Long known for its concept-pushing, small-scale architecture-as-art, the firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro has moved from discrete installations to a monumental building for the city of Boston—the new home of the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA). The new ICA delivers an expansive container for the display of contemporary art, a poetic waterfront gathering place, and a new harborside icon. Although it was designed with the same critical sensibility as the firm's earlier works and embodies a similar preoccupation with materiality and assembly, the $41 million ICA is decidedly architecture-for-art.

Principal Elizabeth Diller allows that the commission posed a challenging reversal of roles for the New York firm. “As artists, we have spent most of our time on the opposite side of the gallery wall,” she says. “We found that all of a sudden, we were on the other side of the institutional critique. The institution was speaking in our voice.”

Iwan Baan

The ICA's leadership, after struggling to make the most of its former quarters in historic Back Bay, saw the move to prominent Fan Pier on the South Boston waterfront as an opportunity to engage the public on new terms. “We felt our new museum needed to be as much civic space as artistic space,” says the institute's director, Jill Medvedow. She ordained that the ground level be freely accessible to visitors, particularly because HarborWalk, a 47-mile public promenade along the waterfront (under construction), skirts the north and west sides of the building.

Says principal Ricardo Scofidio: “We immediately thought, ‘A museum is a building that always wants to turn inward, yet here we are on a site that wants to turn outward. Can we reframe the deal?'”

One other factor pushed the design to a higher plane (literally): The ICA wanted its galleries consolidated on a single level. But the museum's space requirements added up to 22,000 square feet, far in excess of the footprint.

Undaunted, Diller Scofidio + Renfro worked with the Boston Redevelopment Authority on a compromise that allowed the gallery to overhang the HarborWalk.

The conceptual framework set the tone for the design. Its signature gesture—a wide curve that folds up through the building and back across itself like a giant ribbon—appropriates the wood decking from the public right-of-way, picks it up from the water's edge to form the grandstand, continues through the glass envelope, following the contours of the 325-seat theater (the stage, the raked floor of the house, the rear wall, and the ceiling), and then slips back out through the skin above the grandstand. Resting on top is the dramatically cantilevered gallery, a boxlike form wrapped on three sides in channel glass. At night, its backlit surface glows like a lantern on the harbor's edge.

Inside the 62,000-square-foot building, space is allotted to a restaurant, a museum shop, education/workshop facilities, and offices. Random architectural “events” throughout the building recall the tenor of Diller Scofidio + Renfro's earlier work. They range from the somewhat disorienting Mediatheque, a tiered video lab whose broad window hovers over the harbor, to the glass-walled elevator, which glides in a transparent core, framing views.

“We chose to choreograph movement through the building in such a way that it worked like a control valve—that it could just leak out the view at different times and in different contexts,” Diller explains.

Ultimately, the museum's visual finesse is secondary to much larger goals: the establishment of an urban edge for the impending 20-acre Fan Pier development and the embrace of important public space. In that regard, Diller Scofidio + Renfro's recognition of urban-scaled issues—and the firm's sensitive response to them—is the noteworthy accomplishment here, aside from the fact that the ICA is ideally suited to its intended purpose, which is to exhibit art.

Project: Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston

Client: City of Boston

Architect: Diller Scofidio + Renfro, New York—Elizabeth Diller, Ricardo Scofidio, Charles Renfro (principals); Flavio Stigliano (project leader); Deane Simpson, Jesse Saylor, Eric Höweler (project team)

Associate Architects: Perry Dean Rogers and Partners, Boston—Martha Pilgreen (principal in charge); Gregory C. Burchard, Mike Waters (project managers); Henry Scollard (project designer)

SMEP: Arup New York—Markus Schulte

Theater Consultants: Fisher Dachs

Acoustics: Jaffe Holden Acoustics

Project Management: Seamus Henchy Associates

Lighting: Arup London—Andy Sedgewick