The building is set on a site that is roughly rectangular with rounded edges. In plan, the main volume is shaped like a keystone — narrow at the eastern edge and widening slightly as it moves westward. Tucked between the Russell Museum and an ugly concrete parking garage is the red-brick Resident Physician's House (1891), which serves as the museum's administrative offices and archives.
The museum itself is wrapped entirely in glass and copper. The bright new copper relates well to the red-brick buildings in the immediate vicinity; that relationship will evolve as the copper gains a patina.
Materially the glass entry pavilion serves as a foil, giving a well-lit welcome to visitors and also engaging the adjacent Physician's House in a dialogue. We see that the older building's bay windows and dormers are literally just a few inches away from the new museum, exemplifying the juxtaposition of architectural styles and eras at MGH.
Glass continues to run the entire length of the museum's Cambridge Street facade, but only along the ground floor. This gives pedestrians a peek at the somewhat gory exhibits inside, but also lends a sense of color and animation to a stretch of Cambridge Street that had previously been somewhat barren, dark, and foreboding.
The museum's second floor, intended for temporary exhibits, is more introspective. The big move here is a jaunty oriel window projecting out asymmetrically from the copper facade.
Oriel windows, many in the gothic revival style, are prevalent throughout Boston's Beacon Hill and Back Bay neighborhoods. But here the window is given a modern interpretation, with copper-colored fritted glass along one edge and clear glass gesturing toward the gold-domed Massachusetts State House at the top of Beacon Hill. The window is expertly scaled and detailed so as to avoid the Cyclops look that this architectural gesture can sometimes have.
To visit the museum is to be drawn into the space as it widens toward the west. A large metal staircase immediately signals that there are other floors, but the majority of the permanent exhibits are on the first floor. They comprise mostly a timeline of the medical innovations that have taken place since MGH's founding in 1811, along with displays of medical instruments illustrating their advancement over that time period. Refreshingly, the Russell Museum is meant for adults, not busloads of school children.
Climbing the stair, the visitor is met with a large lecture space adjacent to the oriel window, with handsome English sycamore paneling on the walls and a large seating area overlooking the first-floor exhibitions below.
Then there's the roof garden. This icing-on-the-cake space may be one of Boston's best new refuges from the dense urban hustle and bustle below. When I visited on a gray, blustery day in early May, a woman sharing the space with me volunteered, "It's like an urban oasis."
Topped by a tall, white steel pergola, this green roof contains soothing plantings set in Cor-Ten steel containers. Leers Weinzapfel carved out notches along the southern and western edges of the roof garden and placed glass railings to give pedestrians below a glimpse into this space. In keeping with the building's task of mediating scale, the pergola is intentionally tall and prominent, and it cantilevers over the main entrance to the east.
This building holds its own among its large medical neighbors, even as it feels appropriately scaled to the residential buildings nearby.
One of Leers Weinzapfel's abiding interests is exploring the craft of building, and this is evident in the pattern and assembly of the museum's copper facade. The panels are laid out such that the standing seams, which jut out slightly, are interspersed with flat seams to give the facade a sense of syncopated variety.
The panels' wrinkly texture is evidence of their hand-assembly and hand-installation. "The copper workers could not have made it look perfect if they wanted to," says Weinzapfel. Overall this lends a rather comforting imperfection to the building envelope.
MGH claims this is the first freestanding, purpose-built hospital museum in the United States. With its carefully crafted scale and deft use of materials, the Russell Museum has set a high bar indeed for any that might follow.