Megalo-MoMA

The exterior of the newly renovated MoMA
Brett Beyer/Diller Scofidio + Renfro
The exterior of the newly renovated MoMA, showing the expanded lobby and the base of 53W53, a new tower designed by Jean Nouvel, whose second through fifth floors are occupied by the museum, October 2019

1.

Among the plethora of disturbingly disproportionate, super-tall, super-thin condominium towers that have spiked the New York City skyline since the turn of the millennium and that graphically symbolize America’s concomitant surge in income inequality, the most recently completed of them marks the spot of the Museum of Modern Art, which inaugurated its latest building project in October, two weeks before its ninetieth anniversary. The dagger-like ultra-high-rise component of the conjoined complex was built to the plans of the French architect Jean Nouvel, while the enlargement of the museum itself is the work of the New York partnership Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R) in association with Gensler, the powerhouse multinational firm that often provides technical and construction management expertise on high-style projects conceived by less full-service practitioners.

This newest architectural iteration of MoMA, which cost $450 million and is its third enlargement in little more than thirty years, was facilitated through a byzantine real estate transaction that involved complicated and costly air-rights transfers from nearby buildings (including the University Club and St. Thomas Church) to the museum, and in turn from MoMA to the property developer Hines. (This Houston-based firm realized the 1970s and 1980s corporate skyscrapers of John Burgee and Philip Johnson; the latter founded MoMA’s architecture department in 1932 and was a trustee there until his death.) The condominium tower is now—although it surely will not be for long—the seventh highest of Manhattan’s super-talls; it was first called Tour Verre, then Tower Verre, and was ultimately rebranded as the more marketable 53W53 (2006–2019). MoMA occupies its second through fifth stories, the use of which was a condition of the museum’s sale of the land beneath it to Hines for approximately $245 million (a figure confirmed by a museum spokesperson).

Nouvel’s stalagmite-shaped behemoth possesses none of the crystalline fragmentation or improbable lightness that distinguishes the finest of all slant-sided super-talls, Renzo Piano’s Shard of 2000–2013 in London (which, although thirty-four feet shorter than 53W53, is the highest building in Western Europe.) The Nouvel undertaking was made possible by Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s loosening of the city’s urban planning regulations, which had long restricted extremely tall towers to broader north–south avenues or major intersections like Fifth Avenue and 34th Street (the Empire State Building) or Lexington Avenue and 42nd Street (the Chrysler Building). The area around MoMA was already so densely overbuilt that its stretch of West 53rd Street receives very little sunlight in any season, and the museum must bear responsibility for making local environmental quality even worse with this colossal imposition.

Some commentators have attempted to draw parallels between 53W53…


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