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Rebalancing act

Architects Foster + Partners knew that designing a new wing called for nothing less than shifting the MFA’s center of gravity

By Laura Collins-Hughes
Globe Staff / November 14, 2010

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In describing the Museum of Fine Arts’ latest architectural evolution, the most obvious part of the story is Foster + Partners’ lucid new addition: the airy glass and steel box in the courtyard and, directly to its east, the Art of the Americas Wing with its glass-and-granite facade. But when Michael Jones, a partner in Pritzker Prize winner Norman Foster’s London-based firm, arrived there one afternoon to tell that story, he first set out to get as far from the wing as he could inside the museum. He headed for the old entrance in the westernmost chunk of the building, designed by I.M. Pei.

The long walk was meant to illustrate what had quickly become obvious to the architects after the MFA hired them, in 1999, to do a strategic overview of its campus: Pei’s 1981 addition, just off the parking area, had proved so popular that it became the de facto main entrance, throwing the whole building — and visitors’ experience of it — out of whack.

“Effectively the success of this end of the museum was making the other end of the museum basically die,’’ Jones explained. “They were the most undervisited, underrepresented galleries because people physically never got to that end of the building.’’

The MFA, he explained, consisted of 11 separate pieces designed by various architects and constructed over the course of the 20th century, beginning with Guy Lowell’s 1909 Beaux-Arts building on Huntington Avenue. As Foster + Partners dug through the MFA’s archives to unearth its architectural history, the question was how to reassert the design coherence that had been lost.

Or, as senior partner Spencer de Grey said later by telephone: “How do you make sense of a building that has sort of grown up in a slightly random way?’’

The answer, they decided, was to restore the neoclassical symmetry called for in Lowell’s original master plan for the site, revivifying the old even as they married a new structure to it. Interventions in historic buildings — the Reichstag in Berlin, Hearst Tower in New York, and British Museum in London — are among the firm’s best-known work, but this would be its biggest US museum project.

“We really try to be very respectful,’’ Jones said, strolling now along the north-south axis Lowell created between his two anchors: the MFA’s Huntington Avenue and Fenway entrances, the latter reopened in June 2008 after nearly three decades of dormancy, the former reestablished last year as the main path into the museum.

“I’m not saying that we don’t do something that’s quite powerful in and of itself and is a very purposeful building of its time, but it’s respectful of the existing building that it’s adding to. After all, you know, they’ve got to sit together for . . . ’’ He paused. “Ever,’’ he finished, and laughed.

Stretching over 11 years, the job has encompassed everything from a fresh master plan for the MFA’s architectural future (this construction is merely phase one) to the tiniest details of new gallery interiors. The physical reorientation of the museum, which included closing the west entrance to the general public, alters the way visitors are meant to move through the space: intuitively, lured by artworks in the distance.

While shifting the MFA’s center of gravity to its actual middle — along the main axis and in the newly enclosed courtyard — is key to the scheme, the 121,307-square-foot new wing on the museum’s eastern flank balances Pei’s addition and places the Americas collection in what de Grey, one of Foster + Partners’ two heads of design and the ranking architect on the MFA team, called “quite a grand but on the other hand not overassertive framework.’’

The 12,184-square-foot courtyard, 63 feet high, is bathed in natural light, a Foster + Partners hallmark. But unlike the firm’s famous canopied courtyards, such as the one at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, the MFA’s is a freestanding building — an innovation inspired by Boston’s prescriptive seismic codes, Jones said.

Most of the 53 galleries in the new wing get some sort of carefully regulated daylight, too, in part to prevent the fatigue brought on by “moving from internal space to internal space,’’ he said. A deeper philosophy, however, is at work in the wing’s central glass facade and the sculpture-dotted passageways that line it: They’re a direct contradiction of the impenetrable exterior the MFA previously showed to the city. Visitors get to look out at the neighborhood, Jones noted, and the neighborhood gets to look into the museum.

“The building,’’ he said, “is not a fortress.’’

Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at lcollins-hughes@globe.com.

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