PRINT Summer 1997


MoMA's Architectural Competition

INSTITUTIONS MOVE FORWARD by renegotiating their own history. Drawing on its legacy of architectural provocation and promotion, beginning with the International Style show of 1932, the Museum of Modern Art is nearing the final stages of preparing for its renovation and expansion. Though a number of recent museum statements describe the expansion as simply the next logical step in MoMA’s historical growth and development, deputy director for curatorial affairs and chief curator at large John Elderfield goes so far as to call the scope of the project “a reconceptualization of the entire facility.”

The museum is not alone in taking this project seriously. The international design competition has garnered the kind of media attention usually reserved for sports events and celebrity sightings. In New York City, where public architecture is nearly always business as usual and most big projects go to firms that specialize in the mediocre and the redundant, many are calling this the architectural project of the decade.

Last January, ten architects—Wiel Arets, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, Steven Holl, Toyo Ito, Rem Koolhaas, Dominique Perrault, Yoshio Taniguchi, Bernard Tschumi, Rafael Viñoly, and Tod Williams and Billie Tsien—were invited to participate in a month-long design “charrette,” an intense, brief period of developing and presenting design ideas. (The term was most likely coined to refer to the cart [la charrette] that traveled around Paris to fetch the final drawings of students at the École des Beaux-Arts. The story goes that students who were still working on their designs when the cart arrived at their ateliers would climb on board to finish their work en charrette.) The charrette came to an end in late March, and the list of ten was trimmed to three—Herzog and de Meuron, Taniguchi, and Tschumi—who will now go on to the next stage of the competition. According to MoMA representatives, the finalists were singled out for demonstrating what chief curator of architecture and design Terence Riley calls “design leadership,” the ability to bring the project to successful completion, and what Elderfield describes as “sensitivity” to museum culture: “Of all ten architects, these three demonstrated most forcefully that they care about art and museums. They showed a great deal of inventiveness and provocative speculation about the ways that museum spaces can work.”

It is not easy to ascertain why some of the other seven participants failed to reach the final rounds. The decision must have been particularly disappointing for the New York–based architects—Williams and Tsien, Holl, and Viñoly—who have had success elsewhere but haven't yet had the chance to build significant public projects in Manhattan. And the exclusion of Koolhaas, arguably the leading architectural theorist of what he called “Manhattanism” in his 1978 Delirious New York, came as a surprise to many. Yet it must have been hard for the museum to get beyond his rather flip disavowal of formal concerns (his extra-large triangular tower simply fills the volume of air allowed by zoning codes) and trenchant institutional critique (such as his photographs of museum visitors and staff caught in advanced stages of ennui, or his opening quotation from Gertrude Stein: “You can be a Museum, or you can be Modern, but you can't be both”). Still, his proposal offered many exciting ideas, such as the reinvention of concealed storage and open display spaces as a field of visible, open storage, and the use of a sophisticated form of funicular transport to link the ground level with various points throughout the building.

The finalists will submit more developed architectural designs in the fall. Then the architect selection committee (consisting of twelve trustees and advisers, including MoMA director Glenn D. Lowry, president Agnes Gund, committee chairman Sid Bass, Elderfield, and Riley) will study their proposals, analyze costs, and meet with each of the finalists before selecting, by the end of this year, MoMA's next architect.

In their proposal, the Swiss firm of Herzog and de Meuron envisioned a set of ground-level sculpture courts and gardens that provide passage between 53rd and 54th streets. They emphasized the importance of making “spaces that stimulate people to concentrate on the perception of art” and stressed that artificial and natural light need to be carefully modulated. Herzog and de Meuron’s tectonic finesse and capacity for developing strong, refined exhibition space is apparent from their Goetz Collection gallery in Munich, but the general consensus is that it could be politically difficult for MoMA to offer them the commission since they are currently building the Bankside addition to the Tate Gallery in London, MoMA’s overseas next of kin.

