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Architecture Review

A wing that works

The beauty of the MFA's expansion is how it showcases the art without calling attention to itself

By Robert Campbell
Globe Correspondent / November 20, 2010

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The handsome new Art of the Americas Wing at the Museum of Fine Arts is a place for looking at art, not a place for looking at architecture.

That makes it a departure from other art museums of recent years. At least since architect Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain, back in 1997, it seems we’re always being told that the museum itself, not its contents, is the real work of art.

Not at the MFA. This is a building where the art is thoughtfully displayed in an architectural setting that doesn’t call attention to itself.

That’s a surprise coming from this architect, the British firm Foster + Partners. Led by Sir Norman Foster, one of the world’s so-called “starchitects,’’ Foster + Partners is known for such spectacular spaces as the skylit Reading Room of the British Museum in London and the reconstruction of the Reichstag in Berlin, with its spiral glass crown.

We can be grateful that Foster and his team held back on the fireworks this time. The Art of the Americas Wing, which opens to the public today, is a triumph of intelligence and pragmatism. It’s better inside than outside, but we’ll talk about that later.

There’s a lot to love in these interiors. First of all, there’s the openness. In the past, the MFA felt locked up like a guarded jewel box. The new wing throws itself open to the world around it. Artworks need to be protected from too much daylight, but the architects find ways to give us views of the Fenway, a neglected part of Boston’s famous Emerald Necklace of parkland. The Fenway now feels less isolated, more connected, more like the MFA’s own landscape. And there are other striking views, including a panorama of the downtown skyline. Whenever you feel a little claustrophobic, you can step out to a glass observation deck that runs across the front of each new floor.

Then there’s the variety. The 53 galleries of the new wing come in many different sizes, shapes, and colors. They are a refreshing change from the mazelike cube farm of white galleries you find in such museums as the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Sometimes the walls are covered with fabric patterns, derived from the same historical era as the art on display. Sometimes they’re painted in soft tones. A particularly sensitive touch is the handling of the captions that label each artwork. Instead of looking pasted on, they’re color-coordinated with the walls.

Finally, for the first time in my experience, it’s now possible to figure out where you are in the MFA. Since the opening of the museum’s West Wing in 1981, designed by noted architect I.M. Pei, that’s been almost impossible. Most visitors entered through the Pei wing at the extreme end of the museum and quickly got lost in what seemed to be disorder.

The first thing Foster + Partners did was study the floor plan of the original MFA of 1909, by architect Guy Lowell. Lowell’s plan, like much traditional architecture, was based on the human body. You entered at the head, and the building wings spread out symmetrically to the left and right like arms. It’s a kind of order we grasp intuitively.

Foster has restored that old order. The Pei entry will be now used only for bus groups. The rest of us will again enter the museum at its center, either from the Fenway or from Huntington Avenue. A spine of visitor services — ticketing, tourist shop, information — now connects those two entrances.

To help you further with your wayfinding, openings between galleries tend to be lined up with one another, creating long vistas you can look or walk down. It’s an effect that was called Parade Rooms in an earlier era. The vistas let you see one part of the museum from another. They lace everything together visually. Often, for further legibility, the curators and architects site an especially bold or famous artwork at the termination of a vista.

The London-based Foster + Partners worked with local architects CBT/Childs Bertman Tseckares on the job.

One space in the Art of the Americas Wing is meant to be the highlight of the whole museum. This is the Ruth and Carl J. Shapiro Family Courtyard, a vast, three-story-high volume that’s mostly roofed and walled in glass. It feels like a conservatory, framed in greenery planted outside the glass walls. It’s an amazingly multipurpose space, containing a café, for instance, that can be totally whisked out of sight to make room for other kinds of events. A grand stair at one end leads you to the new galleries.

The museum sees the Shapiro Family Courtyard as a sort of town square where the museum visitor can relax with an espresso and take stock. The best you can say for this space today, though, is that it’s promising. Someone failed to figure out that in most sun conditions, the glass walls would function as mirrors. They reflect you instead of letting you see the green behind them. And the gray corporate furniture is better suited to an accountant’s seminar than a cultural space. There’s almost no art — just two big sculptures — a lack that creates a feeling of emptiness. All these problems, of course, are correctable, and it will be fun to see how the courtyard evolves.

I like so much about the new wing that I’m hesitant to deal with its exterior. I asked the MFA’s director, Malcolm Rogers, what he told his architects it should look like. “Not a palace or a prison,’’ he replied. Well, it isn’t either of those. The problem is that it lacks any particular character at all.

What you see from either the Fenway or from Huntington Avenue is a wall made of panels of glass and granite, crisply framed in black steel. The stone is the same Deer Isle granite from Maine that built the old museum. But instead of creating the impression of a massive wall, the new granite panels look as if they could be shuffled and rearranged in the frame.

It’s a modernist look, which is fine, and it rightly implies that the museum is expandable. But other than a glimpse of statues just inside the glass walls, it’s a look that fails to communicate much about the riches inside. And as often happens in architecture, there’s an unintended metaphor. This part of the museum looks too much like a stack of shipping containers on a wharf somewhere.

In the larger scheme of things, the disappointing facades don’t count for much. The Art of the Americas Wing is a deeply humane, deeply thoughtful piece of architecture.

Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell can be reached at camglobe@aol.com.

ART OF THE AMERICAS WING Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org