MoMA's Midtown Monotony

MoMA's Midtown Monotony

Mission accomplished: The mid-town brownstone block where Alfred Barr and his fellow Modernist pioneers placed their Museum of Modern Art as America’s definitive destination for the Euro-centric discovery, interpretation, and advocacy of the Western world’s most progressive and putatively inevitable artistic trajectory will soon complete its path to final, filled-in form.

It began officially when the townhouse leased from John D. Rockefeller in 1932 was demolished for the first purpose-built International style MoMA headquarters by Goodwin and Stone, standing in breathtaking contrast to the 19th century context of residential masonry facades on the surrounding lots. It was precisely this bold juxtaposition that told the dynamic story best. And with it, the Museum set in motion its enduring dual role as both museum and real estate developer.

Manhattan’s mid-blocks as placeholders of lower density and contrasting styles in a joyful discordance of design history and shifting accommodation of existing fabric to contemporary needs is headed towards extinction, excepting designated landmarks sandwiched amid the leapfrogging glass curtain walls scraping at a disappearing sky. This unfolds despite Section 81-00 in the “General Purposes” section of New York’s Zoning Code (as approved and enforced by the City Planning Commission) calling for “the historic pattern of relatively low building bulk in mid-block locations, compared to avenue frontages.” Such good intentions yield to overriding development interests amid what seems yet another ceaseless real estate boom; landmark designation holds as the sole buffer to demolition, and the street wall uniformity following it, and is labeled therefore as an impediment to change. “Amber” (as in “fixed”) is just another word for nothing else to lose.


Somehow it seems fitting that with the exception of a few narrow mid-blocks, as between Madison to Park, where two midcentury Avenue-fronted lots accommodated new towers touching in the middle as of right, Barr’s bold 53rd Street launch pad signals the final victory of Modernism’s 80-year old call for what was back then a radical paradigm of new form.

MoMA president Glenn Lowry as much as said so back on April 10, 2013, when first announcing the plan to demolish Tod Williams Billie Tsien’s 12-year old American Folk Art Museum: “The building’s design does not fit our plans because the opaque facade is not in keeping with the glass aesthetic of the rest of the building…” This is official modernism writ large as proscribed four generations beforehand and apparently non-negotiable across time. When contemporary classicists appeal for comparable design deference, they are generally labeled reactionary.

The block is now maxed out and done. It is not easy to demolish 50+ story buildings. To refurbish or redefine interiors like downtown’s residential conversions of old corporate towers is possible, even likely, but by and large the formal exterior envelope is now sealed excepting perhaps some occasional decorative refreshment (as usually regretted eventually when styles shift and the original integrity seems right after all).

This final transformation is made official at two sites: one nearing completion, the other finally set to start with the financing in place. The Folk Art Museum demolition is under way, starting with facade removal for placement in storage as a trace of a lost landmark, like the eagles from the parapet of the old Penn Station pulled from a New Jersey landfill years after its destruction.

That nearing completion is the Enrique Norten TEN Arqitectos 46-story flagship Baccarrat Hotels and Resorts replacing as it did Aymar Embury II’s restrained classically-tinged yet modernist 1955 limestone-clad Donnell Library Center. The new library, housed at street level and subterranean as is so often the trade off on such zoning deals, is reduced in size from 97,000 square feet to just 28,000, including space-consuming “bleacher steps” eerily reminiscent of Koolhaus’s Soho Prada. Just when public library usage surges to unprecedented demand, Norten’s clients have set aside one third the total size for this oddity and future users can only hope that these bleacher steps have some sort of relevance to intended function as opposed to a spot for noisy and noisome crowd congregation.

The city sold the old five-story Donnell for a measly $39 million, which is about one half the price of the new luxury hotel/condo’s penthouse sale price alone. While it is unfair to yet judge the design result on its own merit, its role in “completing” the block’s south side facade is fact. It fills it in with the side street facade of Caron and Lundin’s 1957 666 Fifth Avenue to the east; to the west is Kevin Roche’s 1986 red granite–clad pharaonic Post Modern EF Hutton Building and the fabled CBS Black Rock tower of Eero Saarinen and Florence Knoll, completed in 1965 and daring to veer from high Miesian orthodoxy with emphasis on unbroken, order-free vertical columns instead of a glass curtain wall.

