11/21/2014 11:22 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Renzo Piano's "Light Machine:" The Harvard Art Museums Reopen

The Harvard Art Museums (October 30, 2014). Photo: Peter Vanderwarker.

On Nov. 16th, the Harvard Art Museums opened once again. With a combined collection of over 250,000 objects -- the Fogg Museum, the Busch-Reisinger Museum, and the Arthur M. Sackler Museum -- represent one of the largest art museum collections in the United States, and it has been a long hiatus for the viewing public. It has also been a long, challenging, yet exciting building project, lasting six-years for the expansion and renovation, and at least a decade in the planning.

The Harvard Art Museums, showing the new addition (October 25, 2014). Photo: Peter Vanderwarker.

The new building, designed by the Renzo Piano Building Workshop, preserves the Fogg Museum's Quincy Street historic façade and the iconic arcaded Calderwood Courtyard, what Thomas W. Lentz, Director of the Harvard Art Museums, calls the "emotional heart of the building." Adjoining the historic building is a new addition, with a spectacular glass ceiling joining the two buildings while filtering sunlight throughout the facility.

​The Harvard Art Museums, showing the upper arcades around the Calderwood Courtyard and the glass roof (April 3, 2014). Photo: Zak Jensen.

We asked him to design it from the inside out -- to create a new kind of laboratory for the fine arts," Lentz said recently of the Italian architect. Piano proceeded to design a building dedicated not only to the display of art objects, but a space ideal for research, conservation, and training museum professionals. Piano describes his vision in terms of "stratification, an overlap of spaces and services that proceeds upwards towards more specialized functions." As such, the ground floor serves the public, with gratis entry and a café, the second and third floors serve for the display of artworks, while the upper levels of the building are dedicated to more specialized activities such as research and conservation. Piano characterizes the museum as a machine, "The hidden base of the museums' machine is the storage, where the artworks are filed and protected from the effects of time; while the rest of the space, under the big glazed lantern, is open to the city and to the light."

The Harvard Art Museums, showing the third-floor arcade overlooking the Calderwood Courtyard (September 18, 2014). Photo: © Nic Lehoux.
The Harvard Art Museums, during renovation and expansion, showing the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies (September 18, 2014). Photo: © Nic Lehoux.

The new glass roof is undoubtedly the most recognizable and iconic element of the new building's construction. Piano reputedly calls it the "light machine," designed to suffuse the building's various spaces with light, from the courtyard floor and arcades, to the galleries and conservation workshops. "Light is one of the most interesting materials you can think about," Piano remarks in a promotional video produced by Harvard, "In some way the natural light is more interesting because it's not perfect, it's not entirely predictable. You feel the clouds coming and going, you feel the day going away, you feel all this little change." The glass also suggests transparency, allowing visitors visual access into departments of the museum that usually remain behind closed doors; now one can view conservationists and researchers at work in the glass walled Straus Center on the building's uppermost levels. Additional new spaces include the Lightbox Gallery that showcases the intersections of art and technology; the Art Study Center, an environment dedicated to learning through the examination of original art objects; and the Materials Lab on the lower level, which encourages hands-on learning focused on materials and different art media.

Galleries at the new Harvard Art Museums, with works from the collection of the Fogg Museum (June 12, 2014). Photo: Zak Jensen.

A gallery at the new Harvard Art Museums, with sculptures from the collection of the Busch-Reisinger Museum (September 19, 2014). Photo: © Nic Lehoux.

Renzo Piano's "light factory" joins together the three Harvard museums under one roof for the first time, bringing together the American and European art of the Fogg Museum, with the Germanic collection of the Busch Reisinger Museum, and the Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Asian, and Near East art of the Sackler. Commingling the three museums' collections invites curatorial juxtapositions between objects from different eras, cultures, and media. The expansion project has increased gallery space by 40 percent, a total of about 43,000 square feet, most of which is given over to the reinstallation of the museums' permanent collections. A new Special Exhibitions Gallery and three University Galleries supplement the permanent collection rooms, and the layout is specially designed to encourage close engagement with works of art, not only for students, but the general public as well.

Mark Rothko's Panel One, Panel Two, and Panel Three (Harvard Mural Triptych), with restored colors using light from digital projectors in the exhibition Mark Rothko's Harvard Murals, on display at the Harvard Art Museums November 16, 2014-July 26, 2015. © 2014 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Peter Vanderwarker, © President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Two special exhibitions open along with the doors of the new Harvard Art Museums: "Mark Rothko's Harvard Murals" and "Rebecca Horn: Work in Progress." Rothko's Harvard Murals, completed in 1962, were commissioned for the University's Holyoke Center. They hung there until 1979 when they entered storage, deemed unsuitable for exhibition. Fittingly, it was the same natural element whose virtues Piano extols that caused damage to Rothko's paintings--high levels of natural light. And light, again fittingly, is the material that Harvard conservators have utilized in restoring the paintings. The paintings had faded unevenly, and due to Rothko's light and delicate application of paint, traditional conservation efforts would effectively destroy the paintings. The conservators looked instead to digital technologies, using projected light to correct the color on the canvases, optically restoring the works their former vibrancy without actually manipulating the surface of the paintings. Rothko's original five Harvard Murals, along with a sixth painting, intended for the Harvard commission but ultimately not included, will all be displayed together for the first time. Accompanying sketches and studies will complement the special installation of the complete Harvard Murals, illustrating the artist's process for this important yet hitherto understudied series of Rothko paintings.

Rebecca Horn, German (b. 1944), Pencil Mask, 1972, still from Performances 2 (1973, color and sound, 16 mm in DVD projection; 38 min.). Harvard Art Museums/Busch-Reisinger Museum, Purchase in memory of Eda K. Loeb, 2014.199.3. © Rebecca Horn / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

"Rebecca Horn: Work in Progress" features photographs, multiples and early films from the German artist's multimedia, "interlocking" oeuvre. The works in the exhibition, ranging from the 1970s through the 1990s, are drawn from recent acquisitions of Horn's work by the Busch-Reisinger Museum, together with a commissioned kinetic sculpture, Flying Books under Black Rain Painting (2014). The sculpture will be on long-term display as part of the museums' Art in Public Spaces initiative. Described as a "painting machine," the interactive installation, activated by viewers' presence, sprays paint across the wall, resulting in an automated Abstract Expressionist-looking picture. The "painting machine" installation will be displayed in the new Prescott Street entrance -- I couldn't imagine a better way to enter the "light machine" that's known as the new Harvard Art Museums.