The opening of a new museum building, which threatens to become a monthly event, is an opportunity for art journalists like me to get hold of something big to chew on (including, more often than not, croissants and salmon). The new Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston by Diller Scofidio + Renfro was no exception: Reporters and photographers who flocked in from London, Switzerland, Japan, and the Harvard Crimson ate better breakfasts than they did at home, downed fortifying vats of coffee, and declared the building a treat.
The ICA used to inhabit a former police station, a building that played a kind of bad-cop-somewhat-good-cop game with art by squeezing it into tight spaces on several levels. The new building puts all the galleries on one level (the top, third floor) with lots of movable walls. It commands a piece of the Boston waterfront like some maverick lighthouse, sitting right on the public Harbor Walk mere feet from the water’s bank. The gallery floor is audaciously cantilevered 80 feet out from the rest of the museum toward passing ferryboats and whatever cod still ply those waters.
Elizabeth Diller told reporters more than once that unlike certain other museums—we, of course, chuckled knowingly when she declined to name names—the new ICA was meant to showcase the art more than the architecture. And though the building is the big news, it is generous to what’s on view. The lobby, for instance, is dominated by a mammoth mural called “The Divine Gas,” a temporary work created for the space by Chiko Aoshima, a young Japanese artist. A lissome nude lies prostrate in a luscious landscape, a distressed look on her face and her large, round, “anime” eyes entirely filled with views of downtown Boston and the harbor. From her upended derriere rises an enormous cloud with miniature nudes in it, some so overcome they fall toward earth. Jill Medvedow, the ICA’s Director, informed us that the painting was originally titled “The Divine Fart.”
Charles Renfro supplied the press with invaluable statistics: The site is legally 19,000 square feet, the cantilevered top floor 22,300, and the total cubic footage 1,360,640. Holding it all up are enough tons of steel to build 350 S.U.V.’s. The elevator can take 72 people, for a total of 6.5 tons, a sum that may not account for the current obesity epidemic. (The elevator could in fact be taken for an unmoored room, a circumstance last encountered when Borat, ascending in a hotel elevator, remarked that it was a nice room and began unpacking.) The scrim over the theater windows required enough silk to have fashioned 544 wedding gowns. The architects spent 2,007 days on the project.
Ricardo Scofidio said he was uncomfortable speaking publicly, and if you thought of the partnership as the Marx brothers, he’d be a perfect Harpo.
On the day of the preview the Boston Globe declared the museum the most interesting and important building in the city since the Hancock Building—a judgment that has since been repeated without mentioning that the windows of that building initially had a nasty habit of blowing out and splattering glass down on passing pedestrians. The ICA’s windows so far are intact, and they romance the splendid views of city and harbor as suggesting a prodigal cross between Joseph Mallord William Turner and the New England luminists.
Two huge, sheer glass walls open the second-story theater onto city and harbor. (The theater’s first performance will be by Streb, a company whose motto is “We dance, you sweat.”) The architects remarked that they designed the exterior wall of a long third-story hallway entirely of gridded glass to function as a mural of the water view. It makes you understand, as no mere artist could, why ocean-front property is so expensive. The small Mediatheque, suspended at a downward angle from the cantilevered gallery floor and equipped with computers for study, descends to a window that looks down on nothing but water everywhere. Diller said the intention was to produce a very calculated boredom, something changing but always the same. Well, maybe not always the same. There were reports that odd items occasionally floated by and startled people engrossed in contemporary art on monitors.
With all this emphasis on water, the day of the preview appropriately threatened rain, and when a shower did its bit on a group being guided on a tour of the building’s exterior, staff members rushed out with bundles of brand-new umbrellas, nothing being too good for the press.
Nicholas Baume, chief curator, informed us that Super Vision, the major exhibition, was planned as a response to a building that looked so hard at looking. The idea was to showcase artists’ ways of coping with the fact that the eyes don’t necessarily have it. The show had its fine moments, and though not entirely far-sighted, it did make clear that vision may never be the same again. Mona Hatoum’s piece was a self portrait of her body’s interior via medical videos of her endoscopy and colonoscopy; Harun Farocki’s film of mechanized vision included the images that “smart bombs” take of their descent to mayhem: non-human photographs of inhuman events.
This was Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s first major architectural commission in the U.S., though they’ve been working steadily since 1979, and the husband-wife team of Diller and Scofidio was awarded the first MacArthur “genius” grant ever given in the field of architecture in 1999. The combined firm recently won the commission to develop New York’s High Line with the landscape architects Field Operation. Even before the preview, Mayor Thomas Menino declared the new ICA an “architectural masterpiece,” the kind of statement mayors carry in their kit bags but a trifle closer to reality than many another. The press drifted away from the preview looking pretty happy, which surely made the architects, the museum staff, even the mayor, happy, too.