Museum Sticks Its Neck Out -- but Only So Far

The mediatheque, in which visitors can access information on artworks via computer, angles down toward a window framing a horizon-less, and dizzying, view of the water.
The mediatheque, in which visitors can access information on artworks via computer, angles down toward a window framing a horizon-less, and dizzying, view of the water. (By Iwan Baan)
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 24, 2006

BOSTON -- As you stand in the long, bright Founders Gallery atop the new Institute of Contemporary Art here, you'd swear you were directly over the water of the city's harbor. With one wall made entirely of glass, the corridor is at the very edge of the new museum's gallery spaces, which are dramatically cantilevered over a central core of offices and elevators. There's solid land beneath you, just barely, but the visual effect is water, water everywhere. Under your feet an ocean breeze is whipping gentle patterns onto the surface of the bay, and out in front of you a rusty old tanker chugs slowly by while sailboats decline gently in the wind. After the jazzy, busy, people-filled gallery space, the view of the harbor looks . . . just like a picture.

And that's the essence of the 65,000-square-foot ICA building, the newest work from the fascinating and sometimes eccentric firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, a New York-based architecture shop that is most famous for its Blur Building in the middle of a lake in Switzerland. The "blur" was an artificial cloud, created by 31,500 little water jets. The "building," a temporary structure put up to mark Swiss Expo 2002, required raincoats. It was a very elaborate and expensive joke, making architecture completely insubstantial, dissolving any notion of form or function. You may disapprove of this sort of thing, but who wouldn't want to visit?

The ICA building, a dramatic new home for Boston's contemporary art museum (previously in a rather dour former police station), marks a significant advance beyond the inspired silliness of a team once described as "Duchampian guerrilla architects." The ICA is both literally and intellectually more substantial, and after a string of high-profile new spaces (Frank Gehry's exuberant Guggenheim Bilbao, Daniel Libeskind's angular Denver Art Museum) that have drawn criticism for overwhelming their art, the ICA also gets the basic balance right. The galleries are functional and pleasant and rather plain. Filtered natural light from north-facing skylights gives them a bright, natural glow, while the building's more provocative aspects are kept out of sight.

Those provocations include a "mediatheque," a small, theater-like space with an angled wall of glass that is suspended under the 80-foot cantilever. If this were a huge spaceship, the mediatheque would be the landing portal for visiting craft. It also looks a little like a retractable video screen that someone has forgotten to retract. From the outside of this boxy building (which has surprisingly few right angles), the mediatheque space is the most fascinating. Opening a bit like an old Polaroid camera, it plays with the idea of the window as a screen, rather than merely an aperture for sunlight.

And inside the mediatheque things only get dizzier.

The angle of the window, at the bottom of a room that steps down toward the water, hides the horizon from view. Like the Founders Gallery, the view from which suggests a serene impressionist landscape, the view from the mediatheque also looks like a picture, though in this case something abstract and monochromatic, like one of Alfred Stieglitz's photographs of the sky. The water is framed and contained, and the lack of a horizon to situate the view is rather disorienting in somewhat the same way that clouds can trick pilots into losing their sense of up and down.

Disorientation is generally considered a positive value in art and architecture. We are all stuck in ruts, the logic goes, so anything that jolts us, displaces us, makes us do a double take, is seen as an advance from our habitual complacency. Buildings, however, tend to root us in the world, and windows help us establish our sense of place within the building as well as the building's relation to what surrounds it. But if you can trick the eye into thinking that a window is really a screen, that the world beyond isn't real but a representation, you can introduce disorientation into even the most substantial and solid of the arts.

The "window screen" in the mediatheque only gets more surreal when you realize that the whole point of the room is to let people detach themselves from the galleries and plug into the virtual reality of the museum's computer network, where the visitor can access biographical information about the artists and images, and videos to support the exhibitions. It looks like a computer research center, but it is in fact a computer entertainment facility, catering to the almost frightening addiction we have to the digital teat. Once upon a time, when the classic art museum fatigue crept over your mind and made your legs feel heavy, you'd sit down and bliss out in front of a wall-size Rembrandt. Now, in a room in which the window looks like a giant screen playing a 24-hour nonstop video of the waves, you can sit down in front of a computer screen and withdraw into the lovely antisocial isolation of the electronic cocoon.

