Cesar Pelli's 1985 expansion of the museum with a residential
condominium tower and Yoshio Taniguchi's 1997 redo of its spaces, Jean
Nouvel and Hines Interests still revising in early 2012 their plans for
a huge mixed-use tower just to the west of the museum after Amanda
Burden insists they lop off its top 200 feet to not interfere with the
prospects of the Empire State Building
By Carter B. Horsley
On December 8, 1997, the Museum
of Modern Art in New York announced that it had selected Yoshio
Taniguchi to design a major expansion.
Taniguchi was one of three
architects invited to participate in a design competition out
of ten that had been invited to submit mission statements. The
other two finalists were Bernard Tschumi, best known for his follies
at the Parc de la Villette in Paris, and the team of Jacques Herzog
and Pierre de Meuron, partners of Herzog & de Meuron
Architekten in Basel, Switzerland and best known for winning an
international competition for the Tate Gallery of Modern Art,
Bankside, London, England. The seven who did not make the
"cut" were Steven Holl, Rem Koolhaas, Toyo Ito, Rafael
Vinoly, Dominique Perrault, and the team of Tod Williams and Billie
Taniguchi was the least well
known in the eclectic and international group which surprisingly
did not include many internationally famous architects such as
Frank Gehry, Peter Eisenman, Shin Takumatsu, Arata Isozaki, I.
M. Pei, Kohn Pedersen Fox, Arquitectonica, Gwathmey Siegel, Kevin
Roche John Dinkeloo Associates, Richard Rogers, Renzo Piano, Nicholas
Grimshaw, Sir Norman Foster, Moshe Safdie, Arthur Erickson, John
Portman, Robert Venturi, Cesar Pelli and Philip Johnson, just
to mention the most obvious possible candidates.
Taniguchi graced the cover
of The New York Times Sunday Magazine April 12, 1998 with
a long article on his selection by Suzannah Lessard, an author
of a book on Stanford White. "It is a fair measure
of the general amazement that in setting odds for the architects
who had been invited to compete for the commission, New York Magazine
gave Taniguchi no chance at all," Lessard observed, adding
that the competition had led to "grumbles" in "avant-garde
circles and from the older generation of architects who had been
excluded from the competition" that the museum "had
flubbed a chance to commission the most important contemporary
building in the world...[and] Instead, the museum had made a cautious,
Ms. Lessard, however, proceeded
to wax poetic at great length about the correctness of the museum's
choice, maintaining, cavalierly and absurdly, that "what
criticism there has been does not hold up to examination,"
adding: "To begin with, Taniguchi's design is tailored to
a densely urban site in which architectural extravagance would
be inappropriate, perhaps impossible. More importantly,
when one looks closely at Taniguchi's design with a knowledge
of his work, one feels confident that this new Modern will not
only work well for all who use it but will also be beautiful.
Within the conventions of Western modernism, however, beauty
itself is not a legitimate aspiration."
Despite the fact that Ms.
Lessard went to Japan to visit with Taniguchi for the article
she apparently was unaware of the countless wonders of "architectural
extravagance" in "densely urban" sites that are
all over Japan and are not only wonderful but beautiful!
Like most Japanese designers,
Taniguchi has a refined, delicate sense of grace and beauty and
his proposed design is not inelegant. It is, however, not
inspired and this commission is a major missed opportunity
for New York.
In the fall of 1997, the museum
held a exhibition of the ten architects' mission proposals and
it was very difficult to get any clear idea of what anyone was
planning as the statements and models were dense, abstruse, and
a bit wacky.
After selecting Taniguchi,
the museum held an exhibition from March 3 through April 28, 1998, on
the specific proposals of the three finalists. This exhibition
was more successful as the models and drawings were quite comprehensible.
Perhaps more importantly, the museum issued a 343-page book
with more than 325 illustrations, "Imagining the Future of
The Museum of Modern Art," part of its "Studies In Modern
Art" series, and it is a fascinating , provocative and important
book that documents not only the museum's considerable architectural
history but also an extensive series of "conversations"
and lectures that the museum held prior to its final selection
with a variety of architects, curators, and artists on the mission
of the museum.
It is clear from the book
that the museum earnestly sought a great deal of input from many
sources and was sensitive to the great complexities of tinkering
with one of the world's most famous gardens and modern art collections.
