The New MoMA Tries to Get Out of Its Own Way. We’ll See If It Can.

Gallery 206 of the renovated MoMA. Photo: Iwan Baan/Courtesy of MoMA

After a summer of closed doors and expensive introspection, the Museum of Modern Art is reopening with a total transformation that tries to leave nothing behind. The latest version, by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, with Gensler, is an enlargement of an addition of an expansion, and the architects’ mission was not only to provide the ultimate container for the history of modern art but also to repackage MoMA’s own 80-year architectural history. Each of its phases — Goodwin and Stone’s 1939 original, Philip Johnson and Cesar Pelli’s interpolations, and the wholesale 2004 revamp by Yoshio Taniguchi — has been absorbed into the new iteration. (Tragically, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s American Folk Art Museum was in the way and had to be erased.) The result might have been either a mess or a compromise; instead, it’s a work of confident and self-effacing elegance. Whether it will make a great museum is another question, one that may take time to resolve.

Touring the almost empty megamuseum shortly before the crowds arrive unsettles me with déja vu. Fifteen years ago, I wandered through another new, still vacant MoMA and was enchanted by Taniguchi’s meticulous cool. Without the distraction of other visitors, I could pay attention to walls that appeared to levitate just above the floor, and the deftness with which all the usual messy protuberances — vents, switches, knobs, cables — had been subdued into near nonexistence.

Then the museum opened, and bold moves became big problems. I soon began to resent the gaping atrium on the second floor, the vertiginous skybridges, and a lobby that managed to be vast and oppressive at the same time. DS + R have left Taniguchi’s big gestures untouched; that atrium isn’t going anywhere, though it’s slightly better stitched into the building’s fabric. But they have performed some judicious surgery, raising the lobby ceiling, moving gallery doors by a few feet here and there, ripping out and replacing much of the machinery hidden in the walls, and adding a layer of perforated wood to soak up thunderous reverberations.

The first part of the makeover opened a couple of years ago, but only now can we appreciate how the black-and-white marble lounge, with its vaguely retro glamour, fits into the whole scheme. The challenge was to thread a horizontal paseo through a series of discrete buildings that couldn’t simply be fused into one. Thick walls and portals framed in black steel mark the boundaries between addresses. Slight variations in the floorboards distinguish Taniguchi’s galleries from DS + R’s, if you’re looking for them. The architects even pay a kind of homage to the American Folk Art Museum they demolished, preserving the ghost of its narrow, vertical shape and opaque facade in a stack of glass-fronted galleries. As the museum moves westward, it pushes into the lower floors of a residential tower designed by Jean Nouvel, framed by immense diagonal beams that are, for now, mostly obscured by demure white walls. All these moving parts are united by an aesthetic in which every facet is sharp, thin, smooth, and glossy, like Nicole Kidman on Oscar night.

Seen from West 53rd Street. Photo: Brett Beyer/Courtesy of Diller Scofidio + Renfro

There are hiccups. A column lands awkwardly in the middle of a gallery. The second-floor ceilings are so high that even a big, bright Chris Ofili looks marooned. But the building holds delightful surprises too: wedge-shaped glimpses of midtown, a chapel-like corner for Monet’s Water Lilies, disorienting turns that deliver you into suddenly familiar terrain.

In architecture, modernism is no longer a movement, but a chronic condition. Variations on steel, glass, and concrete sleekness are the default setting for shelter magazines, shopping centers, apartment towers, hospitals, and office complexes. The late-20th-century style wars that pitted postmodernism against deconstructivism, parametricism against neo-vernacularism, seem quaint today. Today, architects claim proudly to offer no signature look, instead adapting their tastes to the needs of the job. Having a style has gone out of style. Even making the claim for an avant-garde is an old-fashioned thing to do. Maybe that’s why a certain nostalgic yearning permeates the new design. The ghosts of Audrey, Grace, and Jackie sashay through the black-and-white-and-gray locales.

