Making a spectacle of itself


Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Institute of Contemporary Arts in Boston follows in the now venerable tradition of cultural regeneration projects, hoping to create its own New England version of the ‘Bilbao effect’. It is a taut essay in the creation of a waterside icon, with its dramatic cantilever and open auditorium facing across the bay. But the economic collapse in the U.S. suggests that it will remain surrounded by parking lots for several years to come, by which time the novelty of its angular forms might have paled.


That is for the future. What, I hear you ask, of those forms now? The building is sleekly realised, blind walled galleries propped up on the performance space that has the potential for a backdrop view over the water. A central glazed elevator (surely the only one in the world dedicated in honour of wealthy donors) connects the public spaces and galleries. The desire for flexibility in exhibition design creates rather banal and neutral galleries, the very uninterrupted size of which seem to contradict the place-making gestures of the ICA’s exterior. Not the least of these is the dropped section of the media gallery with its banks of computer monitors framed against the waves.


Linking temporary and permanent collection galleries there is a spectacular panoramic buffer zone at gallery level, which reveals a fundamental problem. The orientation of the building results in the framing of views towards the uninspiring buildings of Logan Airport, rather than the airport’s more dynamic runways or the crowded skyline provided by Boston’s irregular plan and successive waves of commercial development. This decision means that the building’s ambitions are more satisfyingly realised, not from its characterless interior, but from the exaggerated quality of the outside.


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