The Art of the Fragment

Harvard University Semitic Museum
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Serving research and educational needs for the understanding of ancient art from the Middle East, the original 1903 building for Harvard’s Semitic Museum did not meet current code standards or satisfy the University’s commitment for universal accessibility in all its facilities, and thus constrained the institution in satisfying an expanding public interest in its unique collections.

Most significantly, the design provided a new elevator tower as an exterior addition to and re-working of the Museum’s east entrance. As it can now serve all of the Museum’s potential individual public, school group, and academic users, the new elevator also greatly improves the Museum’s curatorial operations, facilitating the movement of large artifacts between grade-level deliveries, the upper level display and educational galleries, and the lower level conservation studios.

In responding to this long-standing need within a precisely defined scope and budget for such upgrades, the project re-designed the restroom facilities on each of the building’s four levels without impinging on either the public spaces of the Museum or the several departmental office suites sharing this extremely compact building.

Maintaining Integrity

The location, massing, and materials of the exterior addition were carefully considered to respond to the proportions, symmetries, and “texture” of the original masonry building, which remains a delicately scaled “jewel” set among neighboring brick-clad research institutes and large science laboratories. The integrity of the existing building’s architecture, as well as the prominence of the site—along a primary circulation path between the historic Yard and the science and Divinity School quadrangles beyond—required an exterior design resolution that addressed both public presence and functional improvements.  

The new elevator tower meets this responsibility by being articulated as a crisply sculptural, freestanding brick shaft, with the vertical glazing which encloses the transitional lobbies visually separating the new from the existing construction.

Presentation Is Everything

Through a carefully aligned separation between the old and new masonry volumes, the tower itself is presented as a “displaced fragment,” akin to the archaeological fragments on display in the galleries. Granite stairs flanking the brick shaft reinforce the tower’s formality, extend the existing architectural vocabulary of the building base, and reach out to engage the pedestrian circulation approaching from north and south. 

Care was taken to minimize the width of the connection between old and new, to preserve and reveal as much of the original detailing as possible, including maintaining—for aesthetic, economic,  and functional reasons—the elaborate eave line of the existing hipped roof.

Construction was extended to accommodate the academic calendar and exhibition schedule of the Museum. Following the completion of Phase 1, additional design services were provided to enhance the user experience, featuring preliminary designs for the main lobby and upper level exhibition spaces.