The Harvard Art Museums Reborn

Harvard Art Museums

Director Thomas W. Lentz on what to expect when the Renzo Piano–designed building reopens in November.

Harvard’s Fogg Museum has been closed since 2008 while architect Renzo Piano’s vision for the building, which will house the university’s three art museums, is being realized. What was the goal of the renovation?

Really, it was about accessibility—we wanted transparency, which is why there’s so much glass. One of the first things Piano said to me was, “You have such a great collection and proud history. Why is it all hidden away?”

How did Piano work to create that transparency?

The most dramatic way he accomplished this is through the courtyard, which has always been seen as the museums’ center but in its previous iteration never really functioned as such. Now it’s been transformed. Piano opened it up with the glass atrium and extended it vertically so that whether you’re on the ground floor or mid-level or up top [the interior reaches up five stories], you can see everything.

What kind of reaction has the courtyard been getting?

People are floored. What’s funny is that they react most to the travertine marble arches on the first two levels and remark on how new it is, but it’s always been there—all we did was clean it with a light jet wash, which is just about the mildest thing you can do. But now, with the light coming in through the glass we’re using, which is low-iron and high clarity, the arches become so much more prominent.

What other materials were used?

There’s the typical brick, steel and granite you see, but we also worked with wood forensic scientists to clad the new building in a dense straight-grain wood—Alaska yellow cedar—that’s impervious to moisture.

What are you most proud of in the new building?

At the top of the courtyard is the museums’ Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, and right below it is the 5,000-square-foot Art Study Center, where students, faculty and even the public can come and request any work of art in any media—­under supervision of course. These places are where people look more deeply at these pieces, and that’s what is at the heart of the design and architecture we’re pursuing here—it’s very beautiful, but of course the university is deeply invested in the nature of how it helps us learn.

The Harvard Art Museums, which reopen in November, are at 32 Quincy St., Cambridge, Massachusetts; harvardartmuseums.org.