By Carter B. Horsley
The reopening of the Museum of Modern Art in
New York City November 20, 2004, after the completion of a major
expansion designed by Yoshio Taniguchi, is a welcome sign that
all is not chaos in the aesthetic firmament.
Revisiting the museum's famous treasures such
as "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" by Picasso, or "Starry
Night" by Vincent van Gogh, or "The Dancers" by
Henri Matisse, is not only a distinct pleasure but also a sober
reminder that some art is greater than other art.
The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is not only
about great paintings, but also great sculpture, great photography,
great design objects, great movies, and great architecture. Its
own architecture may not always have been great, but its commitment
to studying and reflecting upon "modern architecture"
has always been important and influential.
Given its formidable reputation as an arbiter
of taste, one would thought that its choice of Taniguchi was extremely
conservative when he was selected over five other finalists in
1997, most of whom were much better known by the public. (See
The City Review article.) Taniguchi has
designed eight other museums and one of the new shows at the museum
is about them and their elegant but restrained architecture.
It was fairly clear from the models and renderings
of his winning design that the "new" MoMA would be clean-cut,
straight-forward and not terribly exciting, especially given the
extremely fertile architectural field that has blossomed internationally
in the last few years.
The verdict, however, is not so gloomy. Taniguchi's
main achievements, and they are not insubstantial, is to tie a
new "block-through" lobby both to the museum's famous
garden and to a new multi-story atrium on the second floor, and
to frame the east and west ends of the garden with very impressive
indented porticos with large glass walls.
As a result, the garden is significantly enhanced
by the new "framing." More importantly, however, the
west end of the garden now becomes a very grand interior space
off the lobby with a multi-story glass wall opening onto it. Though
much smaller, it is about as dramatic and impressive as the great
WinterGarden at the World Financial Center at Battery Park City,
and the view from the top of the stairs at the east end of the
huge concourse at Grand Central Terminal.
Since its creation by Philip Johnson in 1960,
the garden has always been most New Yorker's favorite midtown
oasis, beloved for its small bridges over reflecting pools set
amid clusters of white-barked trees, wire-frame black metal chairs
and world-famous sculptures. To some New Yorkers the garden is
perhaps the museum's greatest treasure.
The garden also provided nice vistas of the
Art-Deco-style Rockefeller Apartment enclave with its curved windows
directly across 54th Street, the Italian-Renaissance-palazzo-style
grandiosity of the University Club at Fifth Avenue and 54th Street,
the Gothic spires of St. Thomas Episcopal Church on Fifth Avenue
at 53nd Street, Philip Johnson's amusing Post-Modern top to the
former A. T. & T. Building at Madison Avenue and 56th Street,
and his superb Post-Modern treatement of the fine Takashimaya
Building on Fifth Avenue between 54th and 55th Street, Der Scutt's
bronze-glass corners at Trump Tower and Warren & Wetmore's
curved corner and lantern-bedecked elegant office building on
the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue at 54th Street. A quite spectacular
pot-pouri of architecture for anyone to savor, and arguably the
museum's architecture department's most spectacular "exhibit"!
The new garden's south façade has been
dramatically changed. The great black-metal and dark-glass façade
of Philip Johnson's 1964 addition has been reclad with light-colored
glass. Fortunately, the Johnson façade on 53rd Street has
been preserved, but it is a shame that it was replaced on the
garden side. Furthermore, the new light-colored glass façade
has now replaced Cesar Pelli's stepped clear-glass façade
that housed his escalator banks and covered up the base of his
condominium apartment tower. The stepped clear-glass façade
was a sedate, mini-version of the great escalator tubes at the
Centre Pompidou in Paris and Taniguchi's "fritted" glass
facades here are demure and not very exciting.
Strangely, the garden's north façade,
which used to be a solid gray-brick wall, has been replaced with
a not very handsome white wall that seems quite out-of-place with
the garden's more textural materials such as the travertine marble
flooring and bridges. Taniguchi has also employed a lot of light-green-tinted
slate flooring inside the renovated structures especially near
the garden and one might have preferred a darker gray or black
The architectural commission posed a dilemma
for the museum. Should it be assertive or recessive? The "cool"
notion of letting the art "speak for itself" and not
permit architectural distractions clearly held sway in the new
designs, most likely an over-reaction to the very dramatic success
of Frank Gehry's shiny and twisting design for the Solomon R.
Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, that radicalized architecture
at the end of the last millennium.
There is rarely one right solution to any architectural
problem. Certainly, this commission was extremely important and
prestigious. One could argue that the museum's original 53rd Street
façade was a fine expression by Edward Durell Stone and
Philip Goodwin of Bauhaus design and that Philip Johnson's black-metal
addition of 1964 was a stunning and very elegant example of Modernism.
Cesar Pelli's expansion in the 1980's promised more than it delivered.
Original announcements of his design for the condominium tower
section of that project heralded its intended use of 14 different
colored glasses, but the final result is very muted, albeit neat.
Pelli's expansion added space, but unfortunately too much of it
had low ceilings and too much Danish-Modern blond flooring (which
is alright, but a bit dated).
Taniguchi's new spaces offer high ceilings
and bigger rooms by and large, but in the process some of the
coziness of the old museum has been lost. Picasso's famous "Les
Demoiselles d'Avignon," for example, used to be confronted
by itself in a relatively small room where it was overpowering
and intense. Now it is one of several paintings on the wall in
a very large room filled with other works by Picasso and it seems
to lose some of its "authority."
Similarly, Matisse's great "Dance"
used to grace a large wall near the museum's entrance but is now
relegated to a stairwell on an upper floor. It needed the larger
space to stir the spirit and now is hemmed in somewhat.
Part of the rationale for the expansion is
that the museum needed larger facilities to showcase some of its
contemporary art such as James Rosenquist's gigantic "F-111"
painting, which provided the backdrop for the museum's extremely
crowded/well-attended press preview November 15, 2004 on the sixth
Another major gigantic work that can now be
accommodated on the same floor in another skylit gallery is the
much handsomer, multi-colored screen, aptly titled "Sculpture
for a Large Wall," a 1957 work by Ellsworth Kelly.
The most prominent work of art in the new installation
is Barnet Newman's "Broken Obelisk," which occupies
the center of the second-floor atrium. The Nauman work is impressive,
although some observers might question that it deserves such prominence
apart from the fact of its size.
A strong and handsome work, it is quite dramatic
and effective for the space, but it presents quite a strange contrast
for the museum's large, 42-foot-long, three-panel "Waterlilies"
by Claude Monet that flanks it alongside one large wall. Surprisingly,
most of the large wall space in the atrium is left empty. Some
observers might think that the Monet is a bit overpowered in this
space and that it is not as impressive as it had been when it
was formerly hung in a smaller gallery.
By and large, the new gallery spaces are larger
than the old ones and they also tend to have more than one entrance,
which permits viewers to glimpse some works in adjacent galleries
as well as to not be forced to follow a specific route. This "opening"
of the galleries is often quite effective, but it also creates
some confusion in overall navigation. On the first two visits,
this observer quite often got "lost."
The expanded museum offers about 50 percent
more exhibition space, but surprisingly one does not feel that
there is substantially more paintings on view than before, perhaps
because of the significant expansion of the Drawings, Design and
The new enclave has received wide, but tempered
Writing in The Wall Street Journal December
8, 2004, critic Ada Louise Huxtable wrote that it is "a suavely
sophisticated, exquisitely executed, elegantly understated building
that doubles the museum's size," adding that "Mr. Taniguchi's
style - where less is so much more than trendy minimalism, with
every carefully reasoned detailed honed as close to perfection
as possible - is the right architecture for the Modern....The
design is driven by the rationality of its plan and its response
to its surroundings, essential factors that have taken a back
seat to today's obsession with drop-dead forms. It makes sense
of the museum's ad hoc development by unifying old and new elements
into a harmonious, smoothly functioning whole. The reconfigured
complex enjoys an uncompromisingly contemporary vocabulary, a
lesson to those who confuse nostalgia with compatibility. This
is genuine contextualism."