Meanwhile, the urban infill at its block-wide maximum on the northern street wall is the last piece, namely the MOMA-hatched real estate deal leading to what will open in 2018 as Jean Nouvel’s Tower Verre. It will be an 82-story luxury residential tower rising to 1,050 feet after the City Planning Commission knocked off a submitted 200 feet more despite ambiguous authority to do so as back then (prior to approval of the 57th Street mother lode of needle towers) it was deemed unseemly to equal the height of the Empire State building envelop and even eclipse that of the Chrysler. Times change, values change when it comes to the sky and the impact on infrastructure and existing communities alike. Three street level floors designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro will again expand MoMA’s gallery and programming space, including easy, transparent access into the Sculpture Garden with the rest of the tower reserved for the world’s wealthiest, who will thus sadly most likely never actually reside there.

So except for MOMA’s sequential architectural iterations and the abutting St. Thomas Episcopal Church the inn is full.

This glimpse of midtown’s now inevitable future began in part in the 1970s, when the Museum set out successfully to secure zoning permission for the revenue-generating and facility expanding mid-block tower on land it owned by drawing on the air rights of the Philip Johnson-designed Sculpture Garden. This seminal exception to the planning tenet mixing the density of Avenue vs. side streets that characterized midtown’s archetypal form and function set a precedent. It was granted the variance despite vociferous objection from local neighborhood and civic organizations alike, presciently knowing that that act alone spelled the end to the Manhattan plan as evolved. Excepting landmarks and designated historic districts, all midblock lots would be replaced eventually by a seamless continuity of the Avenue street fronts in what would be finally a colossal uniform cube of street wall verticality.

That path-breaking commission went to Cesar Pelli Associates, who delivered the 52-story Museum Tower at 15 West 53rd Street in 1984, along with a coat checking friendly atrium, expanded restaurant and gift stores, and new gallery spaces of still conventional scale.

The Pelli commission led a generation later to another major overhaul and expansion, this time built largely with capital contributions and the taxpayers of New York City. The demolition of all remaining 53rd Street brownstones and the Dorset Hotel behind it on 54th Street heralded Yoshiro Taniguchi/Kohn Pederson Fox’s 2004 six-story David and Peggy Rockefeller Building, eight-story Lewis and Dorothy Cullman Education and Research Building, and tucked in 16-story Museum Office Building, all framing a refurbished Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden. Following its completion was the sale of the remaining empty lots to the Hines Corporation for $125 million and then, finally, the purchase of the imperiled Folk Art Museum lot, completing the Tower Verre footprint.

The initial variance became the rule and today it’s inexorable as this finished block offers surest sign. Visit and see the future of zoning in Manhattan, and likely soon beyond.

To announce the end of history in this way in any social, economic, or cultural context is a fool’s errand as best demonstrated by what is now a fairy tale prophecy of political scientist Francis Fukuyama in his utopian, post-perestroika 1992 book, The End of History and The Last Man.

What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human governance.

So much for that prediction, as shown with such brutality in the last weeks of global unrest deconstructing what seemed irrevocable. It turns out there is no end of change whether progressive or regressive and that history keeps unfolding in a constant, tautological, and occasionally violent way.

Just as such, wishful thinking and its inherent delusion fade, it is equally foolish in the fullness of time to declare a place and its architecture or other hands of man to be complete. Change is constant whether going forward or other times back; user needs, expectations, and capabilities adapt, including the ample supply of cheap financing, which underpins much of our present bounty.

At the same time, however, are there limits to growth? It is a question of particular currency in the absence of any commensurate will or allocation of resources to expand the public networks of transportation, communications, and essential services that any increased density demands. The failure to do so imperils the social contract on which all else relies.