Friday, August 6, 2010

LOCAL NEWS: Kennedy Senate institute design plans take shape

Designs unveiled yesterday for a $60 million institute named for the late senator Edward M. Kennedy show a simple, angular building that will sit in the shadow of its iconic neighbor and big brother, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

Architect Rafael Viñoly faced a fundamental challenge: making sure the new building did not outshine the library named for President Kennedy.

The presidential library has stood since 1979 as a nine-story beacon on the shore, a blend of stark white concrete and a soaring glass pavilion looking out on Dorchester Bay.

The renderings for the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate sketch a largely single-story structure with a much lower profile.

“I think what he saw as the mission of this building was to complement and not compete with I.M. Pei’s design of the presidential library,’’ said Peter Meade, president and chief executive of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate. “He grasped the institute’s mission, to educate young people about the Senate and to do this in a respectful way.’’

The proposed Kennedy Institute will echo the color and tone of the existing library, matching its triangular and boxy shapes. A second floor will rise from the center of the main building, a small gallery encased in an opaque structure evoking the sun-dappled pavilion next door.

Construction is expected to begin this fall on the 40,000-square-foot structure, which will be part of the University of Massachusetts Boston, and not an extension of the presidential library.

The institute, scheduled to open in 2013, will be funded by private donations and federal money, which has sparked some criticism. Backers argue that the institute will not serve as a memorial or museum for Kennedy, but rather an educational facility and research center for students, academics, and elected officials.

“It will not be, as some have cynically suggested, a static library or a shrine, either to my husband or even to the United States Senate,’’ said the senator’s widow, Victoria Reggie Kennedy, when she spoke at UMass Boston’s commencement in the spring. “Rather, it will be a dynamic center of learning and engagement that takes advantage of 21st-century technology to provide each visitor with a unique and information-rich, personalized experience that literally will bring history alive.’’

The building’s proposal includes five classrooms with the technological capacity for distance learning, which could connect local high school students with their senator in Washington or children living on military bases overseas with a lecture by an UMass professor. A digital library and oral history archives will house electronic copies of Kennedy’s official papers and other members of the Senate and audio recordings of interviews by the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia.

At the core of the building will be a life-size model of the horseshoe-shaped floor of the US Senate. The ceiling above the approximation of the hallowed chamber will rise a story higher than the rest of the building, an expanse designed to evoke the grandeur of the Senate. Visitors will walk the aisles of the floor, watching large screens for records and footage of great debates. Each of the 100 desktops in the chamber will include a touch-screen computer containing information about all the men and women who occupied those seats.

“You would go to Senator Brown’s desk and it is essentially an iPad,’’ Meade said yesterday. “You press a button and it says ‘prior to Senator Brown, Senator Edward M. Kennedy served here in this seat. As did Senator John F. Kennedy, before he was president. And Senator Webster. And Senator Sumner. And Senator John Quincy Adams.’ ’’

The institute will offer history lessons on each of the more than 1,900 people who have served in the chamber, from Senator William Maclay of Pennsylvania, the first elected to the body, to Senator Carte P. Goodwin of West Virginia, who took office just over a week ago after the death of Robert C. Byrd. A broad exhibit hall will wrap around the Senate floor tracing issues and the threads of debates, from slavery to health care and beyond.

In the back right corner, there will be an exact replica of Kennedy’s Washington office. That will be different from the model of the Senate floor, which will only be a rough copy of the real chamber, with changes made to facilitate its function as a teaching tool. UMass Boston Chancellor J. Keith Motley described the institute as a “jewel on our campus’’ that will help elevate the school’s stature as a research center.

“But, more importantly, it will be an opportunity for young people from middle school and beyond to learn in an environment when you can look at the history of this country and the Senate in a real interdisciplinary kind of way,’’ Motley said yesterday. “It didn’t start out as the Edward M. Kennedy Institute. The idea was to study the Senate historically.’’

Funding for the institute includes $38.6 million from the federal government with another $20 million in federal tax money pending, Meade said. Private companies, organizations, unions, and others have donated $50 million with a fund-raising goal of $125 million to finance construction and create an endowment. The institute will have a panel of distinguished advisers composed of historians and former senators, both Republicans and Democrats.

A staff of about 20 will run the facility, gather material, and create evolving exhibits. The institute just received a grant from a private organization to design a curriculum geared for high school students, Meade said. Organizers see the center as a resource for colleges and universities beyond UMass Boston. They also hope to digitize the papers of other senators and become an electronic repository for primary-source documents.

“We don’t think of it as a museum at all,’’ Meade said. “It’s a teaching institute. Our mission is dictated both by the choice in technology and what the building looks like. The building is a functional teaching instrument of great importance.’’

Regardless of what it becomes, the building will always remain, to some degree, in the shadow of its larger neighbor. At the dedication of the presidential library in 1979, Senator Kennedy described his brother’s museum as, “a lighthouse bearing witness to Jack’s truth that America at its best can truly light the world.’’

“He and I had a special bond, despite the 14 years between us,’’ Edward Kennedy said then. “When I was born, he asked to be my godfather. He was the best man at my wedding. He taught me to ride a bicycle, to throw a forward pass, to sail against the wind.’’

Andrew Ryan Boston Globe July 29, 2010

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