The book and the exhibition,
however, offer no clues as to the selection of the ten architects,
then the three finalists, and finally Taniguchi.
Taniguchi's winning proposal,
shown above, is very conservative, very elegant and very clean
cut. It does away with Pelli's cascading windows fronting
on the garden to permit his Museum Tower to be exposed to the
garden. It also replaces the great black metal and glass
facade of Philip Johnson's east wing fronting on the garden, shown
below, and creates two boxy, honed slate structures on either
side of the garden on East 54th Street where the westerly
structure will replace the former Dorset Hotel, designed by Emery
Roth, that the museum recently acquired along with two smaller
properties on East 53rd Street.
Johnson's luscious and beautiful
black facade should not have been replaced, although Terence Riley, curator
of the museum's architecture department, indicated in an
interview at a reception at the opening of the exhibition of the
finalists' designs that Johnson did not raise objections to Taniguchi's
removal of his garden facade.
Taniguchi's design has a sleekness
that is not inappropriate for MOMA, but it is a disappointing
choice especially in a post-Frank Gehry/Bilbao Guggenheim Museum
The most exciting proposal
of the three finalists came from Jacques Herzog and Pierre de
Meuron, who created a prismatic tower to the west of the Museum
Tower that was very dramatic and daring.
The museum appointed a committee
of museum trustees and officials composed of Ronald
S. Lauder, the museum's board chairman, Agnes Gund, the museum's
board president, David Rockefeller Sr., chairman emeritus of the
board, Glenn D. Lowry, the museum's director, Marshall S.
Cogan, Jerry I. Speyer, the chairman of the museum's expansion
committee, and Sid R. Bass, the chairman of the museum's
selection committee, to choose a new architect and to travel extensively
with curator Riley to visit Europe, Japan and sites in the United
States to view various architects' works. Three other museum
trustees, architects Edward Larrabee Barnes and Philip Johnson,
and Barbara Jakobson, served as advisors to the selection committee.
Ms. Lessard reported in her
magazine article that "Herzog and de Meuron came up with
something sensational, a design that was probably closest to what
the committee had in mind when it embarked on its journey."
"The architects," she continued, "are known
for their original use of glass and metal screens on facades.
Their proposal for MOMA included a combination of movable partitions
and glass facades that promised a sumptuous effect. Most
attention-getting, however, was a curatorial tower that rose beside
the Pelli tower, an abstract shape with adze-like sculptural planes."
This aspect of their design
was an asymmetrical, tottering, teetering spindle that looked
something like a Space Age probe about to launch precariously,
but mightily. It was closest in spirit to modernistic airport
control towers. The brilliance of the proposal was its scale,
which was modest in the lee of the looming Pelli tower and yet
potent in its compactness and flair, a marvelous counterfoil to
the tower and a significant sculptural addition to the city. Indeed,
the tower might well have become the most important modern sculpture
in the museum's collection. Brancusi would have certainly
The design, according to Lessard,
originally "swept the group away" but doubts arose:
"First came concerns about a seeming indifference to practical
matters, like placing a roof garden with alternating skylights
and pools of water over a gallery with no thought given to the
danger of leaks. Then came concerns about the impracticality of
the curatorial tower, which grew as the committee realized that
the external shape of the tower would make its offices exceeding
peculiar - with space for only a single room per floor toward
the top. Given these difficulties, it was thought that the design
would probably have to be altered into something more conventional.
Or, on the other hand, if the sculptural shape was retained
in spite of the difficulties, the tower might become known as
the Edsel of the design world. Following on these thoughts
was the specter of the tower's becoming a cartoonist's favorite,
a symbol of conspiracy and paranoia in the curatorial offices
of the Museum of Modern Art. Thus poor Herzog and de Meuron's
rating went from masterpiece to nightmare."
Such concerns, of course,
are legitimate, but should not have been paramount and were not
necessarily insurmountable problems.
