Towards A New Modern

Towards A New Modern

As the Museum of Modern Art’s eagerly anticipated new home nears completion, Aric Chen revisits the project and offers a preview.

The new MoMA orients visitors’ views of the garden courtyard along its length. The interior is a volumetric puzzle of rectilinear compositions, floating planes, and interlocking spaces.

One might not think Philip L. Goodwin was an obvious choice to design the first permanent home for the Museum of Modern Art when, in 1934, the five-year-old institution decided it had outgrown its cramped 53rd Street townhouse. In fact, its legendary (and soon-to-be furious) founding director, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., had already set his mind on Europe and the likes of Mies when he learned that the museum’s board of trustees had all but awarded the commission to Goodwin, a onetime Beaux Arts designer who also happened to be a fellow trustee. Barr then did his best to arrange a collaboration with Mies but Godwin refused to work with a foreign architect and chose instead to partner with a 29-year-old who had worked on Radio City Music Hall named Edward Durrell Stone.

Fortunately, nepotism, nationalism, and backstabbing don’t seem to have played a noticeable role in MoMA’s also-unexpected selection of Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi for its latest, and most ambitious, expansion. With the bulk of construction expected to be completed in July anddafter installation and other final touchessits opening day scheduled for November 20th, the $858 million project will nearly double the midtown museum’s total size to 630,000 square feet while increasing its gallery space by 50 percent, to 125,000 square feet.

With the building almost finished, it’s become apparent that what Taniguchi’s first models and drawings may have lacked in showmanship when they were unveiled in 1997 will likely be compensated for by the finished building’s impressive proportions, architectonic poise and excruciatingly deft detailing. To be sure, this is not an architecture of bells and whistles but rather one that reflects the museum’s self-enforced ethos of august sobriety. When I first saw Taniguchi’s work in Japan, it made quite an impression on me because, while it’s rooted in this very modern language, it’s also quite singular,, said MoMA architecture and design chief curator Terence Riley (who is also a member of this publication’s advisory board). I hope there weren’t too many people holding their breath,, he added, thinking we were going to throw out 75 years of what we’ve been doing to go in a completely different direction..

Indeed, one thing that Taniguchi does share with Goodwin and Stoneewhose 1939 International Style design remains, of course, beloved to manyyis his selection over more looming figures. Comparatively unknown in this country Taniguchi emerged from a field of such overshadowing names as Rem Koolhaas, Bernard Tschumi, and Jacques Herzog and Pierre De Meuron in an invited competition first announced over seven years ago. While other museums, hoping for some kind of Bilbao redux, were (and are still) clamoring for donor and press-baiting buildings by flashier architects, MoMA had the luxury of particularly deep-pocketed and generous trustees (and $65 million in city funds), as well as an institutional confidence that often lends it an above-the-fray disposition. If you’re not dependent on publicity or fundraising mechanisms, you can focus more closely on deciding what’s best for this institution,, Riley continued. And trendy architecture was not, MoMA determined, in its best interests.

When it returns to midtown after a two-year hiatus, the museum, which closes its temporary MoMA QNS facility to the public on September 27th, will be both familiar and virtually unrecognizable. Its Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden and Goodwin and Stone faaade will be restored to their original designs, with Philip Johnson’s 1965 street faaade preserved as well. Beyond thattand with the exception of other elements like its Bauhaus Stair, and certainly Cesar Pelli’s 1984 Museum Towerrvery little will look the same.

The lumbering, 20-year-old Museum Tower, a 52-story condominium that resulted from the museum’s earlier sale of air rights, actually proved to be one of the redesign’s main obstacles. Embedded within the fabric of the complex, it was something to be literally worked around, though in the end, it was embraced by necessity. Rather than simply fight it, Taniguchi more visibly anchored it to the ground by peeling back the glass structure that once obscured it from the garden, and cladding its now-exposed base in black granite and black glass. We wanted to take the Museum Tower and use it as a central element,, museum director Glenn Lowry said on a recent hardhat tour, since we really couldn’t hide it..

At the same time, new wings for galleries and educational facilities now flank the garden on its west and east sides. A new lobby, connecting 53rd and 54th streets, leads up to a soaring 12,400-square-foot, 110-foot-high central atrium. Sprawling contemporary art galleries on the second floor, and more intimately scaled spaces for historical collections above, invert the former hierarchy to allow the museum to place renewed emphasis on its original vanguard mission while still showcasing, in more flexible quarters, the masterworks that established it. The new architecture and design galleries will reside on the third floor. And all have been sheathed by an impossibly precise exterior of black granite, aluminum panels and crystalline, diaphanous glass.

There have been challenges, to be sure, including the neighbors. Empowered by city planning requirements, St. Thomas Episcopal Church insisted that new construction not obstruct pedestrians’ views, from 54th Street, of the stained glass clerestory windows of its Bertram Goodhue building, a demand that was resolved by cutting a notch into Taniguchi’s design. In addition, loading docks and storage had to be moved for residents of the Museum Tower, who were also enticed by views of a still-pending garden by Ken Smith that, in one suggested iteration, might cover much of the museum’s roof with an over-scaled camouflage pattern in gravel, crushed glass, and plantings.

There have also been pleasant surprises, like an eighth-floor mechanical area that proved so structurally robust that engineers realized it could act as a truss from which lower floors could be suspended, thus allowing column-free spans of as much as 180 feet in the 20,000 square-foot contemporary galleries.

Most of all, however, there is the detailing. As a volumetric puzzle of rectilinear compositions, floating planes and interlocking spaces, everything ends up being resolved in details and expressed in details,, said Stephen Rustow, a senior associate principal at Kohn Pedersen Fox, the project’s executive architect. What can already be seen is a clarity and precision, as with the curtain walls, where all the panel joints have been reduced to the absolute practical minimum..

Indeed, not only are these joints a mere three-eighths to a quarter of an inch, but the curtain walls themselvessas well as exterior canopies and even many of the interior wallssare hung by redundant structural systems that allow any imprecision in the building’s skeleton to be corrected on its surface. Meanwhile, custom extrusions were created that fit regular drywall while providing a consistent and exacting reveal around the walls at the floors and ceilings. The overall result, one might be led to believe, is a building so plumb and level as to feel almost unreal. In this day and age when you’re not supposed to be able to move people with straight lines, there’s not a curve in this building,, Riley said. But everyone I bring through it now tells me it’s so perfect and so right, as if it was so inevitable..  ARIC CHEN LIVES IN NEW YORK AND WRITES FOR ID, METROPOLIS, GQ, ART & AUCTION, AND OTHER PUBLICATIONS.