buildings matter. They temper our mood, refract our ambitions and sensibilities. At their best, they might inspire us to behave better.

“We want [buildings] to shelter us,” says essayist Alain de Botton in The Architecture of Happiness (Pantheon, 2006). “And we want them to speak to us—to speak to us of whatever we find important and need to be reminded of.” In this abundantly illustrated book, which is being adapted into a three-part PBS documentary that will premiere on October 3, de Botton uses a raft of fascinating examples in support of his point that architecture is as much about psychology as design: Good buildings signal an understanding of who we are and what will satisfy us.

de botton’s book leads me to ask, “How do I feel in this space—how does this space make me feel?” I’m in the fifth-floor reading room of the Boston Athenaeum, on Beacon Street just a block from the State House. This is one of this city’s grandest rooms, where it is possible to read in tomblike silence amid a group of like-minded souls. It’s a quietly elegant space, unafraid to be unobtrusive.

Recently in The New York Times Book Review the journalist-historian Walter Isaacson not so gently disparaged the space as an “aloof perch.” I look around the room. It feels anything but aloof.

In fact, a certain humility sets in when you sit among these phalanxes of old books. As for those mute but knowing busts of marble, their implicit command is to dig deeper, look farther back in time, and absorb more of the record, before pronouncing.

True, the Athenaeum has comfy leather chairs, and “people actually do take naps here from time to time,” says director and librarian Richard Wendorf. But, he adds, “this place is put to very serious use for the most part.”

I admit to appreciating the benign stuffiness of the Athenaeum, and I’m not above absorbing its comforts. I’m getting what I came here for: a sense of propinquity to art and ideas, not just access to the stacks. Which, by the way, are terrific to explore. They’re the heart of the place, and they aren’t fussy. They lend the place a feeling of penetralia, says Wendorf, borrowing a term from Henry James: “a sense of mystery, places that need to be explored —you have to penetrate it. Handsome and stately and formal as the building is in many ways, it’s also eccentric and idiosyncratic enough to pull you in.”

The fifth-floor reading room of the Boston
Athenaeum is not an “aloof perch,” but simply
unafraid to be unobtrusive.
Photograph by Thomas Kellner.

Another bastion of penetralia is the Museum of Fine Arts, an institution that originally grew out of the Athenaeum’s art collection. Over the past century, the museum has grown to spectacular proportions, and it is more a civic monument than a cozy retreat, but you can get lost in there, especially in the old part that houses the permanent collection.

The main entrance on Huntington Avenue, closed in 1990 to save money, was reopened in 1995 —restoring the intent of architect Guy Lowell, who won the commission for the museum in 1907. Joined by curator Frederick Ilchman, I climb 42 steps to the Acropolis-like epicenter. “Like a temple, you are drawn higher and higher,” says Ilchman. We ascend to the rotunda, which opened in the 1920s and is decorated with reliefs and murals by John Singer Sargent.

The key painting, head on, proclaims the museum’s mission. Ilchman translates the classical iconography with ease: “Athena shielding the arts—architecture, painting, and sculpture—from the ravages of time. The irony is that sometime between Sargent’s time and ours, this knowledge of reading personifications and symbols has just disappeared. Most people walking in here in 1921 could have gotten that, and very few people get it now.”

The rotunda of the Museum of Fine
Arts is another example of
measured exuberance—grand but
not overpowering.
Photograph courtesy of Museum
of Fine Arts, Boston.

The rotunda dates from roughly the same time as the Athenaeum’s reading room and is suffused with the same measured exuberance—grand but not overpowering. In fact, I feel coddled. “It’s supposed to elevate you, or ennoble you, which is a tricky concept in a city that defines itself as being the first to put its foot down against British rule and aristocracy and that kind of thing,” says Ilchman. “Even though New York and Philadelphia grew to much bigger size, Boston considered itself older and more cultivated. Thus, it could be the Greece to other cities’ Rome.”

The MFA grew piecemeal during the 20th century, disrupting the intended balance of Lowell’s modular plan. By 1981, the de facto main entrance had shifted to the West Wing, orienting visitors to the garage and parking lot, rather than Huntington Avenue and its trolley.

The West Wing, a vast, light-suffused galleria designed by I. M. Pei, works well for commerce, but “it’s less hospitable for works of art,” says Ilchman. It offers amenities galore but barely a hint of what lurks in the museum’s permanent collection. “You can go to an exhibition, have lunch, peruse the bookstore, see a foreign film and hear a lecture, and never get into the heart of the museum. One could happily spend three hours in this wing and never go more than a hundred feet from the doorway.”

Despite the airy feeling created by Pei’s massive barrel-vault, the galleria generates less spiritual uplift than the older parts of the museum. I feel an urge to draw the blinds, closing off the outer world.

I have a similar response to the flashy new Institute of Contemporary Art on the waterfront in South Boston. I want to like the building, but I’m put off by its gloatingly outward-looking, transparent design. Even before I enter, I sense a lack of mystery. The building says “Look at me” so loud I have to make a concentrated effort to see the art.

The MFA has hired Foster & Associates as architects of the American Wing, an ambitious addition now under construction. To Ilchman, the selection of Norman Foster is a signal of the museum’s desire to return to “a kind of classical harmony or symmetry” in the floor plan, with a renewed focus on the permanent collection. The new American Wing will act as a counterweight to Pei’s airy, modernist West Wing.

“Had you selected someone like Zaha [Hadid], Daniel Libeskind, or Frank Gehry, who might insist on an exciting, big twisting sculptural kind of thing—that would be basically saying, this is not really much of a temple anymore,” says Ilchman. “Part of the question is, what is one’s attitude toward the Sargent murals and the rotunda? If you decide you want to ignore or overpower Sargent, you can add something totally different, but if you decide you want to return the rotunda to primacy, to celebrate it, then you have to think about redirecting attention there unapologetically.”

There’s a larger lesson here for Boston, not just for our buildings but for our public spaces. We need to resist the urge to apologize for our architectural heritage, which tends to emphasize background and continuity over flashiness and singularity. The best buildings manage to avoid distracting us from our purposes in using them, or in being near them. Which doesn’t mean they have to be ugly, or even plain. But in our consumer-driven, celebrity-obsessed culture, we run the risk of giving architects too much license for self-expression. Alain de Botton puts it nicely when he remarks that architecture is at its best when it has “the confidence and the kindness to be a little boring.”

The new ICA has a gloatingly outward-looking,
transparent design.
Photograph by Iwan Baan.

The MFA and the ICA buildings are unusual in Boston in that they stand apart from other buildings. The Athenaeum is more the norm—it is nestled among many other buildings on Beacon Street, and you might walk right past it without remarking on its grandeur. It feels like a background building, rather than a showpiece, and to me that’s a virtue. It fits right in.

I doubt that an architect would design a building like the ICA in an environment that was already built up. As the waterfront is developed, the architects of neighboring buildings will be forced to respond to the ICA, and attempt to create some continuity—to fit right in—and that will be tricky. They’ll have to overcome the urge to compete with the ICA. The goal will be to complement it as they fill the gaps in the streetscape. Let’s hope the ICA will benefit from the context it receives from these newer buildings.

Albert LaFarge runs a literary agency in Boston. He is the editor of The Essential William H. Whyte (Fordham University Press).