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Miracle on the Bowery

The New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, which opened on December 1, is one of those rare, clarifying works of architecture that makes most recent buildings of the same sort look suddenly ridiculous. Designed by the female-male team of Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, of the Tokyo-based firm SANAA (acronym for Sejima and Nishizawa and Associates), this mesmerizing 174-foot-high tower on the Bowery demonstrates the power of understatement more convincingly than any Manhattan structure since Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building was completed in 1958.

Ten years ago, the widely enthusiastic reception in the press of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao began prompting cultural institutions around the world to commission similarly exhibitionistic schemes in pursuit of equivalent publicity and profits. Today, critics trudge from one disastrous new museum to the next, struggling to evaluate meaningless design stunts that have more to do with marketing than art. Fastidious patrons repulsed by this architectural tendency gravitate to “safe” museum specialists like Renzo Piano, a stranger to vulgarity. But as Piano’s disappointing Morgan Library and Museum of 2000–2006 in New York proved, he, like any other architect, must have a great client in order to achieve greatness.

Building a museum is an expensive proposition—Bilbao cost $107 million, a no longer remarkable sum—and donors who bring corporate values along with them into the museum boardroom believe business management techniques can maximize such “investments.” I await with particular interest Piano’s Broad Contemporary Art Museum, which opens at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in February 2008. The principal donor of that freestanding, semiautonomous annex, Eli Broad, is known as a hard-driving businessman, a price-conscious art collector, and a controlling architectural client. The benefactors of Piano’s two greatest museums—the oil-equipment heiress Dominique de Menil for the Menil Collection in Houston and the shopping-center developer Raymond Nasher for the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas—were demanding perfectionists, and neither patron stinted if cost threatened quality.

Some museum boards think that choosing an architect can be reduced to a science, but it comes down to a matter of taste, pure and simple. A shortlist of prospective designers speaks volumes about the likely outcome. If the candidates’ styles are too divergent, the search committee doesn’t know what it wants. If one contestant seems odd man out—as Yoshio Taniguchi did among much-younger competitors for the Museum of Modern Art expansion—the fix might be in. Thus I was impressed with the New Museum’s surprising shortlist, comprising five experimental-minded firms esteemed by architecture aficionados but otherwise unknown. I was even more impressed by the ultimate selection of Sejima and Nishizawa, immensely gifted architects poised on the threshold of greatness, who needed a brave client to give the team their big international break.

When the New Museum of Contemporary Art hired SANAA, in 2002, the firm had not yet built beyond Japan. They had, however, designed a scheme that greatly helped their prospects in New York: the Twenty-first Century Museum of Contemporary Art of 2000–2004, in the small provincial city of Kanazawa. That one-story circular structure, set in a centrally located park, functions not only as a municipal art gallery but more importantly as the focal structure for the city, a rarity in traditional Japanese urban planning, which puts little store in public buildings.

To encourage this new institution’s acceptance among people unfamiliar with viewing art, the architects demystified the museum-going experience by sheathing the undifferentiated, nonhierarchical exterior in transparent glass all around, and making none of the intimidating gestures common to this kind of building, whether traditional or modern in style. The result might have been boring to the point of nothingness were it not for the exhilarating lightness and unexpected warmth Sejima and Nishizawa bring to minimalism, which can be harsh and pleasureless. The architects display the same engaging qualities at their New Museum of Contemporary Art, although this high-rise scheme for a cosmopolitan audience could hardly be more different from the Kanazawa museum in form and social context.

What constitutes “contemporary” art is an interesting question in itself. The big international auction houses now define contemporary art as works made during the past thirty-five years, with earlier pieces designated as “modern.” But what of artists whose careers span that arbitrary divide? It might be argued that certain still-active figures, such as Jasper Johns, ought to be deemed modern rather than contemporary, given the greater importance of their earlier works.

