Sunday, January 13, 2013

Venice in Boston

Becket, January 13, 2013

What if the program for a house were a city?

That's more or less the kind of question Isabella Steward Gardner was asking when she built her Boston home, Fenway Court.  Completed in 1902, the building was designed as a place to house her extensive art collection and to entertain her prominent friends, painters like John Singer Sargent, writers like Henry James and philosophers like George Santayana.  It also included her private accommodations on the fourth floor where she lived until her death in 1924.  That you could say, is the program of use of the building.

But there is another, deeper program in the design of Fenway Court: the city of Venice.  Isabella and her husband, Jack Gardner, had spent several seasons in Venice as guests of the prominent Bostonians Daniel and Ariana Curtis at the Palazzo Barbaro.  And the task of her Boston building was to reproduce that Venetian experience in the Fens (actually, the Curtises also entertained people like James and Sargent at the Barbaro, so Isabella already had the cast of characters in place.)

How do you do that?  The project takes the Palazzo Barbaro as the model--particularly its elaborate façade of large windows, balconies and loggias on the Grand Canal--and literally turns it inside out.  The architect (Willard T. Sears, but with a great deal of input from his opinionated client) develops a compact mass of rather restrained outside elevations, to then introduce a glass-courtyard in the center of the volume, wrapping the façades of the Barbaro around the void.  It is a if the house were a reliquary holding a little piece of Venice's Grand Canal inside, don't you think?

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