Red-Hot MoMA

The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Yoshio Taniguchi, architect

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) has changed radically over the years since it was founded in 1929 and moved into its own building on 53rd Street in 1939. What is most striking in the new building that has just opened is the change of scale. For it is, indeed, a new building. The original one on the same site by Edward Durell Stone underwent two successive expansions, in 1964 by Philip Johnson and 1984 by Cesar Pelli. The last was a spectacular failure: it mainly increased the number of small and rather intimate enclosed spaces used to show pictures, and the effect was numbing. The lobby, in the style of a commercial mall, with a highly visible escalator that obstructed the view of the much-loved sculpture garden, did not help. And the space was rapidly seen to be insufficient for the needs of the institution. Having purchased the adjacent Dorset Hotel, the board decided that this time the museum should not be just expanded, but largely gutted and rethought. The result is a grand and elegant creation that incorporates the old façades on 53rd Street but completely transforms the interiors and the garden façades on 54th Street. The architect, Yoshio Taniguchi, a surprising and controversial choice, was known up to then only for his imaginative designs for museums in his native Japan.

The new home for the museum acknowledges the fact that MoMA is no longer a small enterprise promoted by a restricted number of patrons and professionals. The original intellectual impetus came from Alfred Barr, but also from the young architect Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock, the architectural historian. Remarkably, photography was included at the outset thanks to Edward Steichen, at a time when the artistic establishment still mostly refused to accept it as an art. Cinema, which commanded even less respect, was added by 1935. These decisions were audacious. MoMA began as the project of a small group of people united by aesthetic convictions, among whom members of the Rockefeller family were the dominant force. There was little revenue outside philanthropic contributions, and the small building was rarely crowded. The new one, however, can accommodate an average of two thousand visitors a day, and a high admittance charge ($20, as of now) is crucial for running it.

The new MoMA is conceived on a large scale and it is complex in response to the numerous demands made upon it to show different kinds of artworks from different periods of the modern movement. It is not entirely finished. The eastern part of the construction, which will house both a formal restaurant and a research center and library, will open later. The 53rd Street façade, flush with the rest of the block, is largely the same as before, showing the three successive stages of the building, visually preserving its history. On the 54th Street side, Taniguchi has made an entirely new setting for the sculpture garden, which is preserved but with a somewhat different selection of exhibits. Along 54th …

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Letters

Red-Hot MoMA’ March 10, 2005