outside in

by The Design of Things

“The palace is a palace, a brick building. It’s not where the magic is,” Renzo Piano on the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is a rich woman’s palace built in 1901 to house her expansive art collection and share it with visitors from all over the world. Dark and dreary, encrusted with religious art and cathedral relics and cases filled with revolutionary autographs, the house has always been a favorite stop in Boston.

Despite the millions and the masters on the walls, however, the chatter is always about the courtyard. The light, floating greenhouse in the center of the palatial gloom.

“Oh, you’ll love it!” everyone says, after mentioning the art. “It has the most wonderful courtyard.”

We are admiring of buildings – or even rooms – that bring the outside in, whether we realize it or not. Our senses recognize the feeling of expansion even before our eye can see it. Our bodies and minds respond to air and to natural light.

The architect Renzo Piano transformed Isabella’s palace by extending her secret courtyard to the outside with the addition of a soaring glass structure that houses a “living room” complete with shelves of design books and comfortable egg chairs, a café, a concert hall, and, of course, a greenhouse.  Everywhere you sit, you are surrounded by glass, by green, by the city. You are no longer simply visiting a museum but comfortably sitting in the landscape.

There is a gift shop, but the appeal of the building and its surroundings is not stuff. It’s doing, being, seeing, borrowing, reading, thinking, relaxing, eating, reflecting. Living. It’s a great place to go to live for a few hours.

Just what our homes should be, and often aren’t. We can’t change (usually) the architecture of our homes and offices but we can invite the light. We can open our floor plans to windows, making it possible to sit by them, work by their light, feel the passage of the sun and shadows or hear the rain throughout the day.

I worked in three boxes in Washington, D.C. but in each one I had a window around which I oriented my workspace. I live in an old Victorian that was stuffed to the gills with furniture before I moved in so that I did not see the windows, and beyond them, the outside.

Turn your desk to the light. Move an armchair by the bay. Angle the sofa so even if you can look at the television you’re close enough to the sash to feel the breeze and hear the birds and look over the lawn or out at the treetops.