Disorientation is also the fundamental subject of the ICA's inaugural exhibition in its new space. "Super Vision" dovetails so neatly with the aesthetics of the building that they might as well include Diller Scofidio + Renfro in the show's checklist. It purports to be about the interaction of art and vision, but it promises more than it delivers. Mostly it is an unassuming tour of various things that make you go "huh!" Bridget Riley's black-and-white paintings from the 1960s create weird and dizzying three-dimensional effects through distortions of a field of dots. The blurry concentric rings of Ugo Rondinone's "11. Mai 2006" will make you reach for your glasses, though that won't help bring them into focus. The show rehashes an array of philosophical ideas about vision, about how the eyes impose order on the world, and the parallel between extending the limits of vision (the view from space and the view from inside your gullet) and our control over the world. Mona Hatoum's "Corps etranger" from 1994 projects images of the artist's innards taken with an endoscopic camera, a perverse play on the idea of a self-portrait. Ed Ruscha's 1999 "La Brea, Sunset, Orange, De Longpre" imposes street names from L.A. onto a craggy mountain peak with the last (or first) rays of the day's sun glinting off it. The imposition of a map on an image brings two very different forms of visual representation into contact, and together they create an impossible space.

Yoko Ono's "Sky TV," a piece first conceived in 1966 in which a real-time view of the sky and clouds outside is seen on a television screen inside, is a work tailor-made to be in sympathy with the architecture. Curiously, Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio once proposed a design for a seaside vacation house in which the view out a picture window was replicated, prominently, on a video screen. But it is Andreas Gursky's large-scale and very sharp photograph "Sha Tin" that best captures the spirit of the museum. In Gursky's image, we see a racecourse, with a video monitor showing a horse race in progress, and huge electronic signs that give the various statistics that gamblers thrive on. We see everything, including an eager audience crowding up to the green track, but not the horses. Like the new museum, it is an image that amuses us because it keeps the real at bay.

It's an exhibition more likely to elicit exclamations of "kewl!" and "nifty!" than howls of outrage from scandalized traditionalists. At this point, one might condescendingly make reference to conservative Boston's long and traumatic relationship to anything avant-garde. But it seems more to the point that the new ICA building marks the natural evolution of a museum that is concerned about being a good civic player, attracting an audience from the suburbs and settling in to the rude good health of a middle-aged cultural institution.

The lower parts of the building -- a gorgeous mahogany deck that stretches out to the edge of the water, a cafe with retractable glass doors that will let diners sit outside in the clement months, and a store that markets to the smart-and-tasteful set -- are all designed to make the ICA a community center of sorts. And so far, it's working. The place was packed on a windy Saturday afternoon; a museum spokeswoman reports that membership is up fourfold and with attendance for the coming year projected at 225,000, there could be a tenfold increase over what the old building attracted, even as ticket prices have climbed from $7 to $12.

The original ICA design included plans for a film of optical material to be placed on the glass of the Founders Gallery, the effect of which would have been to blur any view that wasn't straight ahead. But the museum's leaders were too entranced by the unobstructed view and overruled the architects' plans, which would have radically emphasized something the building now does rather subtly: converting views into pictures, reality into representation.

It was a curiously tame choice for people in the contemporary art business. It shows, perhaps, the lingering attraction of old-fashioned architectural pleasures. And it situates the museum in a building that is now a lasting metaphor for the challenge that every contemporary art institution faces: how to balance pleasure with ideas. Put another way, this sexy new building on the edge of the water will remind its owners of their own self-imposed limits on edginess.

Institute of Contemporary Art,100 Northern Ave., Boston. Open Tuesday-Sunday 10 a.m.-5 p.m., with extended hours to 9 p.m. on Thursday and Friday. Early closing today at 3 p.m. $12 general admission; free on Thursday after 5 p.m. Call 617-478-3100 or visit

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