High Visibility

Currently standing alone on 21 acres, Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s museum takes on an added public role.

Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s first major building, the new $51 million home of the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), was included almost as an afterthought to a long-planned development on Boston’s south waterfront. But as the last strips of gray mahogany are being fitted under the building’s distinctive cantilever—before the five-star hotel, high-end condominiums, and commercial and office space intended for the site have even broken ground—the 70-year-old museum has become an unlikely trailblazer. It is even giving the delayed project on Fan Pier, whose first buildings are scheduled to be completed in 2009, an architectural role model.

The Pritzker hotel family, the former owners of the land, brought in the ICA in 1999 as a civic component to help win approval for their dense mixed-use development plan. When a glut of office space, a sagging post-9/11 economy, and a change in ownership slowed progress, the museum moved ahead on its own. But being the sole occupant of 21 acres is, well, lonely. “It’s a building that right now is seen in isolation as this object sitting in an open field,” architect Charles Renfro says. Expecting that the ICA would be flanked on the south, east, and west sides by 22-story buildings that would largely hide downtown and South Boston, Diller Scofidio + Renfro positioned it to face northward, toward Charlestown. Today the view is clear in every direction.

Joseph Fallon, who bought Fan Pier from the Pritzkers last summer, says the museum’s unexpected visibility will help the overall architecture of the site. “Certainly it set a standard that is beneficial, and our design will look to meet or exceed that standard,” he says of the multibillion-dollar project, which begins construction next summer. And the ICA should also engage the public with the site, adding to the momentum for swift development.

The Harborwalk—a 47-mile path edging Boston’s waterways—will pass under the museum’s sheltering cantilever, forming a year-round public marina. The ICA ground floor will hold a rotating exhibition of free art, and Wolfgang Puck is opening a harborside restaurant. As Fan Pier and the adjacent Pier 4 fill in, traffic will increase. “It’s inevitable that properties will be developed in the next few years, and the building will be brought into the fabric of the city,” Renfro says. [As of press time, the ICA’s opening had been pushed back from mid-September to later this fall.]

Still the leap from minor player to standard-bearer has given the museum pause. “It is a little quizzical for the scrappy not-for-profit contemporary-art museum to quite literally lead the way and be the pioneer for this whole waterfront development,” ICA director Jill Medvedow says. “We were able to build with no context. Now we are the context.”

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