When Culture Feels Like O’Hare: On the Shed and the Giant-Sizing of MoMA

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Museum as first-class lounge: a remade MoMA space. Photo: Iwan Baan

New York’s cultural life is getting supersized. Big Architecture has joined with Big Culture, and the architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, which leapt to prominence with the renovation of Lincoln Center, is now creating a new juggernaut from scratch and helping another grow even hulkier.

At Hudson Yards, the firm teamed up with the Rockwell Group to bring forth the Shed, a building, an institution, and a concept bundled into a package that still lacks a simple answer to the question: What is it? It has a heavy-hitting board and a half-billion-dollar construction budget and an accomplished artistic director in Alex Poots. Even from the street, you can now see the immense steel weave arching like an inverted basket over a four-level boxlike building. At the touch of a button, that superstructure really does roll slowly forward to shelter an open plaza. Eventually, it will wear a waterproof inflatable shell, the architectural equivalent of a light down jacket. I have seen the galleries, theaters, and studios taking shape, inhaled the project’s smell of concrete dust and money, and listened to the spiel about unimaginably fertile artistic collaborations. But after all that, I still can’t tell you whether the Shed will be a great contribution to the city’s cultural life or a white-steel elephant of colossal proportions. I have hopes.

While the Shed takes shape, the Museum of Modern Art continues to inflate, thanks again to Diller Scofidio + Renfro, this time working with Gensler. MoMA is not one building but a collection of discrete structures chained together in a new configuration every couple of decades. The museum’s first purpose-built home, designed by Philip Goodwin and Edward Durell Stone, opened in 1939. Philip Johnson expanded the museum in the 1950s and again in the ’60s, Cesar Pelli in the ’80s. Yoshio Taniguchi’s addition, which opened in 2004, was the most extensive and, as it turns out, the most provisional iteration. Now, in the latest metamorphosis, MoMA continues its westward march, pushing through the site where the Folk Art Museum once stood and into the base of Jean Nouvel’s new tower. When Diller Scofidio + Renfro originally took the job, the architects hoped to be able to salvage the 12-year-old Folk Art Museum, designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. In the end, DS+R decided the orphaned little museum had to go. Acrimony ensued.

So far, these periodic spasms of demolition and design have created the museum equivalent of an urban highway: The bigger it grows, the more congested it gets. At this point nearly 3 million people a year visit MoMA, beginning their experiences in a lobby that has all the grace and intimacy of an airport check-in area. Visitors move from the ticket line to the coat-check line to the elevator line to the special-exhibition line. One goal of the new round of renovations is to spread the populace over a wider area, and to clarify their routes so that there will be less jostling by the escalators and looser knots of people making their way from Starry Night to Christina’s World. In roadway design, Braess’s Paradox holds that building more lanes also creates more congestion, not less. Whether that lesson applies to museums remains to be seen.

In the meantime, a few advance tastes of the future remind us of the lesson of Lincoln Center — that DS+R is peerlessly adept at knitting a cluster of disparate modern buildings into a smooth and stylish whole. The palette is black and white; the attitude is reverent boldness. For a couple of years, while the main portal is under construction, visitors will reclaim the original Goodwin and Stone entrance (until now used mostly for screenings and staff), filing past the sinuous reception desk and into a long, narrow lobby. Here, the architects have inserted new spaces so neatly that longtime members will at first be startled and later swear they were always there. A blank wall has been pried away, opening a view onto the sculpture garden. A new lounge with a black ceiling, a grainy black marble bar, black Bertoia diamond chairs, and black Charlotte Perriand sofas looks like the sort of place your grandparents might have sat thumbing through Life magazine while waiting to board a Pan American flight to Havana. Previous renovations truncated the Bauhaus staircase so that it stopped at the second floor. DS+R restore its flow down to ground level, but rather than re-create the abstract, black-and-white geometries of the original, they finish it with a 2017 variation. Now, the black steps float on a plate of steel so thin it looks like a liquid membrane. A glass railing supports a steel handrail instead of the other way around. The whole apparatus appears to levitate.

An advance view of the future of MoMA. Photo: Iwan Baan

The best indicator of the future MoMA is on the third floor, where the old photo galleries have been converted for temporary exhibitions, their parquet freshly bleached in keeping with the monochrome palette. The main transformation is that now, even upstairs, the art is approached by way of expansive areas in which to rest, text, and shop. A large new bookstore beckons. (An even larger basement bookstore lies in the future.) A parade of long (black) benches runs along the wall, ready to receive exhausted travelers. A long (black) bar by the window is equipped with charging stations, so that nobody should ever run out of juice when the urge for a selfie strikes. The next, biggest-ever MoMA may well be a spectacular home for art; for now it looks more and more like a gorgeously detailed transit facility.

When Culture Feels Like O’Hare: On the Shed and Mega-MoMA