How the glass-enclosed New Wing, designed by architect Renzo Piano, plays off Isabella’s Venetian-inspired palazzo

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Interior courtyard of the historic Palace at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

The architecture of the Gardner Palace is indeed a smorgasbord. There is a little of everything. What makes it an improbable masterwork is the power of Gardner’s imagination… Renzo Piano, the architect of the Gardner’s new wing… had to figure out how you add to the amazing original.

— Architecture critic Robert Campbell, 2014

Growing Pains

In the early 1990s, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was suffering growing pains. Museum conservators warned that wear and tear from close to 200,000 visitors each year exposed the collection to damage. And modern visitor expectations caused many new essentials to be crammed into the Palace building—offices, classrooms, a café, a museum shop, and other public facilities.


Of necessity, conservation projects were underway, including replacing the skylight roof with thermal-pane glass and installing state-of-the-art climate control. At the same time, a new director, Anne Hawley, was showcasing experimental programs, inviting local students to engage with the Museum, and launching an Artist-in-Residence program. The question before the director and the trustees was how to bring Isabella’s legacy into the 21st century.


In 2002 an ambitious plan was presented. It called for cutting-edge programs—alongside a major historic preservation program. To allow the historic building to showcase the connection, and handle thousands of visitors a week, the plan called for a new building of 80,000 square feet. Like Isabella’s Museum, the new building was envisioned to be a work of art in its own right, and Renzo Piano, the Pritzker-Prize winning architect, was hired to design it.

The Ambition

When Renzo Piano did his first walk-through of the Gardner Museum, he took in the courtyard, the architecture, and the collection and said, “This lady was mad. I have to quit this job. No one can do it.” It was hyperbole. Four major design proposals later, $100 million was raised, plans were finalized, and construction began. Construction lasted two and a half years, and the New Wing opened in 2012.

New & Old

One of the challenges of creating a New Wing was to both respect and complement Isabella’s vision. The new building needed to be close enough to the historic building to produce a tension, but not overshadow it. Renzo Piano said the new building must be a “respectful nephew to the great aunt.” Piano obsessed over the correct distance between the historic palace and the new wing, likening it to two people needing to be just the right distance from each other to have a conversation.

The Glass Connector

Piano’s design solution was to connect the two buildings with a spacious glass corridor through which visitors progress, through gardens, into the courtyard. In addition, he set the new building back from the old, and translated materials found in the historic building (red brick, bluestone pavement tiles, and copper cladding) into the new.

  • Photo by Nic Lehoux, 2012.

    A Transparent Ground Floor

    Each feature of the New Wing was put in place to create a memorable experience for the Museum’s visitors, starting with the diaphanous exterior. The first floor is sheathed in glass, and as a result is open to the elements, the gardens, and the surrounding neighborhood. 

  • Photo by Nic Lehoux, 2012.

    The Living Room

    Reminding visitors that the Gardner Museum was first a home, the Living Room is a relaxed spot where visitors can dip into the library of art books, learn more about the collection, or just charge their phones. 

  • Photo by Nic Lehoux, 2012.

    The Grand Staircase

    Modeled after Michelangelo’s staircases in Rome and Florence, but with a modern twist, the glass staircase was a place for looking into the gardens, for viewing the historic Museum, and for ascending to the music hall and contemporary exhibition space. 

  • Calderwood Hall

    In this acoustically advanced music space, in a single cube 40’ by 40’ in size, audience and musicians are close together, creating intimate performances.

  • The Exterior Cladding

    The exterior is clad with corrugated copper that plays off of the copper of the historic building’s façade. It is already patinated but it will turn greener over time.

  • The Facade

    The outside of the building has been designed so that a portion of it is given over to a revolving stream of Artists-in-Residence whose work is showcased for six months at a time.


In 2016, four years after it opened, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s bold and contemporary addition was hailed as the year’s “most beautiful building” by the Boston Society of Architects, honoring it with the city’s Harleston Parker Medal, which has been awarded since 1921.