courtyard. The glass-and-steel structure slopes inward as it rises, hiding the mass of the uppermost portion of the building from street level. "As you go up you get more light and [the structures gets] lighter in weight," says Lee.

Viewed from the inside, the Light Machine joins the top of the original Calderwood Courtyard, which mirrors the typology of an Italian piazza. The courtyard was extended upward with glass arcades on the upper three floors and a new glass roof that allows controlled natural light into the heart of the building. Shades on the exterior of the Light Machine serve as solar protection, blocking 91 percent of the light from entering the building. There's a second, PVC­coated shade underneath the triple glazing, which diffuses the remaining light entering the interior.

In order to keep the courtyard and two entrances as public as possible, and leave space for those who shortcut through the building or stop in for a coffee—security areas were pulled back to the corners of the courtyard and the entrance to the galleries. The museums have separate entrances—they are nominally still separate institutions. The identities of the museums are preserved on the courtyard level but as visitors ascend up into the various floors, the spaces and the collections begin to merge and the museums, experientially, become one.

Architects clad the building addition in Alaskan yellow cedar. They wanted a material that would complement the wood siding of residential homes nearby in Cambridge. They worked with a wood scientist to help them find the right kind of wood; the cedar they chose is hardy and requires little maintenance. A natural oil inside should prevent termites or other insects from having their way. While metal gets dirtier with time, Alaskan yellow cedar should weather into a silverish grey.

"Knots and heavy grain patterns define wood visually,"Lee says. And while that lends a traditional look, it is "problematic from the performance perspective," he says. "Those are some of the things that cause wood to fail prematurely." They're also places where water can seep into or behind the wood and cause physical damage.

So RPBW wrote very tight specs on the quality of timber they needed to ensure it was less likely to warp, bend, or crack over time. They limited the size and frequency of knots and also defined the number of grains per inch (20), as well as the moisture content through different phases of the fabrication of the timber pieces.

"With the finished stain and the quality of wood we selected, the traditional sense of wood…is reduced to minimal, and you don't necessarily realize it is wood until you get up close to the facades," Lee explains.

Mockups were built at different scales and with different finishes during various phases of design—some were tested in a Somerville parking lot for nearly two years to determine how they handled the weather.

The Harvard Art Museums received a gold rating from the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program on the basis of such sustainability measures as procuring more than a third of its electricity through renewable energy certificates, storing rainwater to supplement water for restrooms, and diverting more than 97 percent of construction waste from landfills to recycling or reuse.


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