Tokyo-based Taniguchi, almost unknown in American architectural circles until now, demonstrated “extraordinary ability as a space planner and an awareness of how people proceed through galleries,” according to Elderfield. Taniguch’s numerous Japanese museums, including the Toyota Municipal Museum of Art, are precise and rather echt in their interpretation of Modernist principles of spatial extension, transparency, and smooth, crisp surfaces. His design proposal for MoMA offered relatively little in terms of reconceptualizing the museum but promised, instead, a cogent, well-proportioned construction that looks and works like a modern museum.

Bernard Tschumi, dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation and generally regarded as the most experimental of the three finalists, submitted more than 200 pages of architectural analysis and speculation. Elderfield notes that the committee was particularly excited by Tschumi’s diagrams of magma formation that suggest how permanent exhibition areas could be located at spatial edges (where magma cools, consolidates, and grows dense) while internal display spaces could be relatively flexible and fluid. Tschumi’s “chutes and ladders” provide alternate systems of vertical circulation that offer jump cuts or sudden changes of course in the museum visit. His charrette proposal—like his planning and design for the 125-acre Parc de la Villette in Paris, as well as Columbia’s Alfred Lerner Hall and the Le Fresnoy National Studio for the Contemporary Arts, both under construction—emphasizes spaces of passage and the production of dynamic spatial events.

MoMA first began to address its space limitations in the early ’90s. Most urgently, the current building did not offer adequate exhibition space for contemporary work; moreover, the greenhouse-cum-shopping-mall and underground galleries of the mid-’80s expansion were considered a failure. Eventually, the museum’s list of needs expanded to include better public, staff, and service spaces. Many options were considered, including moving all or part of MoMA to a new location. Last year, the museum acquired property just west of the current facility, including a site now occupied by the Dorset Hotel, and began to consider its new spatial opportunities. According to Elderfield, “The galleries are at present strung in a line along 53rd Street, and the layout of the collection has been extremely linear. It limits the reading of Modern art; for example, you've got to trot around the whole sequence to find the Jasper Johns, or whatever else you might be interested in. With the expansion site, we have the possibility of running galleries in a north-south direction and having a much more flexible arrangement.”

As plans for a renewed MoMA developed, the selection committee traveled around Europe, North America, and Japan to study existing museums and other works of contemporary architecture. The museum commissioned the office of Cooper, Robertson & Partners—known for its urban design and planning projects, including New York’s Battery Park City and Denver’s Stapleton Airport Redevelopment Plan—to develop a “needs analysis” and architectural program, a document that specifies anticipated activities and appropriate square footage. Riley says, “To write a program for the Modern, you have to be a sort of analyst for the institution. The idea is to work out the policy issues before the architect starts designing the building.”

The selection committee narrowed its choices to the ten architects, each of whom was required to submit sketches, analytical diagrams, and a written statement. Participants were urged to avoid elaborate presentations in favor of clear, direct expressions of architectural thought. To ensure their compliance, the committee required that all materials be delivered to the museum in a cardboard shirt box. The architects were instructed about site constraints, largely mandated by New York City zoning resolutions, and other limitations, including the museum's desire to retain the garden in its current configuration. (One can certainly understand why MoMA would value its garden, but other possibilities shouldn’t be foreclosed.)

As MoMA moves ahead, the pull of its institutional history is apparent in “Toward the New Museum of Modern Art,” the museum’s exhibition of excerpts from the charrette proposals, on view until July 8. The show’s title was taken from a 1959 MoMA exhibition that similarly presented proposals for the expanding museum while also making reference to that canonical work of Modernist public relations, Le Corbusier’s 1923 Toward a New Architecture. An installation of the ten design proposals—presented on a diagonal bar of stands that suggest drafting tables—is framed by gallery walls reinforced with artifacts from the museum's history of architectural transformation, including pencil facade studies and wood models for the original Philip L. Goodwin and Edward Durell Stone building of 1939. This odd effort to contextualize the current project within a linear narrative of expansion and growth suggests a caution about moving forward that is otherwise belied by the museum’s architectural initiative. As Riley puts it, “You can either go for a tried-and-true formula, which we didn't find to be very convincing, or you can go off in a direction that is less known. The project continues to unfold and reveal itself as we go.”

Henry Urbach writes on architecture and design.