Bernard Tschumi's design,
shown below, was also more interesting than Taniguchi's
in its replacement of the Dorset Hotel with a through-block mid-rise
structure with large, billboard-size, angled indentations on its
east and west facades for electronic signage and art, and extensive
Tschumi's massing was a bit
clumsy. The billboard superstructure appears in his model
as a huge bunker, although the notion of such large facades for
electronic art at the museum is definitely intriguing and not
Rem Koolhaas's design, shown
below, was a bit similar to the Herzog/de Meuron proposal in its
angular tower that serves to punctuate the enclave with considerable
elan. His tower extends closer to 54th Street and is more highly
visible from both the garden and Fifth Avenue than the Herzog/de
Clearly this design and that
of Herzog/de Meuron recognized the important opportunity to offset
the prosaic rectilinearity of the Pelli tower and apply the museum's
mandate for modern design to create an important and interesting
abstraction. Ideally, the museum could have combined the
designs and also incorporated Tschumi's billboard elements to
truly justify the demolition of the Dorset Hotel, which is not
a bad sidestreet building.
Steven Holl's designs, shown
below, are less dramatic than the Herzog/de Meuron and Koolhaas
designs, but their unusual fenestration and wide variety of skylit
galleries were particularly striking.
Holl is an architect of poetic
spaces and his fine design here called for many different shaped
galleries with different shaped windows that would permit a wide
range of visual and textural experiences.
"It's a happy beginning
for MOMA," Ms. Lessard concluded in her article about Taniguchi's
selection. Not really. It is rather pathetic and cowardly.
She emphasized that his design was very sensitive to curatorial
and circulation needs and those are definitely very important.
It does not, however, rise to civic needs and the important
role of the museum in design leadership in a city where exciting
modern architecture has not been warmly welcomed for several decades.
If the choice of architects
invited to the competition and the final selection was surprising,
the museum deserves great praise, nonetheless, for its publication,
"Imagining the Future of the Museum of Modern Art."
The selection process, it demonstrates, was a learning experience
that was not undertaken casually.
The museum, Lowry wrote in
the catalogue, considered such expansion options as purchasing
a second site elsewhere in the city, excavating under the Abby
Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden, building on top of the Donnell
Library across 53rd Street and even moving the entire museum to
a new location. The trustees, he continued, decided that
the Dorset site provided about 250,000 square feet of expansion
potential and "the only coherent way to expand, while retaining
the sense of the Museum as a single, integrated entity located
in Midtown Manhattan."
The expansion, moreover, "required
not merely new spaces but fundamentally different spaces,"
Lowry maintained. The Museum, he continued, realized
fairly early in the process that it "needed to find a way
to theorize its space rather than simply to plan its architecture;
that the Dorset site accentuated the urbanistic challenge of the
Museum to mediate between the experience of the city and of looking
at art; and that, in order to stay modern, the museum had to avoid
becoming merely a treasure house or safety deposit box. Additionally,
there was agreement that the Museum needed to diversify and complicate
the experience of looking at modern art for that experience of
art to remain startling and compelling."
Lowry wrote that the three
finalists chosen for the competition were selected "on the
merits of their charettes and the degree to which they had met
the criteria established by the Selection Committee." "In
choosing them, the committee cited Herzog and de Meuron, for their
thoughtful and provocative ideas, which reflected a keen awareness
of the evolving role of museum architecture in shaping the appreciation
of art; Taniguchi, for the elegance and clarity of his design
concepts as well as his sensitivity to light and space; and Tschumi,
for his profound understanding of curatorial issues, the Museum's
mission, and his exciting reconception of the site."
In his opening remarks at
the first of several meetings in 1996 on the proposed expansion,
Lowry observed that "the strength of The Museum of Modern
Art has been its ability over the years to reinvent itself."
"In fact," he continued, "I think we
have already undergone six substantial renovations in our sixty-seven-odd
years of history...Architecture is a catalyst for the Museum.
In part, I think that's because, unlike many other museums,
architecture is not only an object for us - a shell, a space,
an environment in which to articulate a program - it is also a
subject. We collect architecture and design; it is a field
of study, and anything we build, by definition, becomes one of
the principal proponents of our larger collection."
Ronald S. Lauder
At the same meeting, Lauder,
the chairman of the museum's board, said that "there was
a very strong feeling that...the architecture [should] be as exciting
as possible. As opposed to something that was safe, they
want something that will really reflect modern architecture."
Kirk Varnedoe , the museum's
chief curator, maintained that the museum is an institution "of
constant argument, debate, questioning" about the "continuity
of modern art" and that "the march of the permanent
collection galleries in painting and sculpture now leaves you
virtually no choices. One of the hopes we would have is
not only would the story we're telling get more complex and more
diverse and more of our collection would be visible in different
contexts, but that we would not lose the sense of a main thread,
the sense of a graspable parade for what we feel are some of the
greatest achievements of modern art; that there should be some
sense of mainstream, but that it would be punctuated, adumbrated,
expanded, by a series of alternatives in which one might go into
greater depth in a particular period."
