PRINT October 1970

A Master Plan

1970. IT IS BEETHOVEN’S BICENTENNIAL. This—so we are told—must be celebrated. Is the world ready for more Beethoven? Is the situation ripe for more Beethoven? Is there a real need? Everybody knows why we have more—because it is Beethoven’s bicentennial. Numbers instead of ideas for the culture of consumption.

1970. It is the Metropolitan Museum’s centennial. This—so we are told—is celebrated with the new Master Plan, served with exquisite, solemn birthday speeches, and other kinds of cultural liquor. Inebriated, one loses one’s perspective and it becomes difficult to make a clear distinction between whether the Museum is celebrating with its public or whether the Museum is celebrating itself in the Master Plan.

1970. As many as six million people come now to the Metropolitan Museum per year. Never before has a museum been confronted with this new cultural phenomenon and problem: the masses. What is the Museum’s conception of and attitude towards sixty thousand people on a Sunday afternoon?

Obviously, it is very difficult to find the solution to this new reality. But a clear policy statement would certainly help to clarify the situation, possibly provoking critical, useful discussion. At the same time that official statements were being made in only rather vague terms, the Director ordered and had prepared a new Master Plan. A part of the proposed renovation has been finished already, maybe the most revealing: the entrance—the welcome to the masses. The completed renovation and the Master Plan are indicative of the Director’s way of thinking, his view of the Museum’s function and meaning. Architecture is more indicative than language could ever be. His choice of the architect was no accident.

When Mr. Hoving, the Director of the Metropolitan Museum, selected the architects Kevin Roche, John Dinkeloo and Associates to prepare the new Master Plan, he accepted—maybe even wanted—what is the hallmark of Kevin Roche and Co.: simplicity of form and monumentality of scale. It is design reduced to the simplest, immediately comprehensible, objective, geometrical shapes—but subjectively exaggerated and forced into gigantic dimensions suggesting a certain lust for power. It is the kind of architecture which is difficult to reconcile with full respect for the individual.

In fairness, one has to admit that Kevin Roche and Co. come up sometimes with admirably radical, new and simple concepts, solving the very roots of a problem and not merely some of its ramifications. For example, urgently needed open space for the constantly increasing number of working people in Manhattan’s densely developed downtown business district will be provided underneath the new Federal Reserve Building—at street level. The office tower, raised on four pillars, will start one hundred and fifty feet up in the air.

But if prestige is at stake, what is then the architectural solution? Kevin Roche and Co.’s plan for the United Nations Development Corporation (opposite the present United Nations site) culminates in a glass-covered, gigantic interior space, which is taller than the symbol of U.S. space supremacy, higher than the worldly symbol of the Catholic empire, and which degrades the Guggenheim Museum as exaggeration always degrades proper scale. Bigness, overwhelming bigness. The Master Plan. A master plan is future-oriented. The future development is anticipated and coordinated. The conclusion is final. The architectural plan is final. An old and well-known absolute attitude. This one is more than an architectural plan—it is officially meant to be planning for the next hundred years. But hasn’t the philosophy of planning changed lately, taking into account that all the aspects of future development cannot be foreseen? Therefore, instead of a once-and-forever plan, adaptable and flexible guidelines are- more appropriate. It is even possible to express this attitude—open-minded, open ended—in architectural plans. “The Master Plan for the Museum’s second century” envisages its “completion.”

In the last few years the Museum has made three major acquisitions: the Temple of Dendur, the Michael C. Rockefeller Collection of Primitive Art, and the Robert Lehman Collection. Who would deny that more space and a reorganization of the Museum are needed?

It is the fourth master plan in the Museum’s history, but distinguished by a significant difference: “The present proposal responds (according to the architect) to a real program need, and unlike the earlier plans is more than an architectural preconception.” Having a real program need does, however, not preclude an architectural preconception. On the contrary, it might help to defend and to disguise preconceived ideas about architecture: architecture as an instrument of authority, architecture as materialization of power.

The socio-political aspect of architecture must be pointed out. For in the context of the changed socio-political aspect of the Museum’s architecture the following convincing mathematical manipulation might be meaningless: “Park land returned to green and public use (46,700 sq. ft.) plus new year-round public garden courtyards (45,000 sq. ft.) minus new construction beyond existing fence line (38,000 sq. ft.) equals 53,700 sq. ft. of TOTAL GAIN FOR PARK USE.”

Each of the earlier master plans by Calvert Vaux, Richard Morris Hunt, and McKim, Meade, and White was only partly executed and in addition, there were many other expansions. The Museum as it stands now is an architectural collage of seventeen buildings, testimony of its very peculiar growth. It is revealing how the new Master Plan deals with this fact. It doesn’t accept the principle of a collage as a basis for future expansions; it is clearly the determination to cover, to wrap up, to hide and to envelop the existing conditions. The proposed exterior of the Museum does not reflect diversity, variety, does not allow eventually-needed changes unknown today; the proposed exterior for the “completion” of the building means formal unity, geometrical grandeur, symmetrical dignity, untroubled oneness, flawless entity—architecture emitting self-assured security: the Museum as the sanctuary of classical order, the Museum as the temple of guaranteed values in troubled times. Kevin Roche wants to “heal the scars and unsightly blemishes of the piece meal growth of the last hundred years.” 1970: the museum beautiful. A conglomerate of some “uglier” and some “outstanding” parts, a certain informality is not the proper outfit for the leading cultural institution.