On the other hand, visitors to the SANAA building’s four-part inaugural exhibition, “Unmonumental: The Object in the Twenty-first Century” (organized by a team headed by the museum’s chief curator, Richard Flood), are unlikely to question the very different notions of contemporary art advanced by the New Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. On the Bowery, sculptures made from old clothes bundled together by Shinique Smith seem a universe (not merely miles) apart from the expertly crafted sculptures of Martin Puryear being shown at the same time on West 53rd Street. This is all to the good, as MoMA ceased to be a persuasive advocate of contemporary art many years ago, and might now best concern itself with extending the canon of modernism that has been its raison d’être from the start. The New Museum, an exhibition space freed from the burdens of building a permanent collection, can concentrate on the present in a way no longer possible for what wags have called the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art.

Contemporary art, particularly the provocative kind championed by the New Museum since its founding, by the late Marcia Tucker in 1977, looks best in settings that aren’t overly refined, one reason why recycled warehouses and factories have made such effective galleries. On Manhattan’s still gritty but increasingly fashionable Lower East Side, SANAA has captured a utilitarian spirit without resorting to the pseudo-industrial effects of Piano and Richard Rogers’s Georges Pompidou Center of 1971–1977 in Paris. Here Sejima and Nishizawa manage to wrest a series of flexible, loftlike exhibition spaces from a site so tiny that the designers’ sleight of hand approaches architectural alchemy.

The globalization of architecture is now so pervasive that one wonders if any architects still build in their native countries, or if foreign architects enjoy an insuperable edge over local talent in international design competitions. That trend is accompanied by a widespread recognition that the work of certain architects just doesn’t travel well. Some who execute exemplary buildings at home seem unable to excel abroad. The Spanish master Rafael Moneo, architect of the admirable new addition to the Prado and the brilliant Museum of Roman Art of 1980–1986 at Mérida in southwest Spain—has had considerably less luck with his lackluster American museum commissions.

No nationality has been more plagued by this conundrum than the Japanese. The extraordinary design talent that emerged in 1980s Japan led to dozens of European and American commissions for those high-style innovators. But many of them had a rude awakening overseas, especially in the US. Arata Isozaki was driven to the brink of despair over his Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, constructed between 1981 and 1986. Tadao Ando had to fight to get American builders to meet the high standard he’s accustomed to back home. And at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Yoshio Taniguchi saw the precision that is the hallmark of his work sabotaged to a degree he’d never experienced before his first foreign assignment.

This depressing track record overseas can be explained in large part by Japan’s singular construction industry, monopolized by the so-called Big Five contracting firms. Like Italy, Japan produces far too many architecture graduates for all to become building designers. Most Japanese architects end up in related fields, especially as overqualified project managers on building sites. Their expertise allows last-minute modifications to be made during construction, a practice unheard of in this country, where such “change orders,” as they are called, can be ruinously expensive, if allowed at all. It’s been said that the best-crafted examples of several American architects’ work (including Cesar Pelli and Rafael Viñoly) are in Japan, just as it’s predictable that Japanese architects will be in for trouble when they build here.

Such architectural culture shock now seems a thing of the past with the opening of the New Museum, SANAA’s second American success in as many years. First was the Glass Pavilion of 2004–2006 at Ohio’s Toledo Museum of Art, a haunting and highly original reiteration of the see-through box, a recurrent High Modernist theme, from Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace of 1850–1851 to Philip Johnson’s Glass House of 1949–1950 and after. With its diaphanous, undulating exterior and transparent inner partitions, the single-story Toledo Glass Pavilion retains all the enigmatic subtlety of SANAA’s earlier work in Japan, even though the partners’ delicate aesthetic can expose the sort of minor mistakes that other architects camouflage with a host of diversionary tricks.

The New Museum seems even more of an accomplishment than SANAA’s initial American venture because this client couldn’t afford costly finishes on a no-frills, $50 million budget. (An informed source close to the MoMA competition won by Taniguchi recently told me that the final price tag would have doubled, to $1 billion, if the scheme were executed to the architect’s desired specifications. Jettisoned in the name of economy were exacting details that give Taniguchi’s Japanese schemes an uncanny, hovering feeling wholly absent in the lumbering, bloated new MoMA.)