The museum invited many architects
and artists to participate in a series of "conversations"
about the museum and these are included in the excellent catalogue.
At one, Richard Serra, the sculptor best known for bisecting
a major public plaza downtown with a large piece of steel, suggested
that the famous garden "has to go" since "It has
nothing to do with the way sculpture is going to be seen in the
next century." Peter Eisenman, the architect, subsequently
remarked that he could not agree more with Serra's thinking the
"impossible," adding that when Serra compared Philip
Johnson's garden to "a sacred place in a temple, it may have
had its time."
Hopefully, Serra will move
to New Jersey and take his "art" with him and stay out
of New York's "garden." Eisenman, on the other
hand, is much too important an intellect to banish from the city.
At another "conversation,"
Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker magazine commented on the
importance of having diaper-changing tables in the bathrooms
and about "how hard it is to get to the art" when one
enters a museum and about how generally overestimated are the
"storytelling powers of museums."
"It seems to me,"
Gopnik argued, "that the notion that there's a kind of strange,
occult, coercive power in the way that pictures are lined up one
after another is simply false to all of our experiences of museums
and going to look at pictures. So it seems to me that it's
almost more important, as we think about this new building, to
worry less about the kind of story we're going to tell than the
notion that the story should begin immediately, that is, that
it's terribly important that whatever this building does that
the singularity of it has got to be that it's a place that devoted
to...looking at things."
John Elderfield, deputy director
for curatorial affairs and chief curator at large at MOMA, noted
that in the museum's 1984 expansion a visitor could discern that
he was in an historical section of the museum if the gallery floors
had carpets on them and if not they were in a contemporary section.
Tschumi raised questions about
"staging" and who has the authority to "frame"
a visitor's experience, adding that "the power to take shortcuts
is something that is very often missing in museums."
The conversation turned to
"spines" and "sponges" in terms of gallery
organization, but returned to the propriety of "storytelling."
Gopnik advised the meeting not to be afraid "to a tell
a story that you think has a great deal of authority out of fear
that this will somehow have some kind of hypnotic power over the
masses." James Cuno, the Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot
Director of The Fogg At Museum at Harvard University, ended the
meeting with the observation that it was the museum's "job
not to be absolutely right but to be clear, so that the people
who want to argue against the Museum have something clear to argue
against. If it's chaos, it's pointless...."
In the next "conversation,"
architect Arata Isozaki noted that "the relation between
contained and container...[is] very problematic at the moment,"
as many contemporary artists want to be the architect and the
architects want to be the artist. John Walsh, the director
of the Getty Museum, viewed digital information technology as
"something analagous to the creation of photography"
and that the user of such technology now "deals in nonlinear
progressions; one moves in, one moves back again, one moves sideways
with alarming ease between bodies of information. We know
the information is increasingly non-proprietary; you can't own
it....It's a world that is naturally anarchic. Its sources
are more grass-roots than institutional, not centrally sanctioned
or guided, not top-down but generally bottom-up, and increasingly
threatening to, if not actually subverting, the distinction between
the real and the virtual....I think all of [our] museums will
be progressing towards a greater level of honesty and usefulness
to our visitors, if we come out from behind the anonymity, the
sort of godlike voice of authority that we have traditionally
After a discussion of "hyperlabels,"
Cuno again brought the "conversation" back to center:
"One must educate rather than simplify or reduce. But
technology tends to encourage expectations of instant gratification:
they all want it now. One of the great things about museums,
and one of the things that I think the Modern has got to insure,
is that museums are a slowing-down experience, as opposed to most
of life, which is about speeding up experience." He
also was skeptical about "the illusion of the transfer of
power in technology, that is, that it's going to be transferred
from the work of at itself, say, to the beholder, who can now
interact with it and begin to manipulate it."
"One of the great things
about works of art is the humbling experience of being powerless
before them," Cuno cautioned. Serra and Walsh both
noted that the demographics of technology users was predominantly
male, young, educated and white, and not exactly the only community
that museums "want to bring in."
