Packed into this Rubik’s cube of a building are all the other spaces a modern institution needs: offices, meeting rooms, loading docks. They are less demonstrative, pulled into the pure prismatic volume facing the land behind a patchwork quilt of clear and frosted glass and metal panels. A café, a bookstore, and an education space are visible behind floor-to-ceiling glazing that identifies them as public elements in a clear hierarchy of spatial importance.
The profile that faces downtown is like an x-ray; it lays out its internal structure of stacked entry, theater, and galleries with an organic sense of inevitability. Buried deep inside is an oversized glass-wrapped elevator that reveals its complex spatial structure from within. Like the building itself, the elevator provides a theatrical experience, giving public expression to private acts. Slicing upward, you pass by multiple layers of wooden cladding that reconnect you to the boardwalk while you get dramatic views out to the water and beyond.
REACHING OUT TO SEA: Like the prow of a ship, the thrust of the galleries energizes the building.
The top landing is flanked by two windowless galleries with glowing ceilings lit by sawtooth monitors above. Their generic backdrop-for-art character contrasts with the more idiosyncratic spaces that connect them. The Mediatheque floor plunges down — on the swinging panel seen from below. Rows of computer screens offer digital access to art against a carefully framed patch of horizonless water below. At their corners the two main galleries lead to a third, long and thin, with a shear wall of glass suspended out over the harbor. It is a giant display case of a building designed to make you think about every museum experience — walking in, looking out, observing performances, and surrounding yourself with art — in relation to the world around you.
The architects, like the ICA, have always been concerned with how social constructs are made manifest through design. Until recently, firm founders Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio (Charles Renfro was added as a partner in 2004) had as their primary output installations and objects that challenge conventional assumptions about space, identity, and the rituals of everyday life. They often combined advanced digital technologies with more-familiar materials to offer insights into how culture is built.
The ICA represents one of DSR’s first opportunities to do an actual building. The result distills the contemporary museum to its essential components while tying it to the life of the waterfront. The firm has given architectural form to the relationships among objects, spaces, people, context, and culture with the intellectual rigor and dramatic power you’d expect from its past work. And though the new ICA explores many of the issues now fashionable in leading architectural circles — the use of light as if it were a material for building; the utilization of warped planes both to connect and to separate spaces; the tension between pure volumes and expressive gestures — the building is likely to endure as a Boston icon. Which may represent a problematic success for what’s been an iconoclastic firm and an iconoclastic institution. There’s a self-consciousness about the new ICA, and though that illuminates the role that art and museums play in contemporary life, it also reinforces the notion that art is just another high-end commodity displayed in just another kind of mall.