Skip to content
HomeWorksMuseum of Fine Arts, West Wing

Museum of Fine Arts, West Wing

Pygmalion Karatzas

Like the Des Moines Art Center Addition, the East Building of the National Gallery of Art (and later, the Louvre and the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin), Pei designed the West Wing to expand an existing museum. It provided greatly needed climate control for the original building, and the opportunity to also rationalize multiple ad hoc additions that left the MFA a warren of dead-end corridors. The West Wing linked to the 1907 building on three levels, thereby weaving a continuous circulation loop throughout the museum for the first time in decades.

The West Wing was to provide new space for the MFA’s growing permanent collection and for large traveling exhibitions like the Egyptian King Tut blockbuster, which drew audiences of unprecedented size to museums throughout the 1970s. The MFA was one of the great repositories of art and culture in the United States, but it was tired, with declining membership and few public amenities. The West Wing provided a new main entrance with convenient parking and a wide range of services so that it could function quasi-independently and remain open for extended hours or special events when the rest of the museum was closed. A soaring skylit “Galleria,” 200 feet long and 52 feet high, at the center of the building gives access to 25,000 square feet of new flexible exhibition space, a 400-seat auditorium, an education center, bookstore, varied dining, and support. With this concentration of new public facilities, the West Wing revitalized the MFA, transforming it into a vital center of community engagement and attracting a greater number of people on a more generous schedule than ever was possible before. The West Wing’s minimalist exterior matches the original gray granite building.


Site plan, shaded West Wing and original museum / Courtesy of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners

I.M. Pei knew the MFA from the long hours he’d spent in its Asian art galleries while enrolled at MIT (not so much to view the collection, but to study as the galleries were “quiet and almost always empty”). He was especially grateful for the offer to design the West Wing in 1977 as he had been shunned for years in Boston after the glass failure of the John Hancock Tower. The commission was especially meaningful as Howard Johnson, then president of the MFA, was also a director of the John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company and past president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – Pei’s local connections reconciled.

In 1986 the Adaptive Environment Center conferred The Best of Accessible Boston Commendation Award on the Museum of Fine Arts-West Wing for its major advances in circulation.

Design Team: I.M. Pei, Design Partner; C.C. Pei, Design Architect
I.M. Pei & Partners