“Modernism isn’t over,” Diller remarks. “We’re still living it, and constantly rethinking it. We’re wiser and more cynical about some of its utopian aspirations, but there are some grand objectives that we’re still working out.” Diller goes on to split those goals into two categories. The first is technical: making glass ever stronger and steel ever thinner, “pushing materials to their limits and thinning them down right to their point of failure.” The firm’s most virtuosic flourish is the vertical stroke that separates the Taniguchi building from the new one, a freestanding wall as slender as a pencil line, wrapped in an equally svelte staircase. The whole structure, which the architects call the “blade” (as in cutting edge), is made of steel but has the look of a drawing. Gravity and density don’t exist, only edges, shading, and air.

Diller’s second goal is social: to strike a balance between democratizing the museum and turning it into the cultural equivalent of an airport. “Decades ago, detractors said that the museum was too elitist,” she says. “Now they say it’s too public, and it’s too hard to commune with a work of art. It’s a dilemma, and I’m not sure we’ve gotten it right.”

Neither am I. MoMA is a machine for viewing art, and the success of this latest incarnation will be gauged by how many visitors the facility can process in any given day. The new architecture expresses the logic of perpetual growth. Denser crowds bring more money, which buys more art, which requires more space, which demands more money and bigger crowds. It’s no coincidence that the “blade” staircase hangs in the air above another theatrical coup: the store. A double-height wall of books soars from the basement level, past a bridge and up to a scalloped ceiling that catches the eye as well as sucking up sound. Here, facing the street, is a space that declares the museum’s enthusiastic embrace of retail. What is an artwork after all, if not the ultimate consumer good?

The store is prominent. Photo: Brett Beyer/Courtesy of Diller Scofidio + Renfro

The 2004 expansion created escalator bottlenecks, Pollock and Picasso choke points, and the slightly desperate atmosphere of a shopping mall on Black Friday morn. This time, the architects installed electronic ticket kiosks, an automated coat-check system, and a choice of entrances, elevators, and pathways, all calculated to smooth the passage of humanity through ample galleries. Trying to assess these mechanisms before the doors open would be like reviewing a play by sitting in an empty theater.

That play aspires to tell a new story. The old timeline of isms, influences, and great men has been retired. Now, MoMA presents its collection in the form of subplots and interlinked vignettes that span the globe and hopscotch around the decades. Curators have rearranged the collection according to deliberately cryptic rubrics, shuffling periods, and jumbling disparate media. The way to Water Lilies leads past a roomful of Bauhaus architecture and design. On the second floor, a gallery called “Print, Fold, Send” leads to “Transfigurations,” followed by “Before and After Tiananmen.” Whether this new organization delights, illuminates, or just irritates you will depend partly on your allegiance to the textbook version of art history, but it has a powerful effect on the architecture.

The Marie Josée and Henry Kravis Studio. Photo: Iwan Baan/Courtesy of MoMA

The overriding principle is fluidity. Parts of the collection will rotate every six months. The story being told today may be retold a few years from now. Artists will keep inventing new ways to use new spaces. The museum was built to evolve. That means that curators can convert vast spaces to cozy rooms and back again by erecting temporary walls; lights, wiring, and ventilation systems are designed to adapt to almost any configuration and technological need. Visitors can hop on and off the path that loops through each floor, switch directions, take shortcuts, and effectively design their own narrative. The architecture’s primary job is just to get out of the way.

That vanishing act is an important aspect of modernist architecture’s history. During the last century, ornamentation evaporated, walls became transparent, solidity gave way to featheriness. That fetish of lightness has endured, like a granite boulder. “If you raise a lot of money, I will give you great, great architecture,” Taniguchi boasted to MoMA before the 2004 go-around. “But if you raise really a lot of money, I will make the architecture disappear.” The museum came up with several staggering fortunes ($850 million then, another $450 million now), and that aesthetic of quasi-nothingness has swallowed almost an entire block of midtown. I wonder how soon this latest giant will feel cramped, too — how soon MoMA will be on the move again.

The New MoMA Tries to Get Out of Its Own Way