The museum bought the Dorset and the brownstones for $50 million in 1996. Rockefeller helped the museum secure $65 million in seed money from the city in 1998 that allowed it to start the fund-raising for what turned into a $425 million project. “A group of us went down to see Giuliani and told him how important we felt the museum was to the city,” says Rockefeller. “I think it was important that the city and state should be participants in a museum that plays such an important role.” And the museum began its $858 million fund-raising process for expansion and endowment, which is still not complete.
“Glenn Lowry said from the beginning that it is going to cost $500 a square foot,” says MoMA head of construction Bill Maloney. “Jerry Speyer, who has built a million office buildings, said it can’t cost that much, but Glenn was right.”
Riley says, “We had to get to that point, and then the point was, Who is the architect to really remake the Modern?”
Remodeling the Modern
“I had a premonition we might win,” says Aamoth, a man not normally given to Delphic vibrations. “Yoshio got a letter from Glenn Lowry asking him only to send in information about the office. He called me into his office and handed me the letter. I didn’t get any farther than the first sentence, when I had the overwhelming premonition that Yoshio was going to do this project. I said, ‘You are going to get this, and I want to run it.’ ”
At the time—this is 1996—Aamoth may have been the only person who thought Taniguchi was going to get the job. After graduating from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, Aamoth had traveled to Tokyo to work for Taniguchi, and had been in Japan for six years.
Taniguchi would probably not have been such an unknown if he had designed buildings outside of Japan. Or if his buildings were closer to the capital. Riley reports that trustee Ronald Lauder has joked, “Taniguchi’s museums aren’t hard to find. You fly to Tokyo and you’re halfway there.” Taniguchi is, however, the son of respected postwar architect Yoshiro Taniguchi, also a graduate of Harvard’s GSD, designer of six previous museums. He had the credentials, he had the grace (Riley says, “Once you see his work, you have a hard time seeing a lot of other work and not seeing something missing”), but he was hardly the front-runner. The letter Taniguchi received also went out to some twenty other architects.
Before the letters were sent out, the trustees spent three separate weeks onboard Ron Lauder’s corporate jet, flying first to Europe, then around the U.S., and then to Asia, to look at museums. Riley was the tour guide. “In one day, we crossed the Atlantic, woke up in Bilbao, and went to see the Guggenheim. Then we took off and landed in Arles and saw Sir Norman Foster’s Carré d’Art in Nîmes,” he remembers. “We had lunch there. Then we flew to Berlin that night and landed in Tempelhof airport as the sun was going down, and had dinner with some important cultural figures in Berlin. That went on for five days.”
After the trip, and reviewing portfolios, selection-committee members Sid Bass, Marshall Cogan, Agnes Gund, Ronald Lauder, David Rockefeller, and Jerry Speyer cut the list to ten.
Thinking Inside the Box
Riley had talked Lowry and the trus- tees into having a competition—a public, gossiped-about bake-off—rather than the typical dignified short-list-and-interview process. From the moment the list was released, however, it was clear MoMA was after something different. It had passed over architects of the generation that includes Frank Gehry and Richard Meier in favor of those just behind them. Taniguchi was the oldest at, today, 67.
The ten, who included New York architects Steven Holl, Bernard Tschumi, Rafael Viñoly, and Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, now architects of the American Folk Art Museum next door, as well as then-white-hot Rem Koolhaas, were asked to participate in a three-month charette—an ideas competition—the results of which they had to submit in an eleven-by-seventeen-by-three-inch box. “We said, ‘Anything that you can fit in this box, we’ll accept.’ A lot of the architects cut out the top of the box, and put in little models of their proposals. It was pretty funny,” says Maloney.
The box made sense in another way as well. Acknowledging the tight city site, MoMA had picked a set of architects who play with but don’t break out of the box. No blob-itecture, no titanium frills. The committee members got models: wooden, cardboard, acrylic, metal; they got watercolors; they got collages of the city and collages of circulation. Viñoly came up with an escalator spine, extending the moving staircases Cesar Pelli had installed in 1985 almost the length of the block. Koolhaas collaged a new transportation system, a gallery floor that sunk along a slanted ramp, moving the viewers to the art. Japanese architect Toyo Ito imagined the museum as a “lying skyscraper,” reclining along 54th Street. Their projects were meant to be conceptual, not practical, though when they were exhibited, many just scratched their heads.
Tschumi believed that the museum was pulling in two directions architecturally. “They used the word intimacy, which people since the thirties had used for the relationship between viewer and artwork, a relatively traditional view. But MoMA was also forward-looking enough to mention new types of artwork that we and the curators could not even imagine, and to provide spaces for unimaginable works.”
The trustees cut the list to three: Taniguchi, Tschumi, and Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, then working on the Tate Modern in London. In December 1997, they chose Taniguchi, whose high-Modernist inflections linked with the museum as it was and whose cool elegance and precision held a mirror to the city as it is. “He did very beautiful buildings, very simple modern buildings,” says Rockefeller. “We felt he understood what the Modern was all about. Therefore philosophically we felt he was someone who would work with us.”
“Any of the ten could have gotten it,” says Aamoth. “But I think they recognized that we had solved the problem in an elegant language that said who they were. Why would they want to change their spots at this time? It is called MoMA, after all.”