Elderfield noted that a comment
by Rem Koolhaas that the popularity of museums is threatening
their very reason for being, "obviously strikes a chord in
anyone who's been to a very crowded exhibition." Elderfield
said he was impressed by the architect's remark that "anyone
who settles for the artificial saves part of the organic," a
suggestion that Elderfield said would please those interested
in the conservation of art.
Lowry noted in an essay in
the catalogue that there are 1,241 art museums in the United States,
more than half of which have been opened since 1970.
The museum began in six rooms
with a total of 4,500-square feet of space that it rented in the
office building at 730 Fifth Avenue in 1929. Three years
later, it relocated to a five-story townhouse at 11 West 53rd
Street that it leased from John D. Rockefeller Jr., the husband
of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, one of the museum's founders. In
1936, the museum acquired the townhouse and three adjacent ones
and commissioned Philip L. Goodwin and Edward Durell Stone to
design a new building, which contained 109,100 square feet and
opened in 1939.
View of Museum Tower from 57th Street
In 1951, Philip Johnson designed
a 7-story annex to the west at 21 West 53rd Street and two years
later completed work on the sculpture garden. In 1964, Johnson
designed a new east wing, redesigned the lobby and expanded the
garden by one-third. In 1968, the museum purchased the former
facility of the Whitney Museum of American Art on West 54th Street
and Johnson and John Burgee studied the further expansion to the
west of MOMA including a possible office tower. The tower
began a residential tower under Cesar Pelli's plan in 1984.
The acquistion of the Dorset
Hotel will permit MOMA to break away "from its narrow longitudinal
access," Lowry wrote in the catalogue," permitting it
to "create a new, broader and deeper, footprint that should
result in a fundamentally different alignment of galleries and
offices structured around a central core."
"It has become clear
that there is no single story of modern art to be told, but, rather,
many stories, each imbedded and refracted to a certain degree
in the others," he wrote.
Robert A. M. Stern, the architect,
told a panel on "The Museum and Society" that he "was
thinking that maybe the Dorset Hotel should just be left alone
and each artist should be given a room, a guest bedroom, and allowed
to what he or she wants to."
Heresy? Not really,
but a cry obviously a bit too late. The Dorset is good,
but not great architecture. MOMA is a very important New
York institution and its expansion is important. The mistake
was the shortsightedness of the 1984 expansion and its paltry
and uninspired museum gallery spaces that look like a not terribly
successful nor large suburban shopping mall.
"This place once had
an intimacy about it; it doesn't have an intimacy anymore,"
Crowded galleries, however,
are a fact of life and a reason for expansion.
Stern, in fact, argued that
it is important to see art with other people and artist Fred Wilson
observed that the "cyberworld is going to in many ways enlarge
the audience for the actual experience of a work of art."
Wilson, however, added that many museums now are experienced
as "a party space, basically as a great hall, and art-viewing
is ancillary to what has become its main purpose."
Riley noted that despite the
need to have flexible space - what he calls "dumpster architecture"
- it is important to "uphold the contract that I feel The
Museum of Modern Art has with the artists it represents, which
is that we will show their works of art to their best advantage."
The glory of the museum, at
least from an architectural viewpoint, is its garden, widely considered,
justifiably, as the finest oasis in the city. Although it has
been modified often, it remains serene. Johnson and landscape
architect James Fanning created the city’s most justly celebrated
garden in 1964 on the 54th Street side of the through-block site.
The original Goodwin/Stone
building with its punched-out roof canopy is one of the landmarks
of the International Style movement and Bauhaus design. Over the
years, it has been modified only slightly: large panes of clear
glass replaced glass blocks at the 53rd Street entrance. Its
expansive white marble facade, delightful and breezy perforated
top and its large banners have always been refreshing - a surprising,
for New York, presence of cleanly modern simplicity of fine proportion,
correctly scaled to its midblock location and sufficiently understated
to be good-neighborly to its townhouse environment when it was
It has fortunately survived
and is now wedged between two very dissimilar major structures:
Philip Johnson’s black steel and black glass extension to
the east and Cesar Pelli’s multi-colored glass Museum Tower
to the west.
As a student at Harvard University,
Johnson was introduced by his sister, Theodate, to a professor
at Wellesley College, Alfred H. Barr Jr., who subsequently became
the first director of MOMA. In a few years, Johnson teamed up
with Henry-Russell Hitchcock to coordinate a major architecture
exhibition at MOMA and write a book on the International Style
in 1932, after which Johnson was named chairman of a new department
of architecture at the museum.