She did, however, note that in the atrium "paintings
are flattened to postage stamps or posters, barely relevant to
the passing activity." Furthermore, she observed that "circulation
displaces contemplation" and that "With openings cut
in three walls out of four in almost every room for a relentlessly
revolving path, Rothkos and Matisses are cornered beside doorways:
there is always something else insistently entering your peripheral
In the November 15, 2004 issue of The New
Yorker magazine, critic Paul Goldberger wrote that "The
choice of Taniguchi wasn't so much a failure of nerve as a moment
of institutional self-knowledge," adding that "The Modern
has supported, collected and celebrated architectural design more
than any other museum in America, but it has never allowed its
identity to be defined by any architecture of its own."
In a longer article in the same issue of The
New Yorker John Updike wrote that on a tour a few days before
the official opening the museum was "immaculate, rectilinear,
capacious, and chaste," adding that "nothing in the
new building is obstrusive, nothing is cheap. It feels breathless
with unspared expense. It has the enchantment of a bank after
house, of a honeycomb emptied of honey and flooded with a soft
"Designed by the Japanese architect Yoshio
Taniguchi with Kohn Pedersen Fox," wrote Nicolai Ouroussoff,
the new architecture critic of The New York Times in its
November 15, 2004 edition, "the expanded museum is a serene
composition that weaves art, architecture and the city into a
transcendent aesthetic experience." "...the building's
clean lines and delicately floating planes are shaped by the assumption
that Modernity remains our central cultural experience,"
he continued, adding that the museum "is one of the most
exquisite works of architecture to rise in this city in at least
Robert Campbell, the architecture critic of
The Boston Globe, was not so gushingly ecstatic: "The
architecture...is a letdown. It isn't bad, its just uninteresting....Here
are the same-old white walls and ceiling track lights, and then
more white walls and more ceiling track lights. You feel like
a lab rat in a snow maze....The hope is that the atrium will keep
you oriented, because you'll always know where you are in relation
to it. It doesn't work. I guarantee that every visitor will wander
lost at one point or another....My final problem with the MoMA
is the exterior....The 53d Street frontage is unmemorable but
pleasant, thanks largely to the fact that it includes the restored
facade of the 1939-era MoMA, by Philip Goodwin and Edward Durrell
Stone. The older facade provides variety and a sense of time.
The 54th Street frontage, on the other hand, is hideous. MoMA
now occupies most of a city block, and this frontage is one huge
blank wall....Nothing a about it responds to the fact that's it
on a lively midtown Manhattan street. It's deader than the back
of a big-box retailer in Omaha."
Visitors will find the museum's most famous
paintings from the1880s through the 1930's on the fifth floor
and its Post-World War II paintings on the fourth floor. The third
floor contains the architecture, design and photography galleries
and Contemporary works are on the second floor.
The star of the museum's design collection
is probably its green Bell-47D1 helicopter, which is now displayed
above the grand staircase from the first to the second floor in
the lobby facing the garden.
The renovation of the museum, which also includes
a 13-story structure for offices on the northwest corner of the
side and a low-rise educational building on the northeast corner,
cost about $425 million and is part of a $848 million capital
campaign of which about $700 million has already been raised,
about $500 million just from the museum's board of trustees.
To help offset such costs, the museum has raised
its admission fee to $12 for students, $16 for seniors and $20
for the general public, the highest of any museum in the city,
if not the country. Many visitors may quickly realize that an
individual membership of $75 a year may be a bargain. Target is
sponsoring free admission for the public from 4 to 8 PM every
Friday for four years.
Like many Italian villas that are relatively
unimposing on the outside but have very lavish interiors, the
"new" MoMA is architecturally bland on the outside but
full of treasures on the inside. While the emphasis is properly
on the art, Taniguchi has created an impressive interior centered
around the through-block lobby that is open to the second-floor
atrium and the multi-story glass portico at the west end of the
garden that faces a similar handsome portico at the east end.
The large galleries on the second and sixth floors can accommodate
works of art that could not be shown before because of their size.
The new cafés offer visitors a variety of fare and prices.