Archtober Building of the Day: The Noguchi Museum

BOD #4

Archtober Building of the Day: The Noguchi Museum

This story is part of a monthlong series of guests posts by AIA New York that feature Archtober Building of the Day tours. See the full 2017 schedule here.

Today, Archtober’s Building of the Day series stopped at the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City, Queens for a tour led by Peter Coombe and Jennifer Sage, principals of Sage and Coombe Architects, who recently completed a far-reaching renovation. Sage and Coombe were joined by George Juergens, facilities manager at The Noguchi Museum and former assistant to Isamu Noguchi. They treated the Archtober group to a fascinating look at the Museum’s transformation from Isamu Noguchi’s small personal project to a fully sustainable and viable enterprise of its own.

Sage and Coombe explained that their central challenge was how to continue Noguchi’s vision while inserting such sorely needed elements as heating and cooling. The building complex consists of a 1920s engraving plant and a small adjacent building Noguchi built with his friend and collaborator, the architect Shoji Sadao, in the 1980s. Noguchi planned the museum to exhibit his work to the public and to continue his legacy after his death. Before the renovation, the museum was a dark, cramped space with no climate control of any kind, which prevented it from being open in the winter and from hosting traveling exhibitions.

In the early 2000s, the Museum hired Sage and Coombe to bring the facility up to ADA code. The board then expanded the brief to add climate control and convert the basement into an educational conference space. As Sage and Coombe dug deeper, they discovered that the Museum, which is built on landfill, was supported by untreated wood pilings that were slowly sinking toward the East River. Extensive structural work was clearly necessary. In order to reinforce the complex, Sage and Coombe put in over 900 helical pilings.

One element that remains is the unobtrusive side-street entrance, no more than a slender cut in a massive stone wall. Inside is the small lobby, with a window providing a glimpse of the walled garden to the right. Entering the museum from the lobby, the visitor is in the former garage, which is now a roofed exhibition space open on one side to the peaceful garden. The main volume of the museum is to the left, with the temporary collection on the ground floor and rotating exhibitions on the second level.

The ground floor, an elegant, concrete-floored industrial space filled with light, was left largely as it was. One exception was the creation of the café and bookshop in a small space off the main gallery. Preserving the room’s steel ceiling panels, which Noguchi loved, was a priority. Since the space had to be gutted, Juergens and his team photographed, numbered, removed and then reinstalled each steel panel.

The second floor is the most extensively renovated. Along with installing heating and cooling for comfort throughout, Sage and Coombe completely rebuilt the second floor of the 1980s building to provide a fully climate-controlled space in which the museum could display temporary exhibitions without fear of damaging the artworks. Up a slight ramp, this new space flows seamlessly into the existing gallery. Sage and Coombe also put in an elevator, which allowed the museum to both meet ADA requirements and transport art without using a trapdoor.

Our tour ended in the serene garden, a key part of Noguchi’s original vision for the Museum. Sage and Coombe collaborated on the garden with Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects. Sage and Coombe had to “skin” the garden façade of the museum, stripping every brick from it since it was in such poor condition. The garden’s rear wall also had to be rebuilt. It turned out that three kinds of ivy grew on this wall; all of them were documented and replaced. It is this attention to detail that ensures Noguchi’s legacy lives on in a museum that is fully suited to the demands of the contemporary art world.

Join us tomorrow as we tour the SeaGlass Carousel!