After completing a guest house
for Blanchette Rockefeller (Mrs. John D. Rockefeller III) on East
52nd Street that was the first building in the city designed in
the style of Mies van der Rohe, Johnson’s idol, Johnson was
commissioned to build, in 1950, a 7-story annex to MOMA, just
to the west of the Goodwin/Stone building on a site occupied by
a townhouse designed by C. P. H. Gilbert at 21 West 53rd Street.
This black steel and glass building was described by an associate
as “the first all-glass building front in Manhattan,”
and was a precursor to another Johnson-designed annex on the east
side of the Goodwin/Stone building, in 1964. The western building
was subsequently designated the Grace Rainey Rogers Memorial.
(An auditorium at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is also
named after her.)
At the same time as Johnson
was planning the western annex, MOMA was entering discussions
with The Whitney Museum of American Art that had recently acquired
property behind it on 54th Street. The Whitney was moving uptown
from its elegant and handsome building on West Eighth Street in
Greenwich Village. The Rockefeller family, meanwhile, wanted a
memorial to Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (Mrs. John D. Rockefeller
Jr.), who had died in 1948, and it decided to build a new garden
The original garden had been
laid out mostly by John McAndrew and Alfred Barr, according to
Franz Schulze, the author of “Philip Johnson, Life and Work,”
a superb biography published in 1994 by the University of Chicago
Press. It had been asymmetrical with free-standing walls, some
of which were curved and was enclosed on 54th Street by a wooden
“The plan seems arbitrary,
the trees meager, the inner and outer walls casual bordering on
tacky. Nor do the photo records of Philip Goodwin’s 1942
alteration show much improvement. Principally, Goodwin added refectory
facilities, centered in a pavilion where food, wine and beer were
served. It looks a spindly affair, with a modernoid slope to its
roof and grove of trees nearby whose formal organization seems
out of keeping with its informal placement and the irregular pathway
around it,” noted Schulze.
Johnson’s design called
for “canals” with low bridges, Hankow willows, European
birches and several other species, and a floor and walls of gray
Vermont marble. An early design indicated a pair of large boulders
between two pools. The boulders were subsequently replaced with
cryptomeria trees. Landscape architect James Fanning was involved
in the planting design of the garden and Johnson was assisted
by Landis Gores and George Hopkinson. A glazed-gray-brick, 14-ft.-high
wall on 54th Street was interrupted by wooden grills that “relieved
the monotony of the expanse of masonry while providing a tempting
view of the garden to pedestrians passing in the street,”
Schulze wrote, adding that Johnson saw the garden “as ‘a
roofless room’ with a sunken court, the latter so planned
that the garden could not be seen as a whole at any time or from
any place.’” Johnson, Schulze continued, wanted to make
a processional space. He quoted Johnson as saying: “Always
the sense of turning to see something. The garden became a place
to wander, but not on a rigidly defined path. Because the ground
is paved, as it would not be in Japanese garden, one is free to
find one’s own winding path....By cutting down space, you
The Whitney’s building,
designed by Augustus L. Noel of Miller & Noel, the firm that
had designed the museum’s Eighth Street facility and whose
partner, G. McCullough Miller was married to Gertrude Vanderbilt
Whitney’s daughter, Flora, framed the west end of the garden
with a raised deck for open-air dining in front of a glass-enclosed
cafeteria that sadly was removed in the subsequent reconstruction
by Cesar Pelli for the new Museum Tower. Johnson, in fact, designed
the Whitney’s east wall since it faced on his garden, which
was completed in 1952, the same year that Johnson renovated the
Members Penthouse in the Goodwin/Stone building.
According to Robert A. M.
Stern, Thomas Mellins and David Fishman, writing in “New
York 1960, Architecture Between the Second World War and the Bicentennial,”
The Monacelli Press, 1995, the garden was transformed “from
a casual, near-suburban yard to a sophisticated De Stijl-inspired
In 1959, the museum announced
plans for a new, 8-story wing on West 54th Street, but the plan
was revised in 1961, in part because of concerns about shadows
it would cast on the garden. The new design by Johnson called
for a two-story pavilion at the east end of the garden and an
expansion of the Rogers building on 53rd Street, and a new building
to replace two owned by Mrs. E. Paramalee Prentice, the sister
of John D. Rockefeller Jr., at 5 and 7 West 53rd Street. The Rogers
Building expansion was not undertaken as originally planned, but
Johnson created a new black-painted-steel-and-glass building on
the Prentice site in 1964. Zion & Breen helped Johnson make
a modest redesign of the garden that included staircases leading
to the roof of the new pavilion overlooking it.
