Famous Buildings Tour – New ICA, Boston

Continuing with our tour of famous architectural landmarks in the Boston area, I thought I would visit the new ICA (Institute of Contemporary Art Museum) located on the waterfront district in Boston. The building opened about 4 years ago to much fanfare in the architectural community. The new home for the ICA is a much bigger and better building than its former home on Bolyston Street across from the Hynes Convention Center. (The old ICA building is now part of the BAC Campus.)

Old ICA Building
New ICA Building

The new building was design by the firm Diller/Scofidio/Renfro Architects using what is becoming their signature S-shape stacking effect to support the upper floor.

S-Shape Detail

The building also utilizes a ‘mega-truss’ which runs from the back to the front of the upper floors supporting the building’s cantilever over the harbor. When you arrive at the site, the one thing that struck me was the lack of a defined entrance or planing of some type of arrival sequence for the building. It is located behind a large chain-linked parking lot with no real signage or delineated entrance. The facade facing the parking lot is also notable for its lack of character. Perhaps the building’s architects were trying to ignore the presence of the parking lot.

ICA Parking Lot

However, once you walk around to the water view side, the story changes, and you are presented with an outdoor style theater seating area and lots of curtain wall glazing looking out over the harbor.

Harbor side of building

After walking around the perimeter of the building, I finally located the entrance on the rear left side and went in. You are greeted by a massive mural, a reception gallery, a small gift shop, with dining options beyond as well.

Entrance gallery overlooking the parking lot

The actual galleries are on the upper floors which are reached through an over-sized glass elevator which offers you views of the harbor as you ascend. The elevator ride was one of the best architectural moments that the museum created.

The large elevator

The gallery spaces themselves are all white, yet surprisingly you don’t reach the view of the harbor until you are almost through the museum galleries.

View of the Harbor from the overlook area



The museum also has a virtual gallery set on a sloped floor projecting out from the building like a pop-up camera. This space houses a computer lab that allows one to view the art on display online. The view from this space is impressive, but the sloping floor and water view leave you feeling tipsy and grasping for the guardrails.

Computer lab with its water view

Also of note, were all the custom details created for the coatroom and gift shop using lots of horizontal slats. But for me, the exit stairwell was the coup de gras. Normally fire exit stairs are completely forgettable spaces not worth mentioning. Here the architects rose to the challenge and created a very dynamic space in the exit stair. The stairwell walls are covered with flooring material and the stairwell itself was illuminated with a vertical florescent light running from the top to the bottom of the stair. The interplay between the materials created an exciting space worthy of spending time in.

Fire stairwell
Fire stairwell

I have no definitive proof of this, but I suspect that they modeled this stairwell after Erich Mendelsohn’s stairwell in the De La Warr Seaside Pavilion (1933) in England. It also uses a similar lighting scheme as you can see below.

De La Warr Pavilion staircase

The small detail of the railing attachment that separates from the steel plates to connect to the railing was also ingenious.

Railing detail

After examining the building, I noticed how the architects were inspired by the other examples of modern architecture in Boston. For example, I detected a noticeable homage to Harvard’s GSD building in their use of the tiered stadium seating.

side view of the building
Harvard Grad School of Design

The pop-out computer lab may have been intended as an homage to the Poloroid camera company whose headquarters were in the Boston area. But that is just speculation. In summary, the building is a modern statement created to house the modern art it showcases. Overall a solid effort.

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