Monday, December 18, 2006

Back to the Future

It's ironic that Alex Beam should be gleefully looking forward to the (possible) de-construction of City Hall when his own rag (as well as its parent) has just been showering accolades on a building that harkens back to that abhorred behemoth. The new Institute for Contemporary Arts, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, has been wildly praised, but few of its critics have offered much in the way of critique – as was no doubt the case with City Hall when it opened in 1968. Ah, the more things change, the more they. . . (well, you know the rest).

Boston City Hall

This isn’t to say that the new ICA is as grim (or as bad) as City Hall; it will never, trust me, be hated. But it’s also hardly the triumph its promoters would like to pretend. And it’s so indebted to utopian modernism that its echoes of that period demand further exploration – and explanation.

The new ICA

Like City Hall, the new ICA is a cold thing of concrete, steel and glass – far more glass than concrete or steel this time around, of course; still, the structural echo is apparent, even at first glance: both buildings lift their main functions onto platforms, and thus while projecting an image of openness, actually feel sealed and impregnable; both are more or less indifferent to the street (the ICA even turns its back on its main approach); both showcase cantilevers (the ICA takes this to an extreme); and both are skirted by barren plazas. All that concrete, of course, tips City Hall from a bon sauvage dream into a big fat Teutonic nightmare – yet it still has a certain cruel, romantic aura that the ICA utterly lacks; you can tell the people who designed City Hall (Gerhard Kallmann and Noel McKinnell) were, at least, designers (a contention borne out by their later work).

With Diller Scofidio + Renfro, however, I’m not so sure. Are they really architects? Or are they still what they started out as, that is, conceptual artists? Or are they something more like curators?

I lean toward that last option, largely because the new ICA feels more curated than designed; it’s modernism reconsidered and reconfigured, but without the kind of original stroke that marks the true architect. You feel such signatures most clearly in the details (as Mies might agree): the eccentric handrails on a Stirling building, the geometry of the stained glass in a Wright – these details jump and cohere with their structures' overall form, and indicate the penetrative power of an individual talent.

The new ICA, however, feels almost denuded of such touches. (Diller Scofidio's one design signature, a "ribbon" of path leading up the structure, doesn't resonate much.) The building does have its striking gambits, enough to tip the balance to success; but these all feel more like the result of intellectual due diligence than the free play of inspiration. The museum’s great advantage is its site at the water’s edge, which the architects cling to with something like desperation. And they’re right to; their building may be a bit subdued, a little bland in its zen chic, but it commands some stunning views that turn its “less” into considerably “more.” A vista of downtown towers all but transforms the new theater, and the odd “crosswalk” at the front of the building affords a strange, peaceful communion with the rippling water below. Most striking (and vertiginous) is the wonderful “water view” of the “Mediatheque” (no doubt what Henri Langlois would have called it) - a staircase of computer screens cascading down to another shimmering "screen" (actually a window on the waves below).

The "Mediatheque" - both ICA photos by Joel Brown

On to the main event: the galleries (once you get to them) are fine: flooded with natural light from on high, and obviously designed for flexibility, they give the ICA three times the space they had in Back Bay. Elsewhere, however, things are a little less fine: the entry is kinda awkward, the stairs a bit cramped, and while the big glass elevator is fun, the “atrium” next door doesn’t really work. And it’s hard to tell exactly where you are in this building, or where you’re going, which is odd in a fairly modestly-scaled structure.

It does look great from Anthony's Pier 4; the ICA's publicity shot

And then there’s the persistent hum of futurist nostalgia, seemingly seeping right out of the walls. This isn't simply because almost every gesture in the building is appropriated, it’s also because the structure is in such exquisite accord with the received attitudes of its audience. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the press corps went ape for the ICA – it all but nails its upper middlebrow, counter-cultural sweet spot. This is the sixties revisited, with all the concrete transliterated into glittering glass, and wired for the Internet (Diller Scofidio + Renfro can count on technology to bless their aesthetic with the illusion of progress). The building’s not really a piece of architecture – it’s the extension of a brand, a “Museum of the Future,” an Epcot for Cambridge and Brookline. As such, it could be worse (a lot worse), so perhaps we should just count our blessings. Still, the new ICA reinforces troubling issues about the contemporary art world itself – more on that in my future essays on the the museum's current shows and permanent collection.


  1. How about you credit BOTH of my pix that you're using, eh?

  2. Sure - sorry, the credit on the first one was sort of hanging off the page for some reason, so I skipped it (which was wrong). I've made the second credit plural, I hope that suffices.

  3. For the casual reader - "joel" is Joel Brown of I borrowed two images from his website for this article - but while he used the images as companions to flights of praise, I used them to corroborate my critique.

  4. Sorry to be so late to comment on this post, but I just visited the ICA this weekend and I have to gripe somewhere. I think the building is an architectural travesty. Y'schlep all the way out to the waterfront and get nothing in the way of an interesting building, just its ass with utility doors backed up against the street, and a difficult to find entrance. Degrading to human beings on land, the building is a cold, soul-sapping, depressing example of everything wrong about contemporary architecture, a building by egotistical designers who have forced their flawed and ignoble ideas around a building that should contribute to its immediate environment rather than sucking from it like a parasite or infected boil. Essentially, it doesn't seem to be conceived as a cultural resource, but an imposing, elitist building that gives its all for the waterfront, but only steals from the land behind it. A horrible, horrible building that should never have been built in Boston.