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Manhattan's New Museum of Modern Design

© Thomas Loof Manhattan’s New Museum of Modern Design

Photo: Thomas Loof

Occupying a trapezoidal island diagonally across from Central Park, the 12-story, white-marble building by Edward Durrell Stone stood for close to half a century at 2 Columbus Circle, near the geographic center of Manhattan; but around it lay a cultural wasteland. Today, it is the new home of the Museum of Arts and Design (also known as MAD) which, with the Time Warner Center and a revitalized Central Park, completes the rebirth of Columbus Circle as a major destination.

The building has been many things to many people: an architectural oddity (“a die-cut Venetian palazzo on lollipops,” according to former New York Times critic Ada Louise Huxtable); a wealthy dilettante’s cultural folly; later, an empty shell; and, lastly, an object of extreme nostalgia. Stone designed the 1964 building for A&P supermarket heir Huntington Hartford’s Gallery of Modern Art, the institution he created to display his collection and promote the cause of figurative art. It was a swank, frilly rejoinder to the high Modernist impulse in art and design, then enshrined as doctrine by New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA).

But times change. Supermarket fortunes are frittered away, institutions conceived as vanity projects close, buildings are handed over to the city and then abandoned for 10 years while someone decides what to do with them.

So it was that, earlier this fall, I found myself seated in a mahogany-paneled red-and-gold auditorium, whose ceiling, a vaulted web of circular brass tiles, pays tribute to Manhattan’s only traffic circle, just outside. In this meticulous re-creation of the room Stone designed, we were gathered to celebrate the Museum of Arts and Design, reopening with a new name and an expanded mandate after an intense preservation battle and a six-year redesign. MAD’s predecessor was inaugurated in 1956 as the Museum of Contemporary Crafts, and craft—as distinct from folk art—has evolved over the past 50 years, carrying on extended flirtations with the fields of art and design, while the museum itself has expanded its global reach.

In a controversial redesign, Brad Cloepfil, founder of Allied Works Architecture, based in Portland, Oregon, has remade the building from top to bottom. He preserved its quirky, curving shape, restored its auditorium, and kept its signature ground-floor arcade of lollipop-shaped arches, enclosing them in glass. (They now offer street views into the lobby and the museum’s gift shop, which sells mostly one-of-a-kind, artisan-produced objects.) But he also removed 300 tons of concrete from the structure, sheathing its exterior in iridescent ceramic tile and perforating it with strategic cuts that flood the once-windowless galleries with natural light. Graceful light- and art-filled stairwells allow visitors to spiral between four gallery floors up to the ninth-floor restaurant, which will feature panoramic city and park views when it opens early next year. The result is a rarity, post-Bilbao—an art institution conceived from the inside out. The emphasis is not on the museum as image or spectacle, but on people’s encounters with its art—punctuated by stunning views of Columbus Circle and Central Park—as they move through it.

“It’s the interior that really generated everything you see on the outside,” Cloepfil says on the morning of the opening. “The primary focus is engagement with the art,” but the views out on all four sides “also reconnect you with the city.”

It was tempting to draw a parallel with the mission of design itself, as bridging the gap between art’s ivory tower and real-world needs. Was that what philanthropist Aileen Osborn Webb had in mind when, responding to an increasingly technology-driven society, she established the Museum of Contemporary Crafts (devoted to a “plain cousin of the fine arts,” as Time magazine called it), in a refurbished Victorian brownstone on West 53rd Street, steps away from MOMA?Craft, for her, had always had a social dimension. A decade earlier she had funded educational programs for combat veterans returning from the dehumanizing traumas of World War II, in the belief that they might find solace in metalworking. Later, at the height of the Cold War, she organized international conferences where urban designers mingled with village artisans, in hopes that craft could promote world peace.

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