Ramping It Up

Move along: Michael Maltzan's action-inspired entrance to MoMA QNS.Photo: Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art

With its self-congratulatory ninth exhibition on Mies van der Rohe last year, and its retro-Modern design now going up on 53rd Street, the Museum of Modern Art has lapsed architecturally into a Miesian rut, a safe and semi-official aesthetic. Occasionally, however, MoMA produces an exhibition or installation that attempts to prove it isn’t quite fossilized. This summer, visitors to the temporary MoMA in Queens are already delighting in a glimpse of what post-Miesian architecture can be.

Just beyond the front door, they step onto a multilevel topography to buy tickets, check bags, browse in the shop, eat lunch, and watch video projections. The entry Manhattanizes the Queens outpost, where art and food, people and ideas mix freely in a thick cultural gazpacho.

During the next several years of construction on 53rd Street, MoMA is occupying an ex–Swingline staple factory transformed by Los Angeles architect Michael Maltzan, in association with Scott Newman of Cooper, Robertson & Partners of New York. It would be facile to say that Maltzan has brought California-freeway-style on-ramps to MoMA QNS, to energize floors that usually stratify New York buildings like so many pancakes. But just beyond the door, Maltzan invites visitors up a half-level to a promenade that splits, leading up to the museum store and over on a path that jackknifes left, past a café, past an angled white projection wall. Ushered by the angling ramps and stairs, gently channeled and compressed in an environment of movement, people watch people watching art.

Unfortunately, these new highways dead-end at the galleries, designed in-house, and the delirium deflates as the same old white, Mies-inspired interiors take over. By contrast with the radical art on its own walls, MoMA architecturally has become a deeply conservative, even fundamentalist institution, and the plain, right-angled gallery walls – taken from Mies taking from Mondrian – could have been done in the forties. Mies and his spiritual descendants never explored spatial complexity in the third dimension. Maltzan’s entry sequence effectively critiques Mies’s limitation; here, people interact with the space; they are not just the passive flaneurs they are about to become in the galleries.

Like many other museums, MoMA has a Guggenheim complex: It fears a competitive face-off between art and architecture yet does not acknowledge that architecture can help the art by keeping the senses alert. MoMA curators might open their minds a bit by taking a short Roman holiday this summer to see a retrospective of the work of Zaha Hadid.

At the National Center for Contemporary Arts in Rome, the London architect extends the ideas behind Maltzan’s entry into the galleries themselves, with gently curving, sometimes leaning walls that weave through a former barracks. Suspended half-walls stream overhead, multiplying viewing surfaces. Hadid has long been creating terrestrial and aerial topographies, and the installation anticipates her own design for the Roman museum itself (scheduled for completion in 2004). Hadid, of course, has never had a one-woman show at MoMA – she is not Miesian.

MoMA has become timid. True, the museum commissioned Maltzan, and every year MoMA co-sponsors a Young Architects competition for the courtyard of P.S.1. But these efforts ghettoize the avant-garde, keeping change at a sanitary distance from the MoMA Vatican. Art went on after the early Modernist greats, and so, too, did architecture. MoMA should finally take its head out of the sand.

The temporary home of the Museum of Modern Art.

Ramping It Up