Since it opened in 1894, the Charles McKim–designed Bowdoin College Museum of Art has been a Beaux-Arts jewel box on its Brunswick, Maine, campus, exhibiting just a small portion of the liberal arts institution's collection of more than 15,000 pieces. The original building's four galleries were extended with five underground spaces by Edward Larabee Barnes in 1976. Now a new restoration, renovation, and expansion by Boston-based Machado and Silvetti Associates increases the complex to 14 galleries totaling 9,321 square feet. An entrance pavilion (at left in photo) composed of folded planes of bronze and blackened steel is enclosed by glass and sits to the side of McKim's iconic building, while a brick extension to the rear opens a large glass window to the collection from the neighboring street. Completely rebuilt and reconfigured underground spaces augment the galleries and include a seminar room, museum offices, art storage, and bookstore. ARCHITECT visited the campus during the public opening in mid-October to get reactions to the new addition.
The Critics Speak
How is the juxtaposition of old and new?
People don't necessarily perceive opposing forces. The glass pavilion entrance lets us outsource our infrastructural needs and maintain a fidelity to the galleries. Our big bathrooms and handicapped access and gift shop are in the newer space.
What about the rear addition?
The glass at the back looks out onto the community at large. That might have been the only flaw in the original design—and we've rectified that.
What's different about this museum?
The pedagogical intent here is prominent. This is a college museum in mission.
What's most successful about the addition?
The [entry] pavilion is such a small structure, but it's very successful at identifying the entry while becoming quite transparent. It makes a grand gesture that is appropriate. I think it will be most successful in a few years, when the bronze has a chance to patina. It's a little bright right now.
What do you think about entering the museum through the basement?
It's always a problem. It's the reverse of what we want to do. But it's the right place. It's grand and celebrates the vertical movement. There's lots of light. You're going down, but it's welcoming.
How necessary was the addition?
It was a Pandora's box, where if you changed one thing, you had to change everything.
Does the addition break with the original?
The facile solution would have been to put an addition on the back. Machado and Silvetti insisted that this was a college museum and it should address the campus. It has the qualities of a compromise, but in many ways it's a wonderful solution. It creates access for both the community and the college—you can enter from either side. One of the things that was lost by moving the entry to the side is the Beaux-Arts symmetry. But as you go down the stairs, you at least have a sense of being aligned with the main mass of the museum. There's some memory of that older emphasis on symmetry.