Renzo Piano's expansion for Harvard Art Museums

Renzo Piano, RPBW,

Michel Denance,




Glass, Cement,

Arts, Recovery/Restoration,

The renovation and expansion of Harvard Art Museums in Cambridge, Massachusetts, completed at the end of 2014, is the latest museum project by the Renzo Piano’s Italian studio (RPBW). In Harvard Art Museums, Renzo Piano restores the existing building and completes it with a contemporary volume, joining the two with a glass roof.

Renzo Piano's expansion for Harvard Art Museums

The latest new museum by Renzo Piano (RPBW) opened in November 2014: Harvard Art Museums in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the great Italian architect’s studio planned the renovation of the historic museum building and its expansion with a new contemporary construction. For Calderwood Courtyard, which joins the old volume with the new construction, Renzo Piano designed a roof made entirely out of glass to serve a function of public representation.

The original building, constructed in the ’20s by Coolidge, Shepley, Bulfinch and Abbot Architects, was in need of an overhaul and a radical expansion of the space available in its exhibition galleries so that the three museums officially making up Harvard Art Museums could finally be housed under a single roof. The museums’ 250,000 works cover all ages of history, from antiquity to the Italian Renaissance, 17th century Dutch art, 19th century French and English works and 20th century American art to contemporary art and the new media, and geographic locations, from German collections to Asian art.

Renzo Piano says that his project attempts to establish a close connection between the exhibition halls and the spaces where research is conducted and conservation work is performed on the artworks, which Harvard Art Museums considers one of its special prerogatives, not present in any other American museum.

This concept begins with a new focus on Calderwood Courtyard, on the ground floor of the historic building: an architectural empty space extending the entire height of the building and connecting together all the museum services located on various different floors which overlook it. This symbolic centre provides access to the ground floor, with its public services, shops and restaurants, the exhibition galleries on the first and second floors and the research and conservation laboratories on the fourth and fifth floors, rising from public to semi-public and finally private spaces for students and researchers. Glass is the material used to make the big new roof over the courtyard and the infill walls on the top two levels, rising above the existing floors: an expansion with a focus on transparency, as a linguistic idiom aimed at reducing the visual impact of the structure as it rises into the air, and also as a way of making the most of natural light on the upper levels and in the inner courtyard.

Observing the floor plan of the building, we see that the courtyard is located on the existing axis linking it with the original Quincy Street entrance. Construction of the new wing and opening of a second entrance on Prescott Street, to the east, extends the axis from the west to the east, through Calderwood Courtyard, which serves as a central plaza, like an Italian piazza, as Renzo Piano himself has said: the fulcrum of an urban fabric that originates within the museum but extends out into the city.
This openness to the museum’s surroundings is confirmed by enclosing large portions of the outdoor space in the new complex in glass, offering passers-by continuous views of the exhibition halls.

Mara Corradi

Design: Renzo Piano Building Workshop, architects in collaboration with Payette Associates Inc.
Client: Harvard University
Location: Cambridge, Massachusetts (USA)
Installation design: wHY
Total useable space in the extension: 43,000 sqm
Project start: 2006
Completion of work: 2014
Builder: Skanska USA
Glass roof
Concrete structure

Photos: © Zak Jensen, Peter Vanderwarker, Michel Denance, Lesvants.com, Antoinette Hocbo