The new eastern annex, which
houses a large bookstore at street-level, is a great building.
The corners of the window frames are softly curved, yet their
subtlety does not detract from the formidable strength of the
building’s darkness and the very large windows.
of the museum to accommodate the new high-rise condominium apartment
tower to the west incorporated a major expansion and redesign
of the museum. The mixed-use expansion works quite well visually
from the garden where it cascades downward from the tower rather
like an angled, as opposed to bulbous, Beaubourg Museum. One critic,
Vincent Scully, however, was not amused: “...the flapping
piece of flashing with which it is tenuously connected to the
roof of the older building can hardly be credited,” adding,
in his book “American Architecture and Urbanism,” revised
edition, 1988, Henry Holt and Company, that the tower’s “bulk
severely compromises the privacy and scale of the sculpture court
behind it....” Actually, the cascading skylights referred
to by Scully bear a remarkable similarity to famous treatments
by architect James Stirling and are the best feature of the expansion.
Inside the museum, however,
the tower expansion is very disappointing as the low ceilings
and Scandinavian-style minimalism simply appear cheap, which is
all the more infuriating given the incredible personal wealth
of the museum’s board of trustees.
(The museum has always been
a Rockefeller fiefdom, but many members of the family’s younger
generation apparently are more interesting in money than art and
great public works. The museum was founded in 1929 by Abby Aldrich
Rockefeller [the wife of John D. Rockefeller Jr.], Lillie B. Bliss
and Mrs. Cornelius J. Sullivan. The museum first opened on the
12th floor in the former Heckscher Building, now the Crown Building,
on the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street.)
Museum Tower from Top of the Rock
It can be argued that the
low ceilings of the broad 53rd Street entrance can be tolerated
because once past the admission takers the space opens up to the
large windows facing directly on the great garden. Nonsense! The
crass commercialism of the cashiers and the large information
desk should have been crowded together with the rather nice coat
check area and the low entrance area at least kept open to appear
to be more inviting with gracious vistas of the garden. The area
directly in front of the garden from the entrance, also is given
over to escalators and is always busy given the museum’s
deserved popularity. In good weather, of course, such petty objections
are superfluous as the glories of the garden are self evident
and need no promotion. There is something to be said for
the delight of shifting perspectives of the garden as one rides
on the escalators, however.
A lovable Picasso animal sculpture
animal used to grace the entrance hall, but is removed during
blockbuster exhibitions when the lobby takes on the bustling atmosphere
of a subway station and is only missing a three-card monte game.
The museum’s gift shop
and bookstore, in the black Johnson annex to the east of the main
entrance, fortunately can be entered directly from the museum
lobby as well as from the street. The bookstore, which also sells
posters and cards is quite good and the downstairs gift store
is pleasant and not quite as overwhelming as its large annex that
opened in the late 1980s across the street at 40 West 53rd Street.
While modest in scale, Johnson’s annex is one of his finest
designs: sleek, powerful and quite articulate. It is an excellent
counterpoint to the white-and-gray main building especially with
its rounded steel window frames complementing the port-holed roof
canopy of the original building, and its facade and generous proportions
make it a classic in the league of the far larger and more celebrated
Seagram Building and Lever House.
Johnson had also designed
a similar small wing for the west side of the museum that was
replaced by the new Pelli tower.
The Goodwin/Stone main building
is not as aesthetically pleasing as Johnson’s annex, although
historically it is quite important. Essentially, this is a minimalist
factory facade, enlivened by by the fine roof canopy that unfortunately
is not highly visible from the sidewalk, and the museum’s
fine tradition of hanging colorful banners. The perforated roof
canopy covers a pleasant small terrace accessible only to museum
When the museum first showed
renderings of Pelli’s expansion, the tower promised to be
very delicate and interesting because Pelli emphasized that 14
different colors would be employed on its glass curtain walls.