Despite a commitment to a minimalism every bit as rigorous as Taniguchi’s, Sejima and Nishizawa make perfection a non-issue. They escape the tyranny of costly detailing in quite a different way from Frank Gehry and Rem Koolhaas, who sidestep the modernist obsession with finely wrought specifics in favor of boldly conceived generalities, and thereby get more bang for the buck (or euro, or yuan). SANAA is already renowned within the profession for a relentless work ethic that leads to design solutions dependent neither on expensive materials nor on painstaking craftsmanship, long assumed essential requirements for minimalist architecture. The specific ways in which this firm extracts so much from so little—and for so relatively little money—will be the subject of study in architecture schools worldwide for decades to come.

Many perplexed observers find present-day museum design a choice between outlandishly sculptural structures that ignore the proper display of art and neutral containers so submissive to art that all architectural presence is lost. But the New Museum persuasively demonstrates that honoring art and architecture need not be an either/or proposition.

For Sejima and Nishizawa, whose expansive imaginations refuse to be cramped by the postage-stamp-sized building plots typical of Tokyo, the challenge of working with the New Museum’s L-shaped midblock plot—a mere seventy-one feet wide and 112 feet deep—was evidently no big deal. Their previous experience with such restricted conditions encouraged the New Museum’s prescient director, Lisa Phillips, to push for SANAA among the contenders, and to her must go a great deal of the credit for this miracle on the Bowery.

The shimmering two-ply exterior of the New Museum—metal layered with an outer skin of perforated metal, which can look variously silver, gray, or off-white, depending on the time of day and the weather—imparts a mirage-like aura when the sunlight cooperates, an effect intensified by the irregularity of the non-aligned boxes comprising the off-kilter tower. However, this slight syncopation—which makes the almost windowless tower seem much larger at a distance—is far from the chaotic angular cascade proposed by Daniel Libeskind in his unexecuted Spiral addition of 1996 for London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, which evoked a collapsing stack of cartons.

The varied height-and-width proportions of each rectangular component at the New Museum are no mere aesthetic whim, but rather a practical strategy to create setbacks that provide most of the museum’s galleries with skylights, allowing the natural lighting that many artists hope for and seldom get. (Those rooms that lack natural toplighting have been reserved for video installations and works requiring low illumination.)

Natural lighting has become something of a fetish in contemporary museum design. Although technological advances have made artificial illumination every bit as effective as (and far more manageable than) the real thing, museum officials and donors cling to the sentimental notion that natural light is inevitably preferable. It’s easy to think that is so at John Soane’s Dulwich Picture Gallery of 1811–1817 in London, or Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum of 1966–1972 in Fort Worth, the two most frequently invoked examples of natural toplighting among latter-day patrons. But what is suitable for the display of the Old Master pictures at those two institutions is not universally desirable for other kinds of art elsewhere.

The skylights in the New Museum galleries have a negligible effect in improving one’s experience of the works on view there, at least those in the inaugural installation. Fluorescent ceiling fixtures largely cancel out the meagre amount of daylight that filters through the thin strips of overhead glazing in several rooms. The benefit is primarily architectural, giving the galleries added breathing space, as it were, and allowing the several sprawling sculptural installations to be properly assessed from multiple vantage points without one’s feeling backed into a dark corner.

One serendipitous benefit of the New Museum’s tight site is the structure’s necessary vertical emphasis, which gives unusual volumetric integrity to its one-per-story display areas on the second, third, and fourth floors, ranging in height from eighteen to twenty-four feet and in area from three to five thousand square feet. There’s none of the lost-in-space disorientation many visitors have complained about at the new MoMA. Nowhere is that contrast more evident than in the New Museum’s humanely scaled lobby—enlivened by an undulating metal mesh partition reminiscent of Alvar Aalto’s designs and screening the gift shop—which makes MoMA’s megascale entry concourse feel even more like the airport terminal of nightmares.

These days, contemporary art museums face the dilemma of trying to anticipate what kind of spaces will be needed for unimaginable creations likely to emerge over the coming decades. The one-size-fits-all approach of hangar-like enclosures with movable partitions is no solution, as demonstrated time and again since the grandpère of them all, the Pompidou Center. It will take time to determine how well the New Museum responds to the demands of an institution founded to disregard, indeed flout, art establishment convention.

