THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

At the MFA, a look that feels contemporary

Updated wing is more open and welcoming

By Robert Campbell
Globe Correspondent / September 25, 2011

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The best way to think of the Museum of Fine Arts’ new Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art is to imagine that it’s just emerged from the shower. Its white-walled spaces feel newly scrubbed. They’re bright, fresh, and airy.

The Linde is a do-over, not a new project. It’s a refurbishment of the museum’s 1981 west wing, designed originally by noted architect I.M. Pei. The Linde wing is an example of how much can be accomplished in architecture by a few deft moves. At $12.5 million, it cost less than 3 percent of the price of the MFA’s Art of the Americas Wing, recently completed at the opposite end of the museum. Yet in its own way it’s just as transformative. There’s at least one glaring failure, but I’ll get to that later.

The Linde wing today is more open, more friendly, and more social than before. A lot of what was best about the Pei wing remains untouched, including the Remis Auditorium and, of course, the great vaulted double-height spine known as the Galleria. Elsewhere, though, the improvements are striking.

The first improvement is simply in how you get there. Pei’s wing was made to serve as the main entrance despite the fact that it was located at a far corner of the museum. Entering there, directly from the parking lot, was like entering a mall. And when you got inside you had no idea where you were in relation to the rest of the museum.

That’s been changed. You now enter as in the old days, pre-Pei, by way of the museum’s original main doors, on Huntington Avenue or the Fenway. You work your way back to the Linde through a legible system of other galleries. When you get there, you know where you are and where you’ve come from. The Pei entrance will be reserved for groups, mostly school kids.

Improvement number two is a new openness. Glass walls seem everywhere. Standing in the Galleria, you can now look right through the new shop and restaurant to the greenery of an outdoor courtyard. In a second-floor gallery, a row of high windows - facing north, so there’s no glare - becomes a living mural of treetops. You feel for the first time a connection with the earth around you.

There are new vistas, too. If you look carefully enough, you may notice a visual link that’s a museum version of MIT’s famous Infinite Corridor. It runs the entire vast length of the museum, beginning at the far end of the Americas wing and terminating in the Linde at a Donald Judd wall sculpture.

Change number three, subtle yet powerful, is the use of new surfaces. A wall of the Galleria that used to be covered in Formica is now a white-painted display wall. Many of the Pei-era floors were travertine, a tan-colored, rough-surfaced Italian limestone. They’ve been refinished in pale oak. The oak, lighter and brighter, is a material we associate with the contemporary world, whereas travertine reminds us of ancient Roman ruins and other buildings that seek to assert a sense of history. The oak feels more temporary as befits the ever-changing world of contemporary art.

New art museums are sometimes criticized for paying more attention to their restaurants and souvenir shops than to their art. The Linde does actively seek to be a social space, a community meeting place, as well as a venue for serious art. But it doesn’t go over the line. The museum shop here is actually smaller than it used to be, and the two new restaurants, Taste and Bravo, don’t upstage the art.

I did mention one glaring defect. It has nothing to do with how things look. It’s about how they sound. The decibel level is too high. It’s not so much a problem in the public spaces. But it’s distracting in the galleries. The Foster Gallery on the ground floor, supposedly one of the Linde’s highlights, now contains an exhibit of wood sculptures by Ellsworth Kelly. It’s so reverberant that it would be a better organ hall than art space. The old concrete floor has simply been repainted, in an obvious attempt to save money.

Almost as noisy are the Linde’s main galleries on the second floor. Here the floors used to be gray carpet, a material that absorbs sound. Like the travertine elsewhere, the carpet has been replaced by oak, which looks less gloomy but reflects more sound. The only word for these galleries, even when they are populated by a few people, is raucous.

The acoustical consultant, a respected firm in Cambridge called Acentech, says its engineers recommended a treatment of the gallery walls or ceilings to partially deaden the sound, but the MFA considered it too costly. There’s no reason an acoustical treatment can’t still be added.

I have a couple of lesser reservations about the Linde wing. An escalator used to be the main way of getting between floors. It’s been replaced by a grand stair. The stair is handsome, and it offers a generous overlook balcony halfway up. The escalator was an unusual custom design that cost a lot to maintain. Malcolm Rogers, the MFA director, argues that it made the space feel too much like a hotel or a mall. But no elevator is visible from the new stair. My guess is that some visitors are not going to make their way up to the second level. And that’s where most of the art is.

Lastly, another floor issue. Some areas are surfaced in a black woven vinyl substance called Bolon. I haven’t found anyone who likes it. It resembles the kind of industrial floor you might see in an auto body shop.

These are just gripes about a design that’s mostly a welcome success. All architecture is collaborative, but the Linde wing was more so. Many hands participated. The MFA in-house staff took the lead in design. Also involved in different aspects were two Boston firms, cbt architects and Bergmeyer. A consultant was the London firm of Foster + Partners, which many years ago created the MFA’s master plan and was architect of the Art of the Americas Wing.

Robert Campbell, the Globe’s architecture critic, can be reached at camglobe@aol.com.


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