by Meghna MehtaOct 25, 2019
I can still hear the words of Glenn Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York (since 1995), “We don’t collect buildings and we don’t collect them for a reason,” when he authoritatively announced the decision to demolish the American Folk Art Museum building next door, back in 2014. The removal of the award-winning and just 13-year-old structure, designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, cleared a way for MoMA’s latest expansion. The new $450 million complex, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R) with Gensler, opened in October, following three years of construction and renovation, of which for four months the museum remained closed to the public. The expansion enlarged the gallery space by a third, adding 47,000 square feet and enabling the curators to present the museum’s comprehensive collection in more balanced and diverse ways. Not only is there more art now, it is wonderfully interpreted through a seamless interplay of paintings, sculptures, prints, photography, film, as well as architecture department holdings, which, by the way, now number over 60,000 items. What is achieved is a stimulating visual tension through a constant push and pull of different scales, themes, media, and historical periods, often breaking with the accustomed chronological order. The result is impressive, but not without questions.
The museum now takes over most of its city block and first-time visitors need to plan to spend at least a full day here, just to scratch its surface. The new Jean Nouvel tower at 53W 53rd Street now identifies MoMA in the city’s skyline. You see its graceful Hugh Ferris-inspired profile and you know where the new museum is situated, as a part of it occupies the building’s second, third, and fourth floors. Perhaps that’s the strategy for the museum’s future growth – not betting on building ground up spaces, but infiltrating into the existing neighbouring towers, occupying rooftops and setbacks, as well as digging under and jumping over the streets, beyond its home base block. Looking at MoMA’s current sprawling footprint this scenario may not seem so improbable, as no one expects the latest configuration that, including offices and back of house facilities, now amass to 708,000 square feet, to last for long. After all, it has been only 15 years since the previous 2004 Yoshio Taniguchi expansion, which was 20 years after the 1984 Cesar Pelli expansion, and 20 years before that since the 1964 Philip Johnson expansion. The question is not when, but where the museum will expand next.
Assessing the current expansion is impossible without thinking about both MoMA’s past and future. As I wander around the new complex, the experience brings me a genuine sense of pleasure and I look forward to my future visits here. There are moments when you feel as if you are walking between buildings, crossing urban plazas and streets that hang like bridges, overlooking beautiful gardens and allowing accidental glimpses of the thrilling city skyline. Well, it feels like exploring a real city – crowded, loud, fascinating, surprising. The place brings together all kinds of people – walking slow and fast, in silence and agitation, unassuming, puzzled, and unquestionably intrigued and inspired. Art comes alive here, no question about it. But as far as architecture, I am unsettled; I imagine what it could have been. I feel that just like the previous expansion, the latest one, again, is a missed opportunity. I want to know why.
Let’s start from the outside – the most dramatic new feature, sticking almost violently out of perfectly aligned façades of what could be easily mistaken for a bunch of mediocre office buildings, is a canopy, seemingly floating high over the sidewalk. It redefines the old Taniguchi entrance. The piece is compelling, well crafted, and squarely beautiful, but it blurs the distinctions between what was here before and what was added later. Step inside and that feeling is only reinforced. The original entrance hall is now raised at the front and punched through here and there. It is no longer Taniguchi. Yet, it is not exactly DS+R either. If we explore the museum, both outside and inside, we will not recognise MoMA’s history of six major expansions. There are still bits and pieces – the 1939 Goodwin-Stone building façade, another 1964 façade and 1953 sculpture garden by Philip Johnson, the 1984 residential Museum Tower by Cesar Pelli, and 2004 interiors and facades facing the sculpture garden by Taniguchi. But all the boundaries are gone. The individual characters of the original architecture are no longer felt. All spaces are now intertwined and can be entered at any level and explored in any sequence; there is no clear and immediate understanding of where you are. It does not seem to matter. Nothing is a destination. Everyone is moving from somewhere to elsewhere – left, right, up, down, diagonally across, and in circles. The 'We don’t collect buildings' strategy has led to seeing buildings primarily as supporting floors and walls, not as works of art in themselves.
There seems to be an urge on the part of the museum’s leadership to rewrite history every time, to start from scratch, to dismantle historical layers, to stay contemporary, or more to the point, modern; if by Modernism we define an attempt to modernise, continuously transform our world, which is, of course, the core of any kind of art or architectural practice. There seems to be a crusade against what Gertrude Stein saw as a contradiction – namely the very concept of modern museum when she famously said, “You can be a museum or you can be modern, but you can’t be both.” It is quite apparent that one of MoMA’s central missions is to prove that statement wrong. They insist on eventually building a kind of museum, in which you will be able to move vertically and laterally instantaneously across time and space, and that space could be anything, or ideally, seemingly nothing, pure air, like a virtual, immaterial, invisible framework. It is a utopian concept and one-dimensional vision. It contradicts the very basic idea – there cannot be only one kind of architecture, just as there cannot be only one kind of art. Architects’ visions must be addressed and reinterpreted. Architecture cannot be erased again and again; it is counterproductive.
This is not to say that MoMA hasn’t accumulated exemplary architecture, but it is fragmentised and decontextualised. Everything is sacrificed towards turning the building into a smoothly functioning curatorial machine, a mere flexible space for display. Nothing is quite special, intimate, and magical here. Instead, everything is impressive, grand, and impersonal. The most remarkable architectural elements at MoMA are stairs – the new Blade Stair, as DS+R call their four-flight stairway, suspended from the sixth floor; historic Bauhaus staircase at the Goodwin-Stone building that was extended also by DS+R to the ground level in 2017; and Taniguchi stair, an airy, gravity-defying link between the second and third floors that can be spotted through a slender opening from the grand central atrium. So, architecture is not exactly invisible at the new MoMA; there are wonderful moments that one can enjoy, but they are discreet and can be easily missed. Sure, the 'We don’t collect buildings' approach offers a great liberation and, as MoMA has proven yet again, very impressive results can be achieved, but isn’t that kind of sacrifice too costly? We are talking about compromising potentially the most nuanced and architecturally richest urban block in America. Is spatial freedom and efficient circulation more valuable than a dead-end contemplative space? Who’s to say? More and more, when we come to MoMA, we tend to feel like tourists. We need to pause, get a map, ask for direction. Sure, what we find here is impressive, fascinating, even exhilarating, but is it still relevant for a museum to insist on being modern in the face of the future that was once so desirable, but now increasingly proving to be questionable? Besides, there is so much competition nowadays among leading museums to get bigger and bigger; wouldn’t it be magical for MoMA to be the biggest and smallest museum simultaneously? I hope something could be done about that the next time.