Moving beyond the video installations now taken for granted in all modern and contemporary art museums, here the opening show also includes audio and on-line works of a sort that only the most determined gallerygoers are likely to have encountered. For example, the New York–based performance artist and activist Sharon Hayes (who has shown at the wonderfully named Brooklyn gallery Smack Mellon—unrelated to the National Gallery of Art’s founder) created a specially commissioned piece, I march in the parade of liberty, but as long as I love you I’m not free. This raucous audio mix combined live and prerecorded elements and played eight times during the run of the opening exhibition in a back stairwell of the new building. It seemed part overheard lovers’ quarrel, part leftist protest chant, and reflected Hayes’s particular interest in the public aspects of private lives and the personal implications of political resistance.

Not all the thrills are high-tech, however. A corridor in the New Museum’s basement level is papered with a vast, digitally printed mural by Jeffrey Inaba, which graphically plots the flow of international philanthropy, political as well as cultural, a sly mockery of self-aggrandizing donors’ walls much in the spirit of Hans Haacke’s scathing critiques of the corporate corruption of the art world. What is not in question is the instant urban impact of the New Museum’s new home. Among the most delightful aspects of the SANAA scheme is the seventh-floor “Sky Room,” a glass-walled, wrap-terraced lounge with exhilarating views of the downtown skyline. It is easy to imagine this space as a reincarnation of the old members’ dining room and lounge atop the original Museum of Modern Art building, fondly remembered by many as a space that encouraged socializing in a way that no other place in the city offered at the time, almost domestic in its intimacy and informality. The current emphasis on the museum experience as a form of elevated consumerism is as pernicious as it is pervasive, and the Sky Room, where ideas about the art on display might be exchanged in a stimulating, noncommercial atmosphere, could be a useful bulwark against the museum as entertainment complex.

Beyond doubt the New Museum has become the highpoint of New York’s postmillennial construction boom. The new grand publishing skyscrapers of Midtown West—Renzo Piano’s Times Tower of 2000–2007 and Norman Foster’s Hearst Tower of 2001–2005—are respectively dull and overbearing. The rebuilding of Ground Zero will remain a glaring example of ineptitude and architectural mediocrity in urban planning. The city’s profusion of high-end residential speculations, cranked out for developers by international design stars, marks the profession’s further descent into luxury-goods “branding.”

It is no longer taken for granted that a new museum building will embody a society’s highest aspirations—in fact, recent evidence indicates quite the contrary. Three years after the reopening of MoMA, it no longer seems radical to say that the place has been transmogrified into something like a cultural corporate headquarters. Koolhaas lost that coveted commission not only because he proposed turning the revered Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden into a sunken plaza like the Rockefeller Center ice skating rink, but because he had the further effrontery to crown his scheme with a billboard proclaiming “MoMA Inc.” What was built is far less funny than Koolhaas’s impudent and all-too-prophetic taunt.

The audacious New Museum building augurs well for that ambitious institution because it speaks of a discernment about contemporary architecture that may promise equal astuteness about contemporary art. An implicit rebuke to MoMA’s establishment bombast, this dimensionally modest but subliminally monumental landmark also suggests a skyscraper more beautiful than all but a few ever built. Days before the New Museum opened, plans were revealed for yet another MoMA addition, an expressionistic, seventy-five-story midblock tower by Jean Nouvel. The Times‘s architecture critic, Nicolai Ouroussoff, swooned on cue, as he had over what he initially called the “exquisite” Taniguchi complex (though he’s changed his tune now that prevailing opinion has turned).

Truly great architecture always transcends its stated function, sometimes in unanticipated ways. As you stand on the Bowery just north of the New Museum and look downtown toward the clustered spires of Lower Manhattan, it’s hard not to think of SANAA’s hypnotic addition to the city’s skyline as a poetic meditation on America’s quintessential architectural contribution, and loss.

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