With its angular lines, dramatic glass-and-steel cantilever, and grandstand-cum-amphitheater overlooking Boston Harbor, the three-month-old Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) building couldn’t be more different from its former home: a converted 19th-century police station in genteel Back Bay. Designed by the cutting-edge New York architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, it is the first new art museum to rise in Boston in nearly 100 years. In a stroke, the ICA has seized its place as the city’s boldest architectural landmark and heralded a new cultural era in Beantown.
It is fitting that it’s the ICA that’s giving local architecture this overdue jolt. Founded in 1936 as the Boston Museum of Modern Art (the name changed in 1948), this was the first organization in the United States to be devoted solely to contemporary works; it was originally affiliated with the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Over the years, the ICA has been prescient in introducing artists to U.S. audiences: it hosted the first American exhibitions dedicated to Georges Braque and Edvard Munch, in 1938 and 1940, respectively, and organized important early-career shows for Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, and, more recently, Vanessa Beecroft, Cindy Sherman, Bill Viola, and Rachel Whiteread.
But lately there was a sense that the museum had lasped a bit in terms of profile and programming. ICA director Jill Medvedow knew that moving to a prominent, and unexpected, site—a three-quarter-acre parcel on the sprawling Fan Pier, at the time a no-man’s-land of parking lots and desolate weed-covered plots—would lift the institute’s profile. "For the ICA to make a place for itself, it needed a big idea and a new space to bring it to life. It was a great opportunity as well as a huge risk, though the right risk," Medvedow says.
The ICA’s choice of Diller Scofidio + Renfro was similarly audacious. The firm’s best-known work to date wasn’t a building, as architect Charles Renfro wryly points out—it was a cloud. For Expo 2002, in Switzerland, the group created a pavilion on Lake Neuchâtel fitted with hundreds of spray nozzles that enveloped the structure in a blur of cumulous mist.
Everything about the new ICA goes against the traditional museum experience. Instead of ascending a grand staircase, you enter through an unassuming glass door tucked into a corner of the ground floor. The edge of the wooden platform extending overhead from a boardwalk along the harbor might make you think you’ve come in through the back. In fact, you’re underneath a grandstand made of Central American mahogany, the wood that also lines the harbor walk.
Sheltered by a massive overhang of the same material, the grandstand forms part of a plaza that opens onto the waterfront. In warm weather, crowds can gather to admire views of the channel and the Boston skyline, or spill out from the Wolfgang Puck café. "The grandstand takes the public space of the harbor walk and folds it up into the building," Renfro says. Inside, one wall of the lobby is devoted to commissioned artworks; the current exhibit is an anime-style mural, The Divine Gas, by Japanese artist Chiho Aoshima. A 17-foot-wide, glass-enclosed elevator brings visitors to two skylit top-floor galleries, both 156 by 50 feet and unobstructed by columns.
White fine-mesh fabric scrims filter the natural light that suffuses these spare, warehouse-like twin spaces. One of them displays selections from the institute’s nascent permanent collection; the other houses temporary exhibitions. Linking them is a promenade, 63 feet above the harbor, that offers a spectacular panorama through a shimmering skin of glass.
Also on the gallery floor is the Mediatheque, a hands-on "classroom" with computer stations at which visitors can access filmed interviews with the artists whose works are being shown. The media center is stepped; at its far end a large window, canted at a 24-degree angle, frames a view of water so still, except for the occasional duck, that project architect Elizabeth Diller has called it the ultimate screen saver.
The floor-to-ceiling glass walls of the theater, located on the second level, also put the skyline and harbor on center stage. Depending on the performance, blackout or sheer shades can be drawn, editing out the view or making it part of the experience. This spring’s schedule offers a wide range of music, dance, and theater, from a play inspired by the work of filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni to Landing/Place, by the Bebe Miller Company, which combines live music and dance with video and digitized motion-capture. The adventurous programming is as clear a sign as any that the ICA has emerged from its doldrums and is ready to wake up the town.
Raul Barreneche is a contributing editor for Travel + Leisure.