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…


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