Despite a challenging site, Diller Scofidio & Renfro has created an ambitious new arts centre in Boston. But is it good enough to be the catalyst for the US port’s revitalisation.
The preferred European, Peter Zumthor, was deemed too snooty, too uncompromising and too cost-insensitive, so the decision makers chose Diller & Scofidio, architects with little built track record, for the $51 million (£26.4 million) building. They presented with pizzazz and the whiff of fresh ideas. An added boon — they are American.
Diller & Scofidio (since 2004 partnered with Charles Renfro) is a New York-based firm, whose best known built work to date is the Blur Building at the Swiss Expo 02, a project verging on an installation, sitting in the lake amid a haze of mist. Beyond this, the firm’s only completed building was a housing block in Japan. But the practice brings intellectual weight, with its two founding partners Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofido not only being professors at respectively Princeton and Cooper Union, but the first architects to win a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, or “genius award”, in 1999.
The ICA, an existing institution, needed a new building that combined exhibition and performance space. The choice of site, isolated from the city, is perhaps no less ambitious than employing untested architects: the project is essentially a catalyst and supplier of identity for the whole area’s redevelopment.
The ICA sits on the waterfront of the once vibrant port area of Boston, whose history is familiar: decline, wholesale demolition, then, egged on by a buoyant real estate market and proximity to downtown, a realisation that the place is valuable. Currently, it’s a patchwork of varying densities, parking lots, old and new industrial buildings, development plots, all with the looming skyline of the city as a backdrop: it’s actually really rather rich and characterful, in a subtle but also iconic way.
Although by no means unique in this kind of project, during the ICA’s gestation, the development plans for the surrounding area have been dogged by uncertainty: stop and start, moving from one developer to the next. However, it is clearly not a case of if the area kicks off, but when. The “big dig” has sunk the obstructing highway, and the civic-minded city has even invested in a new subway line.
So, to deal with this flux, the ICA’s solution is to be a pavilion, answering to the view, and the as-yet-unbuilt harbour walk, which it is hoped will provide the footfall vital for the waterside public space. The bulk of the building is raised four floors up and supported on another box half its footprint.
Unfortunately, there is a singular failure to treat all the facades with the same attention. The beguiling angles of the photographer are mostly the bayside and west aspects. The south facade, facing away from the water, houses a complex mixture of necessaries such as service entrances and ventilation grilles in a facade of also-ran detailing, which isn’t admitted into the snaking slab expression that animates the flanking facades. It is especially regrettable since it is precisely this aspect that presents itself to the majority of visitors coming from the city, either by public transport or by car. And with the vagaries of adjacent developments it could remain so.
The ICA’s solution is a pavilion, answering to the view, and the as-yet-unbuilt harbour walk
Walking around the building, the east facade also appears a poor relation to the west. Here, the expression of the folded floor plate is lost at the second floor where administration offices are housed.
So, in its context, despite the heroics of the harbourside, the impression is actually of an unsure and slightly hunched quality, the building relating to itself and the harbour, but giving no strong leads for future neighbours to pick up on.
One can’t help feeling that if the building had entered into either a more confident or a more subtle dialogue with the messy locality it turns its back on, the ICA would be imbued with some character, and set the standard for the area.
On entering the building through the main entrance on the south-west corner, the building’s overarching character calls to mind a series of other places rather than exude a feeling of its own.
The building’s main concept is its expressed section: the bulk of the top floor gallery, the glass walled auditorium, a partly timber-clad plane folding its way round alternately compressed and open spaces leading up to the galleries, celebrated by the etch-a-sketch expressed floor slab representation on the side facades. This follows a formal tradition made familiar over the past 20-odd years: raking floors (think Koolhaas’s Kunsthall in Rotterdam) or folded planes (think Zaha Hadid in Cincinnati) or gravity defying boxes (Alsop’s art college in Toronto).
Being a top-heavy building, it will perhaps remind a UK audience of Peckham Library. But Alsop’s drama was carried on a stronger rhetoric than this gravity-defying cantilever. By providing a previously inaccessible view to central London, the height of Peckham Library also served to connect the rundown district to elsewhere, reminding the place of its Londoness, and hopefully raise ambitions for the future. The ICA’s elevation provides a view available from countless corporate boardrooms in Boston, drawing people away from the city through airport-style planar glazing with look-at-me shiny stainless-steel fixings.
The building includes performance and education facilities, but the main draw is a suite of top quality art installation spaces.
Boston’s contemporary art scene is small and somewhat cautious. The ICA, though in existence for more than 70 years, previously had no permanent collection and was housed in temporary buildings. Now, through valiant support of a series of local benefactors and a step change
It is hoped the reborn ICA will develop a presence commensurate with the city’s other cultural attractions
in ambition, it is hoping the reborn institution will develop a national presence commensurate with the city’s other cultural attractions, such as its renowned academic museums.
One of the tensions for architects entrusted with making art space — especially in the era of installation art — is treading the line between creating a setting for art, or pushing the building itself the foreground. Given Diller Scofidio & Renfro’s history of installation projects, the ICA was perhaps taking the view in its appointment that an artist’s sensibilities are best placed to form space for art.
The initial journey through the building is punctuated by a series of “events”: the room-sized lift, the main auditorium with its vast glass wall overlooking the bay and the experiential piece-de-resistance, the computer room, seemingly suspended over the water, the horizon-less view strictly edited to the ripples below.
So, on reaching the top floor, one is almost relieved to enter the “background” space: the area where the art is allowed. The designated installation space is calm, controllably top-lit, well proportioned and has a discreet system for adapting the walls.
It provides installation space of international quality. A world where your mind is overpowered less by the envelope and more by something carefully curated, usually impermanent, with a little white tag, namely the content of an exhibition. From this space you enter a long empty narrow room affording the view out the window.
Staring over Boston Bay, one can’t help but see this project in the context of Cambridge, Massachusetts, a few miles upstream from the ICA. There, a wave of Europeans — Gropius, Le Corbusier, Aalto, Saarinen and Sert — built probably the world’s most compact showcase of architectural modernism at Harvard and MIT. In recent years, the tendency to commission big shot European architects for major cultural buildings has become all but a nationwide rule. Boston’s ICA may be a sign that that culture is at last changing.
But the building that Diller Scofidio & Renfro have produced is no more grounded in its environment than any of the recent US landmarks by the likes of Libeskind, Herzog & de Meuron, Koolhaas and Hadid.
Indeed, despite the richness of Boston, its studied aping of the preoccupying themes of the European avant-garde over the past couple of decades signals that unfortunately the “colonial complex” is not yet dead and buried.