“The model for MoMA is Manhattan itself,” says its architect, Yoshio Taniguchi. “The Sculpture Garden is Central Park, and around it is a city with buildings of various functions and purpose. MoMA is a microcosm of Manhattan.”
It’s always been hard to see the Museum of Modern Art. Neither 53rd nor 54th Street is wide. MoMA has no park to give it contrast, no steps to give it grandeur, and $425 million later, it still has none of those things. What Taniguchi has done, in a renovation of the museum so extensive it amounts to a reinvention, is to have intensified what was already there. There’s a subtle increase in sheen, a blacker black glass than that of the charcoal 1984 Museum Tower, and a whiter white, icier than the original white-marble 1939 façade. His new parts—you have to look closer to see them—make the old make perfect sense. Each gridded façade lines up with the next, like the alignment of the blocks.
At night, when the curators leave the lights on, you can start to see under the skin. The museum seems like a three-dimensional puzzle, a campus crammed and stacked onto not even a single city block. On the second floor, the backlit glass reveals an enormous window into an even more enormous room, with a boxed painting leaning against the wall. People are still working here, as in the lit-up office buildings all around.
“The most apt description of the museum is of a heterotopia, a place made up of many places,” said MoMA director Glenn Lowry last week, a month and a half before the new Museum of Modern Art is set to open. He’s working out of a twelve-by-fifteen windowless office, in a building owned by trustee Jerry Speyer around the corner from MoMA, decorated only by a slightly dreary “Picasso and Portraiture” poster that has been his since the curators decamped to Queens in 2002.
“When we talked to Yoshio about the building, we talked to him about trying to link up in a seamless way these different parts of the museum—the new part, the old part, the parts built in the sixties and the eighties—and to recognize that each part had its own purpose and its own identity within the museum.”
If MoMA has its way, the thousands admitted on November 20 will not see behind the crisp, clean space. They will view the museum’s collection on walls of just the right white, mounted in classically proportioned galleries, each with its own purpose and identity, and all wrapped tautly in a skin of stone and glass. But that skin, like every other aspect of the museum, has been microscopically examined by the museum’s mandarins. At the heart of their debate was one word, represented by the third letter in their famous acronym. Their question is simple:
What Does Modern Mean to the Modern?
“The museum made an effort to create a program of self-psychoanalysis,” says Brian Aamoth, the American-born project director and manager for Taniguchi’s office. “Who are we? Where are we going? And it did two things: It reaffirmed modernism—but they found also that they want to stay with the times.”
“I wanted to provide the visitors with a sense of place,” says Taniguchi, “the experience of viewing MoMA’s collection on their home turf.”
The process began with a retreat at the old Rockefeller estate at Pocantico in October 1996. One participant characterized the event as an “egghead sleepover,” with about 30 curators, architects, and historians debating in a conference room. “Whatever is different about the museum now had its genesis there,” says Terence Riley, chief curator of architecture and design. “One of the high points was when the architects started talking about metaphors. I remember the metaphor of a sponge, meaning a building that wasn’t based on hierarchy because it is isn’t monocellular—it’s a democratic space with an incredible number of points of entry.”
The artist Bill Viola argued that the future of the museum included new forms of art—video art, like his work, but also forms that hadn’t been invented yet. The curators heard him, and the Modern decided to make it a priority to keep mapping the art of the present onto its institutional grid. “Our challenge is precisely the tension that comes from trying to present both the immediate present and the immediate past,” says Lowry. “The moment you render them apart, you’ve lost that tension. What is contemporary today is going to become historical at some point in the not-too-distant future. Then you have the dilemma—where is the line?”
So the museum decided to have it both ways. On the one hand, it had to keep telling the definitive story of Modernism, the movement that began roughly with Cézanne in the 1870s and began to splinter in the 1960s. But it also didn’t want to become a time capsule, a place with, inevitably, less and less relevance to what is happening outside its walls. They decided to make that tension the core of MoMA’s mission. Contemporary art and Modernism would stand against one another, a kingdom fascinatingly divided. Of course, answering that first question led quickly to a series of others.
Should the Modern Move?
“The major question is, Was MoMA right to go through this enormous effort to build on their historical site?” says architect Bernard Tschumi, a finalist in the museum’s expansion competition. “Should MoMA have gone somewhere—say, on the West Side or in Chelsea—and, on a free site, do a building without all the enormous constraints?” MoMA could indeed have moved. This “MoMA Reborn” story might have been written seven years ago as a there-goes-the-neighborhood piece about Columbus Circle. (Briefly, that was a consideration.) We could have had a shiny museum then, instead of a shinier mall.
Since 1939, when MoMA replaced its first permanent home, the Rockefeller townhouse at 11 West 53rd Street, it had expanded as far east (1951), north (1964), and west (1984) as it seemed possible to go. In the meantime, more and more of the collection was in storage, particularly works made and purchased since 1970. Spaces designed for a million visitors a year now served 1.8 million.
One option was to split the museum, circa 1970, and set up a separate museum of contemporary art in a space on the West Side. “We actually got kind of close to thinking we should buy a building over there,” says Riley. Another option was to decamp from 53rd Street and buy a bigger footprint somewhere else in the city.
But to many, the location was just right. “It’s more centrally located than great museums like the Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan,” says chairman emeritus David Rockefeller, who’s been on the board since 1948. “It was put there because my family made available the space, and that was in a sense accidental. But, I think, as it happens, it has worked well.”
When Glenn Lowry arrived as director in 1995, the trustees asked him to evaluate their options. “I said to the trustees, the need for more space is not in and of itself sufficient rationale for expansion. That need was always going to exist. It’s axiomatic that a collecting institution is always going to need more space.” Instead, what he thought the museum needed was a thorough renovation. The historical collection had become static. There was little room for temporary exhibitions, which always came at the expense of the contemporary galleries. “Even if we didn’t add a square foot to our footprint, we needed to seriously address the architecture of our building, and the trigger for going forward was that the Dorset Hotel and some brownstones that belonged to the same family became available,” Lowry says.