The horizontal banding of the curtain walls defers nicely to the
original Goodwin/Stone facade, but the rendering suggested a Mondrianesque
patterning because of the different colors. Sadly, it is very
hard for the naked eye to discern much variation in the blues
and greens that were installed. Indeed, it is very hard to believe
there are 14 different colors on the tower. The midblock tower,
which has a sumptuous but conventionally luxurious modern entrance
of its own, has nice proportions, but has been sited in probably
the worst spot on the site as far as casting shadows on the famous
garden. When I raised this issue and suggested that the tower
should have been placed on the 54th Street side of the site, I
was told that studies had been made and that it would not cast
shadows. They were wrong and I was right, although all the civic
activists, who would later make much of shadows in the public
debate over the redevelopment of the New York Coliseum on Columbus
Circle, declined to take up the issue, a possible reflection of
their affection for the power elite, or plain stupidity.
Tower is south of garden and often casts afternoon shadows, left, and
cascading atrium viewed from the roof of the Peninsula Hotel on Fifth
The museum desperately needed
to expand and the interior expansion works relatively well in
terms of circulation. The museum of course, could have brought
up most of the rest of the block to the west, which has been lying
fallow for some time since the Museum of American Folk Art has
not bothered to build a great skyscraper designed for it by Emilio
Ambasz, a former head of the Museum of Modern Art’s Department
of Architecture, who certainly should have been considered by
the Modern Museum for any expansion. With rare exception the museum’s
new expanded galleries in the tower are...cheap and embarrassing.
The museum clearly needs much
larger and better galleries and an even larger garden. The garden,
hopefully, could be expanded to the east where it could end in
a series of terraces.
In 1994, the museum, which
is closed Wednesdays and open late on Thursdays when visitors
may pay whatever they wish for admission, created a 54th Street
entrance to Sette MOMA, a restaurant that fronts on the east end
of the garden, which recently underwent another unnecessary and
badly executed rearrangement and reshuffling of its sculptures.
The catalogue of the museum's
new plans and the competition, which is available at the museum's
bookstore and is not too expensive, is a provocative and fascinating
document of a very complex process.
It does not explain the quite
puzzling original selection of 10 architects and it does
not include the transcripts of the selection committee's final
deliberations that would be of the highest interest.
One reads the catalogue and
comes away with respect and confidence that the museum is now
fully aware of and sensitive to the major issues confronting museums
in general and itself in particular. One expects that the
finished project, anticipated for 2004, will be a much improved
museum that maintains its sensibility of the modern and of elegance.
It will not be dazzling, but
dazzle is not necessary for every project, and the most important
thing at the Modern is its collections and they are dazzling.
The museum’s art overwhelms most of the quibbles. The collection
has landmark paintings by Matisse, Picasso, Van Gogh, Cezanne,
Miro, Picabia and Rousseau and covers Cubism, Fauvism and Surrealism
authoritatively and has by no means neglected modern sculpture.
Its design, architecture, photography and film department have
consistently set international standards.
Despite chagrin over this
lost opportunity for the museum's new expansion to have created
something sensational and exciting, it surely will result in improved
galleries and Taniguchi's plan adheres to the museum's esprit.
The museum's collections and
its garden are among the very most cherished treasures of 20th
Century New York. They significantly help to define the
world's most definitive city.
View of lobby and garden
Taniguchi expansion created a through-block lobby that also opens
directly onto the garden and is open to the new atrium above.
View of garden looking east
The biggest change to the garden is its north wall and its east and west ends.
West end of garden
The north wall, sadly looks cheap, especially from the street.
east and west ends, however, are impressive becasue they are
significantly tucked under large roof overhangs and are walls of glass.
Original installation of atrium
The atrium is several stories high with slit openings and a "skybridge" adding some drama.
View of garden from inside lobby
The south side of the garden contains restaurant spaces.
museum's expansion continues as it entered an agreement with Hines
Interests to expand into the lower part of a very major and dramatic
mixed-use tower on the former site of the Dorset Hotel. That
tower has been designed by Jean Nouvel (see The City Review article)
but Amanda Burden, the chair of the City Planning Commission, ordered
that 200 feet or so be lopped off its top to preserve some views of the
Empire State Building! A revised and lower design is in the
works. In addition, the museum subsequently acquired the former
American Folk Art Museum and presumably will use some of its unusual
The American Folk Art Museum,
which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2011, is selling its
building on West 53rd Street to MoMA to eliminate its $31,900,000 bond
debt. Its dramatic building was designed by Tod Williams and