OMA Adds a Dose of Delirium to the New Museum

On the left, the current museum; on the right, OMA’s addition. Image: OMA/

A splinter of beautiful weirdness will wedge itself into the Bowery, and not a moment too soon. When the New Museum mounted its first show in 1977, the soon-to-be celebrity architect Rem Koolhaas was finishing up Delirious New York, his ode to a lunatic, dilapidated metropolis. A few years later, the writer Luc Sante arrived in Manhattan and gloried in the impression that nature was swallowing it whole. “If you walked east on Houston Street from the Bowery on a summer night, the jungle growth of vacant blocks gave a foretaste of the impending wilderness, when lianas would engird the skyscrapers and mushrooms would cover Times Square,” he wrote. The matched forces of wild creativity and wild decay drove the city’s hysterical dynamic in those days. Three decades later, when the New Museum opened its first made-to-order building on the Bowery, it was a sign of a profound cultural change. The legendary boulevard of flophouses and despair was, in a sense, the natural habitat for a tough, idiosyncratic organization, but the move could only happen when the street was safe not just for artists but for art consumers, too.

The design, by the Tokyo-based firm Sanaa, caught that moment of inflection, the swing from misery to leisure as the area’s defining characteristic. Foreseeing change, Sanaa declined to fit meekly into the existing streetscape and instead designed a boldly idiosyncratic presence, the kind of what-is-that? structure that could only be a museum. At the same time, the architecture also celebrated the Lower East Side’s lopsided, tumbledown quality. The building dodged out of the way just where Prince Street slammed into the Bowery. Its discrete boxes looked haphazardly stacked and misaligned, in the way of tenement rooflines. The steel mesh that wrapped the museum like chain mail was simultaneously defiant and defensive, as if to acknowledge the area’s hostility to preciousness. In a neighborhood of four-story walk-ups, the New Museum organized its galleries around a claustrophobic central stair.

But a museum can only honor its neighborhood’s grunginess the way a lepidopterist honors a butterfly: by killing it. The block is not the messy, boozy, lowdown Bowery of yore. And the New Museum isn’t the scrappy counterculture start-up it once was, either. In 2007, the block and the institution settled down in a de facto marriage, building the sort of home together where guidebooks send visitors who come from less delirious hometowns.

Now comes the New York branch of Koolhaas’s firm, Office for Metropolitan Architecture, headed by Shohei Shigematsu, to help the New Museum expand laterally. OMA has designed an alluring geode to go with Sanaa’s metal-clad case. When the $63 million addition is built, Prince Street will now dead-end into a triangular plaza formed by the new wing’s tilted wall. The oddball tower will have a companion, and an emergent cultural powerhouse will cement its triumph over the empire of entropy. Exhibition space will double to 20,000 square feet — a crumb compared to the Museum of Modern Art’s soon-to-be-inaugurated total of 175,000 square feet. But it’s not hard to imagine that, a few decades from now, it will have taken over the Bowery the way MoMA occupied West 53rd Street, linking up discrete buildings like boxcars on a freight train, until another architect figures out how to stitch them all together.

The trajectory was apparent a dozen years ago. Even before the new-paint smell had dissipated in its Sanaa headquarters, the museum was already eyeing the next phase. It bought the six-story 1920 warehouse building next door, at 231 Bowery, in 2008 (from a restaurant-supply company) and immediately began using it as an annex. Among the early exhibitions in the storefront gallery was “Cronocaos,” a polemic on preservation organized by Koolhaas and OMA. The show argued that a global preservation movement has overreached, placing ever-larger swaths of the world off-limits to renewal and regeneration. Somehow it’s not surprising that a firm promoting an aesthetic of creative destruction decided that the annex had to go.

Just because a conclusion was foregone doesn’t mean it was wrong. Good architects often spend as much time on alternatives they ultimately reject as they do on the final version, and Shigematsu and his team took seriously the desire to adapt and connect the existing building. They found that by the time they were done punching holes in the structure, stripping out columns, joining floors that don’t line up, jamming a new small tower into the back, and peeling away and reattaching the façade, they would be left with a pile of shavings.

Still, the labor of continuing all the way up a dead-end road paid off, and it shows in the design’s coherence. It led OMA to leave Sanaa’s building not just physically but spiritually intact and pair it with a tightly packed mini-tower set back from the street. Inside, the two buildings are joined at the hip, so that each gallery floor flows from one into the other. The lobby, too, will function as a continuous Z-shaped space, zigging from the current front door to coat check, zagging to a showpiece staircase in the new wing, then back to a ground-floor restaurant. Near the top, a glassed-in hallway provides yet another passage between the two structures.

In 2001, OMA designed an abortive addition to the Whitney that would have overwhelmed Marcel Breuer’s landmark Madison Avenue building (now the Met Breuer). The proposal was a high-water mark of architectural swagger and insensitivity. This time, OMA has learned a measure of modesty. The brilliance of its New Museum plan is that it gives the original loner a soul mate but also space to breathe. Sanaa’s building remains enigmatic, guarded, slender, and slightly severe. OMA’s is sharper and more playful, hopping back and jabbing out, all angles and slopes. The original has a façade like a fencer’s mask, hiding the expressive action inside. OMA’s faces the city with a sheer wrap of metal mesh fabric pressed between layers of glass, the kind of shimmery floor-to-roof covering that the first New Museum building changes into after-hours.

What gives the new wing a personality worthy of its address is the faceted rocklike mass. Inside, but visible from the street, a staircase curls like a ribbon of orange peel, dangling from a stepped auditorium on an upper floor all the way to the lobby. Placing stairs behind glass like artifacts in a vitrine has become a common strategy, turning a necessary piece of building machinery — a required egress — into a fitness showcase. At the New Museum, this approach tucks the main galleries away from west-facing windows so that artwork doesn’t get scoured by afternoon sunlight. It also uses what would otherwise be waste space as a vertical gallery, where light-resistant sculptures can be suspended from the ceiling and drop three or four floors.

For a global firm with New York in its blood, OMA has barely worked here. Its first residential building, a hunk of faceted ebony on a corner of Lexington Avenue near Madison Square, has just opened. The New Museum will be its first institutional project here. And yet in the past 40 years, as the city has medicated itself with alternating doses of extravagance and neglect, Koolhaas has made his presence felt. “Manhattan has generated a shameless architecture that has been loved in direct proportion to its defiant lack of self-hatred, respected exactly to the degree that it went too far,” he wrote a long, long time ago. Since then, Manhattan has also generated an avalanche of shameful architecture, unloved in direct proportion to its cravenness. Maybe it’s finally time for OMA to supply a shot of delirium.

*A version of this article appears in the August 5, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

OMA Adds a Dose of Delirium to the New Museum