With its ambitious redesign, the Museum of Modern Art is defining itself for the next century. Mary Haus looks at how the monumental new complex will alter the museum experience
When the expanded Museum of Modern Art opens on nearly two acres in midtown Manhattan next month, the seven-year, $425 million undertaking will effectively bring the center of the art world back to New York for the first time in decades. And in an era when other modern art museums abroad have helped to establish the phenomenon known as destination architecture, MOMA's complex, designed by Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi, creates a provocative new image of how a museum, its art, and its history can converge.
In the mid seventies, the Pompidou in Paris, with its inside-out plumbing and see-through exterior, was designed by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano as a metaphor, presenting the museum as machine—a technology-inspired agent of urban renewal. Twenty years later, in 1997, Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Bilbao gained worldwide attention—the building as a sculpture in itself. Then, in 2000, came the Tate Modern, in London. Designed by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, it combined subtle, adaptive reuse of a mid-century industrial space—the museum as reclaimed history—and a bold program, which wagered that audiences would travel specifically to see contemporary art. (They did, in droves.)
The new MOMA is arguably the next chapter in the ongoing evolution of the museum experience: one that's about the absence of a definable architectural style, according to MOMA director Glenn Lowry. "In the end," Lowry says, the choice of Taniguchi, who before this commission was known only to architecture insiders, "had to do with his attitude toward light, space, and proportion. We weren't looking to build a signature building, just the best possible museum we could."
Taniguchi's final structure looks like a set of mammoth glass boxes. Unlike the Pompidou, Bilbao, and Tate Modern, MOMA doesn't assert itself with some startling form, but rather with its sheer scale—630,000 square feet over six floors—and its exquisite precision; the first is a product of the museum's hold on wealth, power, and real estate in New York, and the second, a trait of its lifeblood, pure Modernism. Combined, they mean vast interiors, pared-down or invisible supports, generous windows in galleries, and, above all, the outdoors brought in.
A six-story atrium soars to a skylit foyer. At several turns in the pristine galleries you come upon dramatic views of the museum's sculpture garden, or startling slices of turn-of-the-19th-century town houses—a reminder that you're in Manhattan. In a nod to his predecessors, Taniguchi has also incor-porated elements of Philip Goodwin and Edward Durrell Stone's original building as well as Philip Johnson's 1965 addition and Cesar Pelli's 1984 Museum Tower.
The lobby now stretches a full city block, from West 53rd to West 54th Street. On the first floor is a museum shop and bookstore designed by Gluckman Mayner Architects; on the second a reading lounge, MOMA Books, which will have a selection that's the size of a small town's public library. Danny Meyer, who launched Union Square and Gramercy Tavern, is opening a high-end restaurant and bar (called the Modern) and two cafés in the complex.
As much as it caters to individual experiences, MOMA's form was clearly dictated by its most basic function: presenting works of art in a way that makes the museum's case for how the last hundred-odd years of art should be understood—and the next hundred, for that matter. During early discussions of the redesign, some advocated a separate building for contemporary art, according to John Elderfield, MOMA's chief curator of painting and sculpture. Yet when the museum reopens on November 20, visitors will encounter the contemporary first, on their way to the modern and temporary shows on upper floors.
In the old MOMA galleries, Elderfield explains, the great masterworks were installed like "beads on a chain," one next to another. In the new approach, the familiar icons—Cézanne's Bather, van Gogh's Starry Night—are arranged along roughly the same time line as they were before, but the overall point is what MOMA calls a more porous interpretation of art history.
This is reflected by substantial digressions in the galleries' design—individual spaces, mini-museums in themselves, where works of art, some by a single artist (Picasso, for example), others by many artists working at the same time or in a similar way (such as the Cubists), can tell something more, and can be seen in an order determined by the visitor.
"Each unit depicts a particular period," Elderfield says. Certainly, familiar masterworks will read differently just because of the astonishing range in the rooms' dimensions—from small, intimate spaces, to be used for works on paper, to expanses of 15,000 square feet, where you might see only a dozen paintings and large-scale sculptures.
What impact will the new MOMA have on New York, given, among other things, that two of its principal counterparts, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, are in the midst of their own expansion plans (the Whitney with Renzo Piano)?"In terms of dealing with modern and contemporary art," Elderfield says, the new space "does raise the stakes for other institutions, and that's actually just fine."
MARY HAUS is a former managing editor of ARTnews and communications director at the Whitney Museum in New York.