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On Display: A Museum for Architecture in Boston's Copley Square



From Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s Altes Museum in Berlin, to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York, to Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, museum buildings have marked watershed moments in architectural history, as these iconic buildings defined new symbolic content, and shaped both culture and history.

Museums, however, are also containers for objects within, and must inevitably confront their dual role as both architectural monuments and spaces of interior display. To what degree should museum architecture enforce its own iconicity, versus reflect the contents within? Moreover, how might the architectural museum challenge this apparent dichotomy between its outward-facing presence and inward-looking identity?

As an embrace of this rich debate, this Rotch program brief asks participants to design a museum of and for architecture. The artifact on display, in other words, is architecture itself. This brief prompts participants to consider the role that the museum plays within the twenty-first century urban environment most broadly. It challenges participants to take a stand on the role of architecture’s iconicity, as well as its impact in shaping culture and history. Should the museum position itself as an architectural “statement,” and, if so, how does that relate to its function as a space in which to exhibit architecture? In other words, how might architecture be understood as being both on display, as well as a place of display?



The site for this new architecture museum is Copley Square in Boston, a site created in 1857 as part of the filling of the Back Bay, and known until the late 19th century as “Art Square.” Copley Square’s geometry resulted from the intersection of the original South End street grid, and the newly created Back Bay grid.

Image: Sturgis and Brigham, original Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (1876)

The site contains a particularly complex historical array of architectural objects, including: H.H. Richardson’s Trinity Church (1872-77), McKim Mead and White’s Boston Public Library (1888-95), along with Philip Johnson’s addition to the Library (1972), and Henry Cobb’s Hancock Tower (completed 1976) among them. Copley Square was also the site of the original Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (designed by Sturgis and Brigham and completed in 1876). Copley Square, in other words, is itself a kind of urban museum of architecture. Participants must position their proposal in relation to this context.


Image: McKim Meade and White Boston Public Library (1888-95) (note that the photo dates from appox. 1950 when Huntingon still passed diagonally through the square)

Rotch Final Competition Program 2020 Siteplan

The site for the project is along Boylston street, mid-block, between Clarendon and Dartmouth streets. Participants may use the entirety of site, though it is not required. The back alley is not included in the site extents. There are no height restrictions or FAR requirements for the purposes of this brief.


In addition to the complex urban and architectural context that constitutes Copley Square, participants are also asked to consider the rich history of the ways in which architecture has been displayed within the museum.

Among the most important considerations is scale; architecture has historically been displayed in the museum in miniature, through the use of architectural scale models, though it has at times been displayed at full scale—either in its “original” form or as a replica. More recently, the introduction of new media has opened new possibilities for the the way in which architecture might be understood by a viewing audience, enabling more immersive and virtual environments and presenting new forms of display.

For this architecture museum, participants are asked to create exhibition spaces for four types of architectural display:

  1. A Full-Scale Architectural Artifact: The space must allow for the exhibition of a full-scale architectural artifact. The space must allow for changing installations (and thus consider installation and deinstallation procedures). Ceiling heights in particular should be generous enough to enable larger installations.
  2. Architectural Scale Models/Miniatures: This space must accommodate architectural models. Proposals should consider how models will be positioned within the space, and how the space might also allow for the display of accompanying architectural drawings.
  3. Digital Display: This space must provide the capacity for digital and virtual representations of architecture.
  4. The Urban Context: In this space the museum must put the city itself on display. More than simply providing “views” this space should foreground but also activate the relationship of the building to its surrounding urban context.


Rotch Final Competition Program 2020 program