On the New MFA wing and More
from Trade Secrets by Louis Postel first published in New England Home
♦ It is not for us to argue that taste is a moral issue.
Still, what’s with this handful of nervy designers knocking Boston’s spanking new, $500 million dollar American Wing at the MFA? What side are they on in Boston’s bid for cultural supremacy and tourist dollars? How will their critiques brace us for the brutal battles that lay ahead for the honor of hosting blockbuster shows of Monet, Mummies, and Mapplethorpes?
The anti-Wing designers’ argument boils down to this: the new wing is a lost opportunity, an unexceptional box interchangeable upscale malls, hotel lobbies and corporate headquarters anywhere in the world. They say Guy Lowell who master-planned the 1907 MFA would have croaked had he foreseen that such an anonymous structure would someday force itself upon his neoclassic Palazzo. We can certainly understand this position, but can equally sympathize with the pro-Wing designers insistence that it’s time to abandon the pretentious, musty and pseudo-aristocratic Palazzo fantasy and move on.
One anti-Winger recalls how as a young girl habitually late for her art class she was scampering along the MFA’s palatial five hundred feet of freezing, wind-blown granite facing Huntington Avenue. The Indian, the Great Spirit of Creativity beckoned her with outstretched arms. Up the marble steps to John Singer Sargent’s luminous rotund she sped. In the rotunda she found herself entranced, marveling at how she had been transformed from a shivering waif in Boston’s February dusk to an Italian princess! It was magic.
No such magic was in store in the MFA’s New Wing for our princess waif. This particular anti-Wing designer/architect complained bitterly about the stairs leading to the new galleries brought her to an inauspicious set of fire doors and a tight landing where she was to confront the steely jaws of a freight elevator. This was nothing she would even dream of doing. “Creating a welcoming transition from one space to another is an essential part of the design vocabulary,” she explained.
Now let’s transition from this pro and anti Wing controversy – this tempest in a Paul Revere teapot — and consider how design vocabularies are extending themselves to the home.
What a challenge: creating change from room to room, outside to inside, public to private that is warm, welcoming and rational. The pressures on built space to perform per every square foot, to “maximize its potential” are huge. How often are we going to descend palatial staircases in ball gowns, anyway? The design vocabulary keeps changing to reflect these realities.
Jeff Stein is currently on sabbatical from his position as Dean of Architecture the Boston Architectural College. Like Thoreau, Stein quips, he’s now mainly at home by Walden Pond with some months to think and write. Stein, for one, heartily approves of the transitions and treatments of space in the New Wing. “It’s not like the usual faceless, darkened galleries with stuff in them. I enjoy its scale – how it allows for many different views.”
“A transition is not like slicing an apple in half. Now you are in one place and then you are somewhere completely different. It needs to evolve. You recall that house we did for your folks in Cambridge: front yard, porch, house reaching out, inside a place to take off your boots. The black and white tiles made it a little formal. It was welcoming but did not presume an instant intimacy. A curved staircase brought you to the second floor living area over your mother’s studio. The staircase itself was narrow. There was a feeling of compression going up. Then it opened on this brilliant space filled with light from a long, exposed south wall. You were a different person than when you were outside a minute ago.”
After an arduous decade turning around a spy satellite company, Carey Erdman changed careers five years ago to interior designer. Guests transitioning to his roof deck in the South End are often amazed at what they find — a lush container garden Erdman created “like a whole extra floor.” In his clients’ homes, he has used botanicals in other ways to mark transitions: One example: “We can alter the perceived depth of the space by placing dark, coarse plants in the foreground beckoning you into the room and fine textured, lighter plants on the far side. Some coarser plants might be a large fiddle leaf, split leaf philodendron or even a hybrid banana; the more finely textured, lighter leaves might include dracaenas or aralias. We can signal a change of purpose or energy in a space with botanicals, as well: grouping lush, tropical plants around a soaking tub for a spa-like, private feeling; or bright, blooming plants in a breakfast gazebo to provide a sense of fresh energy as you start your day.”
Designer Wendy Valliere has offices in Stowe, VT and Nantucket while spending a lot of time in Europe. “We just did a large apartment on Boulevard St. Germain in Paris and now we’re totally restoring a Georgian castle on a 1,000 acres outside London.” Valliere offers her own way of creating a welcoming transition: “I love to introduce a home with a ‘view corridor.’ That is to say, a clear visual trajectory from the front door to a significant feature: a beautiful outdoor space, a grand staircase, a fantastic fireplace. From there, it’s important to have flush thresholds throughout the home, so as not to punctuate the space unnecessarily – as well as to have consistent surfaces. Colors and textures work best when they move quietly from room to room, all the while propelled by a common thread (such as an animal print, crewel, a wild shade of green) that harmonizes with the feel of the entire home.”
Sandy Lawton is a Builder and Architect with Arro Design as well as a teacher with Yestermorrow Design/Build school in Warren, Vermont. Lawton is part of the avant-garde that is using tough fabric in which to pour concrete for architectural structures instead of the hard-to-recycle, rigid plywood forms we are used to seeing. One fabric-formed house Lawton is doing with students on the Yestermorrow campus was uniquely curvaceous and inviting, even half-finished. What stood out in particular was the transition from outside to in, marked by the front door casing. Lawton or his students had imprinted a Baroque, burnt out velvet into the fabric form itself, perhaps on a simple whim – but the pattern left behind was as welcoming as concrete has ever been.