There is no conflict between preconceived for malistic ideas and the explanation of what is best for the individual expansions. The building for the Lehman Collection (the collection is priceless—the building diamond-shaped) has been located,after extensive study, in the central position of the new park facade. The architect: “This central position is appropriate for such an important collection.” Isn’t the jewel’s important position also central to a believed-appropriate architectural hierarchy?

It is difficult to overlook the new spirit. The Master Plan provides for two interior parks, enclosed with glass, climate-controlled with green trees twelve months a year. Both will have a most welcome entrance from Central Park. An artificial park within a museum within a park might help to smooth the transition between nature and art . . . An artificial year-round green park within the natural year-round Central Park is like an aquarium in the ocean: perhaps a touch of Surrealism but certainly extremely effective, an unforgettable impression—nature de luxe.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Summer 1965: “One reason that this Museum—like any major American museum—is so complex is its basic ‘personality,’ if it can be called that, is derived from various other, older social organizations. It is in fact a modern hybrid, bred with mingled characteristics of the cathedral, the royal palace, the theater, the school, the library, and, according to some critics, the department store. As the emphasis of interest or activity shifts, the character of the organization changes. In the family of social institutions invented by man, the place of the museum is not rigidly fixed.” Isn’t there another institution invented by man with characteristics suitable for a rich Museum?

The expansion for the Lehman Collection is not being built just for the Lehman Collection but for the $100 million Lehman Collection. Respectful attention is the reaction in the presence of art as well as it is in the presence of money. One climbs up the impressive new stairs, passes through a metallic-glittering entrance, and a new feeling overcomes you—unknown before the renovation, a Wall Street feeling—you are indeed in the Metropolitan Bank of Art. Very, very rich.

Wall Street architecture as manifested in its bank lobbies (for example 40 Wall Street and 55 Wall Street) is always worthwhile visiting. They are outstanding examples of “functionalistic” architecture, the function being the temple of money and prestige. Scale, refined design, and exquisite materials are the assets to impress—and it seems no accident that besides the Museum’s new demonstration of prestige, even the spirit of some architectural details is the same at Wall Street downtown and the new branch uptown.

The Great Hall. Formerly an informal gateway to the Museum, now a formal barrier to the treasuries and safes. But how to get there? Coatroom and souvenir business have been removed; hidden, they are no longer an affront to the dignity of the Museum’s entrance hall, which is now dominated by a monumental octagonal information desk which can hardly be avoided. You receive the information precisely at the center of the three-domed space. The two remaining domes, one on each side, are also echoed on the floor in a surprising way: octagonal arrangements of green plants. An ornament to the information. To repeat the triple organization of the architectural structure in such a way seems—to say the least—rather uninspired. It is more of a reaction to a two-dimensional drawing (section or plan) than to the spatial unity of the volume itself. The Great Hall—a place for gathering. What kind of gathering? Sometimes flower arrangements fill up empty space.

“In devising a plan for the future it is often necessary to correct the design errors of the past.” This is the official justification for the removal of the grand interior stair. It is at least questionable whether the grand stair leading up to the second floor is a “design error” or a substantial and vital part of a sequential entrance composition, an integral part of the Beaux-Art plan by Hunt (and his son). This spatial composition as an example of great classical architecture is unique in New York. The motive behind the arbitrary invention and condemnation of the “design error” is the grand stair’s replacement by a new broad avenue which will be flanked by escalators in the existing corridors now parallel to the stair. This processional axis from the entrance to the $100 million Lehman Collection is only in consequent and logical conformity with the new monumentality which has been already demonstrated by the new street facade. One wonders if superplaza and avenue are the right answers for the problem of the masses.

The existing facade was destroyed insofar as a completely new scale has been imposed on it. The colossal order gave Hunt’s facade a basically vertical emphasis, which because of the landscaping along the Fifth Avenue facade was still predominant after the addition of the new wings. The relationship between an elevation and the space in front of the elevation (ramps, stairs, gardens, trees, etc.) is always a critical one; even if the central part and the wings are in the same plane, the facade can have several different accents. That seemed to be the case here before the “unification of the Fifth Avenue facade” by Kevin Roche and Co. The new composition makes Hunt’s elevation and the later additions equal parts of the superplaza. The new meaning is obviously dictated by the plaza to the facade: to impress with a long horizontal facade, to provide background for the new fountains and stairs. But it is not real grandezza; it is a forced pose; it is pomp. The design was announced to be for the next hundred years. Fortunately it is not announced as “tausendjährig.”

It is pleasant to see the giant stairs filled with people, sitting, watching the events in the street. But this spectacular victory should not make you blind to what was destroyed, what has been forced upon, and how it was done; the space between the bases of the colossal order was filled out. The columns now start “unified,” from the same platform. The whole system of proportions between base, column, and attic story was changed and Hunt’s subtle and well-proportioned building (inside, outside) overrun by the obtrusive dictatorship of the new scale. Was the alteration at least designed in an elegant way? The conflict between the new stair and the mutilated facade should not be seen as a crude, but unimportant detail. For it might be representative of something more.

Bernhard Leitner