An Architectural Plan

Photo: Ezra Stoller/Esto

Big museums tend to get bigger, usually by expanding in place. The Whitney, though, plans to shuck off its home like a crab discarding its shell and go scuttling downtown in search of art-world cachet. That abandonment leaves Marcel Breuer’s perpetually startling building on Madison Avenue in need of a fresh purpose. I hope the boards of the Whitney and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which have been confabulating in private about some sort of handover or joint venture, consider an idea that the architect Robert A.M. Stern casually shook out of his cuff-linked sleeve in the course of a recent conversation: “They should turn it into an architecture museum,” he said. And so they should.

Architecture is the aesthetic side of New York’s abiding obsession—real estate—yet the city lacks a comprehensive museum to tell that story. The Museum of Modern Art has an illustrious architecture and design department, and the Guggenheim mounts the occasional blockbuster, but the Met has a tradition of replicating rooms and ignoring buildings. A few tiny but valiant organizations —the Skyscraper Museum, the Center for Architecture, the Architectural League, and the Storefront for Art and Architecture—ply a trickle of visitors with focused, topical exhibits. This spotty landscape misleadingly suggests that buildings have a small constituency of zealots. Art and music have “lovers”; architecture and railroads have “buffs.”

Yet architecture is the one art that insinuates itself into virtually everybody’s life, independent of taste or desire. Anyone can shun novels, let the television screen go dark, or indulge an allergy for hip-hop or opera, but avoiding all contact with architecture would mean choosing the lifestyle of a hermit or a hunter-gatherer. We are all consumers of architecture, and if we treat it like garbage collection, gratefully relegating it to the margins of our attention unless it goes wrong, we wind up with the surroundings we deserve. Cities and suburbs can only be as dull and oppressive as we allow them to be.

An architecture museum done right would help cultivate a public that, in the past decade, has been shocked into caring about building. For a while after the destruction of the World Trade Center, the prospect of a glittering crystal city coexisted with the reality of a gritty pit. Sidewalks, cabs, and dinner tables buzzed with talk of master plans and transit hubs. The media forged fresh celebrities. Renderings were scrutinized for their relationship to plausible reality. But even after the urgency of rebuilding on that site subsided into a morass of confusion, architecture continued to hold the public’s attention. Saplings of sophistication need to be nurtured, and a new museum could build on that eagerness to see the future in an architect’s plan.

Unfortunately, even to many avid museumgoers, the phrase “architecture exhibit” calls to mind dimly lit galleries full of cryptic sketches and mystifying plans. People who travel thousands of miles to visit works of architectural splendor find it disappointing to learn in detail how they were constructed or conceived. Museums rely on artifacts, and in the case of architecture, these are often pale, fragile, and difficult to decode. Drawings don’t always catch the eye. Balsa-wood models can resemble school projects. “Architecture shows are problematic because they’re always mediated displays,” Stern acknowledges. An exhibit can only present a facsimile or a by-product of a work of art, not the art itself.

Yet these are eminently superable hurdles. Through January 2, Yale’s Center for British Art is exhibiting “Notes From the Archive” of James Frazer Stirling, an architect of quirky talent and unclassifiable passions who, in works like Cornell’s 1989 Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts, forced clean-slate modernism to accommodate a backward-looking lexicon of octagons, silos, campaniles, vaults, and Roman basilicas. This ardent retrospective, curated by Anthony Vidler, places a forgotten name back at the center of the twentieth-century saga and provides my imaginary Whitney Museum of Architecture with a model for a rigorous and provocative exhibit of scholarly bent.

Other shows could be sexier. Computer animations, digital renderings, video tours, film and television clips, and newly constructed scale models can lend vividness even to architecture that doesn’t exist. Photography can document the way a building’s users adapt, corrupt, or refine it long after the ribbon cutting. Berenice Abbott’s pictures endow even derelict buildings with strong personalities. Filmmakers, too, understand the seductive hold that architecture retains in two dimensions. Manhattan and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, made three decades apart, both boost their own allure by caressing a glamorous skyline. Too much paraphernalia can wind up dazzling or distracting, but somewhere between an abstruse collection of diagrams and multimedia overload is the kind of smart installation that can excite specialists while building a broad audience.

This is not conjecture. The Guggenheim’s 2001 Frank Gehry retrospective (the museum’s second most-visited show ever), MoMA’s 2004 “Tall Buildings,” the Whitney’s 2008 Buckminster Fuller show, the Eero Saarinen traveling exhibit that passed through Yale and the Museum of the City of New York in 2010—each dispensed choice revelations and brought in crowds beyond the usual corps. But that is not enough. What an architecture museum can do that occasional exhibits can’t is to tell an overarching story or put a career in its widest context—to describe, for instance, how Hadrian’s Villa, the second-century estate outside Rome, exercised a powerful influence on a long roster of designers, right down to Louis Kahn and Philip Johnson.

Could there be a better place to ensconce such an institution than Breuer’s elegant bunker? The tough, sharp-edged block of concrete balances on a pediment of glass. It simultaneously reaches toward the city and hangs back from it, extending its upper floors but retreating behind a dry moat spanned by a narrow footbridge. Despite its combination of ambivalence and brawn, it has proved an amiable place to show art. As an architecture museum, it would not only do honor to its holdings but also embody the aspirations on display inside.

An Architectural Plan