Artist's rendering of The Frick Collection expansion plan, viewed from Fifth Avenue.
Neoscape Inc., 2014 Artist's rendering of The Frick Collection expansion plan, viewed from Fifth Avenue.

Speaking about the proposed addition to the Frick Collection, AIA New York executive director Rick Bell, FAIA, told The New York Times: "Some of the sacred cows of preservation could be looked at fresh...This is an example of that because this is being respectful to the existing fabric. It's not copying what was there before; it's paying respect to it by not challenging it."

I am afraid that I cannot disagree more.

From what I can see of the renderings, the building would be a mess of an elongated stack of rectangles, distended and festooned with unnecessary detail. The design is trying to stretch in an attempt to fulfill the institution's space demands for this addition, while still cowering next to the surrounding residential blocks. It is not paying respect; it is flailing around in confusion.

The "sacred cow" to which Bell is referring is the small garden designed by Russell Page, which would have to make way to meet the Frick's need for more exhibition and program space. Though I have only been in that garden space once, it is no bovine beast. It is a delicate rectangle of green, whose design evinces the same strength of the pursuit of neo-classical design methodologies of which the original Frick building gives evidence. Both would be trampled—literally in one case, and the other in aesthetics terms—by the new addition.

There is no doubt that the Frick needs more room. The museum's attendance has risen by a third in the last decade, it has a much larger collection than when it was founded, and it must live up to its public charity designation and educate the public, rather than just sitting there displaying art many people do not understand. The institution has to create the kind of spaces the addition foresees.

I also realize that it is almost impossible to build anything on Manhattan's Upper East Side that does not pander to the residents' misperception of their area as an oasis of delicately scaled and classical buildings. The Whitney Museum's history with its own Marcel Breuer building gives evidence of that, from the museum's failed attempts over three decades to build one of three good addition designs, and its subsequent escape to what is looking like one of the worst new museum buildings of recent years, designed by Renzo Piano, Hon. FAIA, on Manhattan's south waterfront.

Despite all that, there must be some way that the Frick could expand without eliminating this beautiful garden, and without running afoul of the neighborhood's self-image.

Speaking of the harm Piano has done to the museum world, his latest creation—a massive new building aiming to unite and clarify the galleries of Harvard's various art museums—opens this weekend in Cambridge, Mass. I have not been permitted to see the building's inside, and again I understand that these museums needed the space. But the one feature that has elicited criticism actually makes a lot of sense to me. The way Piano has continued one side of the bizarre up-and-down ramp that Le Corbusier threaded through the adjacent Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts almost solves the perpetual problem of Piano-designed buildings—that you never know where the front door is, and when you are inside, that there is no there, there. The ramp now continues to the corner of Broadway and Prescott Street, and guides the public up to the incident along the building's long façade that lets visitors in.

Harvard Art Museums, photographed from under the Le Corbusier ramp leading into the new building.
Nic Lehoux Harvard Art Museums, photographed from under the Le Corbusier ramp leading into the new building.

The new building's bulk, however, is ungainly and undifferentiated. For reasons I cannot fathom, Piano reserved his signature play of steel beams jutting this way and that to the short façades where they do very little except show their uselessness, while leaving this Hulk Hogan of an art museum to hover as if it is holding its breath and showing its muscle over poor little Prescott Street.

I just hope that the interiors, both here and at the Whitney, as well as at the Frick, will be worth some of the urban pain these institutions are causing.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.