PRISM Award-winning designer Michael Cebula sees less concrete and more color: “When transitioning from one room or space to another, it’s important to maintain certain similar elements, particularly regarding color and lighting. In terms of color, repetition of key hues creates an atmosphere of comfort and calm. A color-scheme evolution can maintain a feeling of continuity by featuring the same colors in different aspects. For example, if a foyer was painted in an earthy red tone, an adjacent room could present that same red in a printed fabric or decorative accent piece. This technique ensures harmony between the studies, while allowing them to be part of a larger progressive plan.
“In much the same way,” adds Cebula, “lighting choices should sustain a level of relevance to each other, not only in style, but also in degree of brightness. A steady, soft light makes differences less jarring and eases one into a new design environment. It’s also advisable to illuminate some chosen art pieces. This method of presentation not only creates a mood in the space, but its continued use throughout the rooms will tie the design concepts together.”
In addition to color, lighting and art, Kristin Drohan’s design vocabulary accentuates French doors. “They’re a relatively inexpensive way to communicate a transition, yet feels luxurious,” says the Concord, MA based designer. “French doors define the space and diffuse sound without visually shrinking the dimensions. This can be done in unexpected places. Recently, I added double French doors inside a master bedroom to define the sitting area from the sleeping. The doors also served as one extra threshold this mother of four little girls could use to escape the household mayhem. On another project, we installed French doors in a wide upstairs hallway. Doing this in a hall feels quite grand and again diminishes noise. I regularly install French doors at an entrance to a finished basement. Adding light accented art beyond the door beckons one to explore something special on the other side. “
IFDA Rising Star Rebecca Wilson of Needham, MA starts with first impressions: “When I’m designing the entryway, I keep in mind how it will set the tone for the rest of the home. It should be warm and welcoming, and to create that mood I imagine what a guest would need in the space: adequate lighting both general and soft lamp light, a good quality rug to absorb moisture and spare the floors, an umbrella stand, a place to sit and take off wet or snowy boots, a surface to put a purse or gloves on when removing coats, a mirror to check hair and makeup.
“When transitioning from the first to the second floor I look for ways to draw the eye up – an art series along the stair wall, a piece of furniture, a painting or a pretty mirror at the top of the stairs. This gives the sense of being carried along from one level to the other. “
Indeed, Ms. Wilson a pretty mirror would work to draw the eye up. From that perspective, it’s a simple step to imagine transitioning from floor to floor by way of the MFA’s Grand Staircase. One’s eye is inexorably drawn up by Sargent’s MFA murals: Orestes and Hercules, Science and Philosophy unveiling Truth. Or, as fans of the New Wing might prefer, one can step up to the unaffected and perhaps more honest transition of fire doors and a freight elevator. Taste, after all, is not a moral issue.
NEW AND NOTEWORTHY
Residential Architect magazine short-listed Hutker Architects this January in its first-ever tribute to “Architects we Love.” We are fine with this as long as it’s remembered that we loved him first, naming Cape & Islands- based Mark Hutker to New England Home’s Hall of Fame way back in November.
For the second time in two years, Nantucket-based interior designer Kathleen Hay won “Best International Interior Design” in the 2010 International Property Awards. The World’s Best awards – sponsored this year by Bloomberg Television, Google UK, Kohler, Maserati, The International Herald Tribune, and The New York Times – had over 60,000 entries from 110 countries in the twenty-one categories. A glance at Hay’s “Off-Shore Breeze” project with architect Lisa Botticelli in the September/October 2009 New England Home bears out designer’s “World’s Best” title.
Let no one accuse Habitat for Humanity International of giving out easy grades or honors. Of its 1500 US affiliates just two a year receive Habitat’s Clarence Jordan award. This year one of the coveted Clarences went to Green Mountain Habitat for a passive house project in Charlotte, VT. Design credits go to architect JB Clancy of Boston’s Albert, Righter & Tittmann Architects where NEH 2007 Hall of Fame inductee James Volney Righter is senior partner.
2007 Hall of Fame inductee James Volney Righter
James Volney Righter is the senior partner of Green Mountain Habitat for Humanity has won a national award for its first home under construction in Charlotte, honoring the home’s innovative character, creativity of design and affordability.
Habitat for Humanity International gives the Clarence Jordan award annually to just two Habitat affiliates — offices serving a specific area –out of about 1,500 in the United States.
The award, named after a man who built affordable homes in partnership with poor families in Georgia in the early 1970s, is unique because winners are chosen by vote of Habitat’s other affiliates, making it an acknowledgment by peers who know the work involved.
Architect J.B. Clancy of Albert, Righter & Tittmann Architects Inc. of Boston developed and donated the home’s design in partnership with Schneider and Green Mountain Habitat. After the home’s modular structure was delivered by Preferred Building Systems in September, a network of volunteer individuals and businesses continued to donate work, materials and money. Green Mountain Habitat Passive House