Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts: Three entrances, three stories

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is one of the city’s greatest assets.  It is a world class museum that contains extensive collections of American, Impressionist, and Egyptian art, among other great holdings.  It opened a new wing last year that I have already commented on.  One of the more interesting things is that the museum has three entrances.  Each has a lesson for how to build cities to make them more amenable for pedestrians and urban living.

One entrance is through the West Wing, a 1980s addition designed by I.M. Pei and Associates.  Up until a few years ago, it was the only way to enter the museum, the complex’s front door as it were was on the side.  For those who have never been there, the MFA sits on an entire block between two major streets:  Huntington Avenue and the Fenway.  The West Wing entrance was to a parking lot on a minor street that connects the two major arterials.  There was a drive and a drop off to the entrance, but mostly, one entered by wandering through parking lots, some filled with delivery and service vehicles.  It was most inartistic and very unsatisfying and difficult for tourists to navigate.  The MFA, to its credit, has discontinued this entrance, using it only for tour groups.  They recognized the mistake of this most inartistic entrance to a building of high artistic merit.  But the design is important if only as a way to remember how people once thought of cities and cars.  The design reflected the idea that people only travel through cities in cars (despite the fact there is a trolley stop on Huntington Avenue – you exited the street car and had to figure out how to get through the service parking lot to the West Wing entrance).  The design turned its back on urban living and public transportation.  It denied the primacy of walking.  The MFA is to be commended for discontinuing this entrance.

The MFA re-opened its Fenway entrance a couple of years ago as part of its reconfiguring the museum when it began its expansion plans.  The Fenway entrance is grand:  it faces the beautiful parkway  (in the old fashioned sense – it is two lanes, moderate speed, meandering, not a fancy name for a freeway) designed by Frederick Law Olmsted as part of his famed emerald necklace.  The whole façade is a fancy Beaux Art masterpiece, a building that communicates the importance of the MFA to the city.  The entrance is up a broad set of stairs with multistory columns, creating a sense of theater.  A tiny driveway, chained off, fronts the building.

This grand building opens to the Back Bay Fens, but it’s an entrance to nowhere.  The Fenway entrance is not close to public transportation, and it’s a long block away from the nearest parking.  It’s a grand gesture for those who were traveling by in the carriages, or today for people passing in their cars, but it’s not much more than a billboard for the museum itself.  There is a related problem if you enter from the Fenway side, it doesn’t relate to the building’s interior circulation.  We went to the MFA for a concert this afternoon, entered through the Fenway entrance and even though we know the museum very well, it remains disorientating.  If only form followed function.

The MFA’s main entrance is back to where it was originally:  on Huntington Avenue.  The street is a major arterial, but strangely ungrand.  The trolley tracks are set off by so so plantings and there is nothing across the street worthy of the great building itself.  That said, the entrance is what an old great museum should be: reverential, inviting, well placed, monumental.  Given the history of the building, the placement on the Fenway which leads off to nowhere, the 1970s era monument to parking fetishism, and the general plainness of the Huntington Avenue side, the MFA has done the best possible job it could do.

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