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MoMA architect Yoshio Taniguchi.  

What’s Behind the White Walls?
Taniguchi, who likes to focus on only one project at a time, thought he would move his operation to New York. But the museum was concerned about the learning curve for an architect building for the first time in New York City and decided to hire the large, experienced firm KPF as executive architects.

Aamoth moved to New York for five years. Eight KPF employees moved to Japan for six months, and a multiyear international tango was begun. KPF architects-in-charge Tom Holzman and Stephen Rustow (who had supervised the construction of I. M. Pei’s Louvre pyramid) flew to and from Tokyo, ten days here, ten days there, for ten months.

“Jerry Speyer had a brand-new, beautiful videoconferencing room,” says Maloney. “So every Thursday night we would have a conference call. It would be his Friday morning. We would have 20 to 25 people in there to talk about what we would do with the curtain wall or just any issues that would come up.”

Taniguchi works first in model, building pieces of staircases and sections of the city. “By the middle of schematics, we had a ten-foot model of the project, and there were also three separate models of the entire project and all of 53rd Street, 54th Street, and Sixth Avenue at a quarter-scale,” says Rustow.

“Taniguchi said, ‘If you raise really a lot of money, I will make the architecture disappear,’ ” says Paola Antonelli.

Rustow and Greg Clement, KPF’s managing principal, were also tour guides, of sorts, for Taniguchi. “Yoshio asked us to inculcate him into the building culture of New York,” Clement says. “I remember trying to figure out where we could take Yoshio that would have the level of sophistication and execution he is accustomed to.” So where did they take him? There’s a long pause. Then Rustow says, “One of the most interesting buildings to look at—because it had just been completed and because, as it later happened, the construction manager who was responsible for the work there was responsible for MoMA as well—was the Rose Center,” the globular astronomy addition to the Museum of Natural History. The architects were impressed with the way the panels on the sphere fit together seamlessly, but were less impressed with some of the workmanship: how the plasterwork met the metal, how tight you could expect joints to be, and—something that drives every architect nuts—the metal handrails. “And they are one of most important details,” Clement says, “because they are the most tactile; you’re touching the handrail and pushing the door.”

Production values of the new MoMA—aluminum door frames, double-square doorways, radically minimized air-conditioning ducts, and, yes, handrails—have already thrilled design connoisseurs who’ve toured the building. Taniguchi’s perfectionism reaches its apogee in the exterior, where he wanted the large surfaces of granite and glass to read as perfect planes. He demanded the bare minimum of clearance, three-sixteenths of an inch, between each panel. He feared that as the floors deformed when the galleries were full of visitors, the walls would also sag; the curtain-wall consultants came up with a way to free the façade structure from that of the floor levels.

The flip side of radical understatement is the divinely dull. Taniguchi may have solved the problem of the museum’s urban site so well that he’s written himself out. “Taniguchi once told Terry, ‘If you raise a lot of money, I will give you great, great architecture. But if you raise really a lot of money, I will make the architecture disappear,’ ” says Paola Antonelli, MoMA’s curator of architecture and design. “It is so Minimalist, it is baroque.”

And, Oh Yes: What Should Go on the Walls?
When moma was born in the late 1920s, its mission was straightforward. “Right from the beginning,” says David Rockefeller, “the founders, including my mother, felt it needed to come into being in order to accommodate some of the work of contemporary living artists.” Rockefeller remembers his mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, meeting with Lillie P. Bliss and Mary Quinn Sullivan to discuss this museum for contemporary artists in their townhouse at 10 West 54th Street. But as Modernism, the great art-historical current that sustained the museum, has gradually dissipated, the museum’s mission has become divided. “It has the historical responsibility of the modern movement and then, in a more contemporary sense, of trying to identify the best living artists of today as our curators see them.”

John Elderfield, head curator of painting and sculpture, is the one saddled with the task of pursuing the modern and the contemporary at once. “To see contemporary art in a museum which has Picasso and Brancusi is just great for contemporary art,” he says. “In a way, it shows what the expected level of achievement should be. To see Rachel Whiteread in the same building as Brancusi actually informs Brancusi.” But the way the museum is going to show them is very different.

Painting and sculpture from 1880 to 1970 take up two floors at the new museum, as at the old. The collection starts on the fifth floor, just under the temporary-exhibitions gallery, and spirals down and forward in time. “Each of the galleries has a demonstrable subject that is limited in the number of years it covers,” Elderfield says. “My sense of the success of these units is if one could imagine any one of them being moved out somewhere else—my mental image is always the middle of Central Park. Would people think this is cogent and makes sense? ‘There’s a new Surrealist pavilion in Central Park.’ ”


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