The Gray Ghost of the Bowery

Photo: Dean Kaufman

From a few blocks’ distance, the new New Museum looks like a haphazard pile of welded boxes teetering over the Lower East Side. In the middle of the stack, one container has drifted to the north; it needs only a flick of Superman’s finger to nudge it back into alignment. The west wall follows the Bowery’s drunken skew across Manhattan’s grid, creating a slightly off-kilter geometry. The glass storefront makes the hunk of shiny metal appear to levitate above the sidewalk. But what’s an airborne set of seamless metal polyhedrons doing in this place of cracked curbs and gimpy lintels? Have the museum’s administrators and architects never heard of the taverns and derelicts that once gave the Bowery its proud, seedy identity?

Indeed they have, and they responded with a magically unsentimental intrusion, an antidote to the generic luxury springing up around it. The New Museum—designed by the Tokyo partners Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, who are jointly known as Sanaa—comes not to mourn Ye Olde Bouwerie, or even to sanitize it, but to contribute to its legacy of inspired idiosyncrasy. Sidle up to the museum and the hard edges soften, hazed by the mesh stretched over each surface like a fishnet stocking made of chain mail. It’s a hide of aluminum scored by teeth that have plunged through and yanked, opening rows of symmetrical wounds. Sexy and defiant in this see-through armature, the museum challenges passersby to call it a freak, thereby earning a spot as a genuine New York institution.

The building’s apparent randomness echoes the nearby stretch of tenements, some stumpy, some tall, almost all ungainly. Nothing quite lines up with anything, which is a fine way to be contextual in a corner of the city known for its endangered population of eccentrics. The rippled façade mutates through the day, starting out milky in the morning and shading to gunmetal by late afternoon. Of course, the surface will also catch the grit that hangs in the leaded air. Its long-term success depends on how well the coating wears, on whether pollution forms a patina or just an ugly scum, and on how regularly the building is scrubbed.

The museum’s blend of delicacy and industrial brawn recalls the early-twentieth-century infatuation with the aesthetics of manufacture, embodied in the heroic photographs of factories Charles Sheeler took in the twenties. In much of lower Manhattan, that has devolved into the precious proletarian chic of warehouse boutiques and spare white lofts. The New Museum, though, has tried to preserve the equivalence of art with labor. It offers itself as a place where big, complicated things are assembled by dirty hands. The polished concrete floors, fluorescent tubes, and mesh ceiling panels are all homely and prematurely dingy, but they are also appurtenances of a workplace prepared to take a lot of punishment.

The quirks of form lead to oddities indoors, some appealing, other less so. The core—a vertical concrete tube crammed with elevators, plumbing, and electrical risers—pins down the building on one side rather than through the middle, leaving room for vast, column-free floors. These skylighted rooms are glorious in their sense of possibility and high-ceilinged spaciousness. Here art can sprawl, climb, or hang from thick steel beams. Behind the elevators, though, are commensurately skimpy spaces: a claustrophobic staircase, a throwaway corner, a tall, skinny niche carved out of dead space in the core. Most visitors won’t see the offices or the education floor, which is a good thing, because neither is welcoming to adults. Seen from outside, the strip windows there emit a blurred glow through the mesh. But from within, the metal creates a dispiritingly correctional effect: Inmates look through the grate at a skyline partitioned into little diamonds. And the suspicion arises that maybe the coat of mail serves less to protect the museum than to shield the Bowery from the relentlessly gentrifying influence of art.

The Gray Ghost of the Bowery