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Build Boston: Touring the MFA

01 Dec 2010

Guest Post // Writing and photography by Katelyn Mayfield, an exhibit designer at Christopher Chadbourne & Associates in Boston. She has a Bachelor of Architecture degree from the Rhode Island School of Design. In her spare time, she makes handstitched books.

After a private tour of the Museum of Fine Art’s new Art of the Americas wing, given by architect Adi Toledano of CBT Architects, I now feel certain that Boston has a world class museum. The tour was given prior to the wing’s grand opening as part of Build Boston. We got up close and personal with the details since almost no one was around, except security guards and last minute glass case cleaners.

My first response in the galleries was to the artifact display cases. These cases were undeniably eye-catching, like no other. The glass was crystal clear, completely devoid of prints of any kind. When standing on one side of a case, I could see perfectly through it and into cases beyond because of the impeccable clarity. The sleekness of the cases also succeeds in hiding complex mechanics, as described in this article. All 200 cases in the new wing were designed, manufactured, and assembled in Milan, Italy by Goppion Museum Workshop before they were shipped to Boston for installation. Goppion has also created display systems for the Mona Lisa at the Louvre and the Crown Jewels of England, among others, so high quality craftsmanship is a given. And once I got past the perfection of the cases, the artifacts inside were not so bad themselves!

Sir Norman Foster along with Foster + Partners was the Design Architect and creative masterminds of the new wing. Our guide, Adi, kept repeating, “Foster wanted ‘everything to line up’”, meaning everything had to be flush. Foster gets what Foster wants. He was knighted in 1990 and won the Pritzker Architecture Prize for his entire portfolio in 1999, the most prestigious international prize awarded in the field of architecture. He was also awarded the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal in 1994. I think he is worthy of dictating every detail, as he did in this project. No detail was overlooked and all components work harmoniously. It was the responsibility of CBT, the local architect of record, to design the actual details that accomplished this harmony. For me, highlights were the “landscape corridor,” the day-lighting strategies, and the details that made “everything line up.”


The landscape corridor is a thoughtful nod to the existing museum structure and the outdoors. Between the original building and the new building, a narrow 6′ space is left full of vegetation. While in the main courtyard, which has two elevations of three-story-high glass walls, the corridors are visible on either side. The natural light, the view of the vegetation and the sky beyond, and the height of the ceiling makes this space feel like an actual outdoor courtyard. The landscape corridor is also visible when crossing over the enclosed bridges from the new wing to other wings. It really is a nice sight.

The main concept of the day-lighting strategy is based on indirect light. It’s seemingly simple, yet very successful. Because all four floors of the wing open onto small glass vestibules which open to the stairways, and then to the courtyard, all four floors have indirect natural light access. Sunlight is obviously harmful to artwork and artifacts, but otherwise a welcome source of light. The solution to safely utilizing this indirect light was to diffuse it through two layers of glass.

This idea that “everything must line up” is showcased in every aspect of the architecture; from the construction of the walls, to the lighting in the ceiling, to the emergency exit signs. The wall surface uses the skim coat plaster technique that is superior to average drywall. It is labor intensive—thick coats of plaster are applied to an expanded wire lath—however, it provides better durability and ease of replacing single spots of wall if necessary.

Even the smallest components, the exit signs, were meticulously executed. In the auditorium, which is covered in wood paneling, a sign protruding perpendicularly from the wall would not do at all. Instead, the letters E-X-I-T were cut into the wood and green light shines through from behind. Apparently this small project in itself was not easily accomplished. It took much compromise and discussion from the Boston Fire Department. The outcome is sleek and yes, “lined up.”

Then there is the door to the bathroom hallway. So well done! The door has no molding, no knob, no latch; it’s a push door, double swing, that extends all the way to the ceiling, with just a 1/4″ gap between.

I also have to mention the graphics. The explanatory text was short and sweet, subtle yet still noticeable. I appreciated the subdued graphics and simple 1″ deep panels painted the same color as the wall. This created a different visual plane to draw your attention, but allowed the artwork and artifacts to take the lead. Within the cases, small numbers on tiny frosted pieces of glass show you which artifact matches up with which label below.

In any case, go see the Boston MFA’s new wing. It is elegant, modern, and simply beautiful.


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