PRINT February 2005

Cynthia Davidson

SEVEN YEARS AGO, WHEN YOSHIO TANIGUCHI was named winner of the MoMA architectural design competition, the museum rejected the more dynamic and experimental forms proposed by Herzog & de Meuron and Bernard Tschumi (having rejected Rem Koolhaas’s daring proposal at an earlier stage). In choosing Taniguchi, MoMA not only appeared to take sides in the current debate on architectural form, it also seemed to turn its back on the very ideology of the modern that was its founding core. The popular and critical success of recent museum projects by Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, and Daniel Libeskind can arguably be traced back to MoMA’s 1988 “Deconstructivist Architecture” exhibition, which shut the door on the historical pastiche of postmodernism and opened the way to irregular, if not expressionist, forms. Taniguchi rejects architectural expressionism, but only to offer a seamless continuity with MoMA’s past, suggesting that the museum, for all of its progressive ambitions, is today locked inside its own history, unable to escape the corporate modernism that Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock begat with the museum’s “International Style” exhibition in 1932. That show, “Modern Architecture: International Exhibition,” all but eliminated the political ideology of the Left, a tenet of modern architecture that was beginning to be abandoned.

Few museums have the kind of influence in modern and contemporary art that MoMA has attained, but its new building is not likely to enhance its influence in contemporary architecture. In hindsight, the timing of MoMA’s “Light Construction” show in 1995—which featured new ideas about surfaces, translucency, and transparency—seems to have predestined the museum we see today. Taniguchi’s work was not included in the exhibition, but the current show of nine of his museum designs raises several questions: Is this MoMA’s way of promoting its architect (arguably a fair thing to do), or is it suggesting that this is some of the best work occurring in architecture today (the standard held up for its exhibitions)? How are we to reconcile MoMA’s new building with the museum’s ambitions in its Department of Architecture and Design, most recently manifested in the “Tall Buildings” show at MoMA QNS?

A new Architecture and Design brochure available in the galleries rattles off numbers: 1,900 architectural models, drawings, and fragments; 3,600 objects in the design collection; over 4,300 examples of graphic design. (There are also 18,000 drawings by Mies van der Rohe, most of which will never be seen by the museum-going public.) The numbers reveal the innate difficulty of collecting and exhibiting a volumetric, material art, and the new building does nothing to make it easier. Though the Architecture and Design Galleries are together 25 percent larger than in the old building, this is difficult to see in the architecture gallery, which seems simply to gain some wall space by inserting a T-shaped partition in an otherwise square room. Carving up the space for the sake of a few walls essentially precludes the representation of architecture at any scale other than fragmentary, as drawings and models that are not ends in themselves but extracted from a process. Realized full-scale architectural fragments from the collection are combined with design objects in the escalator lobby to the galleries, with all the effect of a department-store display on the furniture floor.

Ironically, the pieces that exhibit the most radical and critical ideas in architecture are found in the Contemporary Galleries, where there is space to exhibit large work. The text, drawings, and collages that constitute Koolhaas’s 1972 project “Exodus, or the Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture,” done in collaboration with Madelon Vriesendorp and Elia and Zoe Zenghelis, stretch across an entire wall, hung opposite the projection of Joan Jonas’s film Songdelay, 1973. Together, the two pieces conjure an image of the city and its walls that touches on architecture’s power. Gordon Matta-Clark’s Bingo, three pieces from a house he sawed apart in 1974, exposes the thinness of the wall and facade to which we attach such significance when they enclose a volume called home. This work leads directly to Rachel Whiteread’s Untitled (Room), a 1993 plaster cast of a “featureless room” that illustrates the architectural idea of the void as an inaccessible solid.

By comparison, the new acquisitions in the architecture gallery include Lebbeus Woods’s six-piece Terrain Project, 1998–2000, a musing on space using drawing, writing, and collage; UN Studio’s wire model of its built Moebius House, 1998–99; Preston Scott Cohen’s 1999–2002 Torus House model; and Lauretta Vinciarelli’s Orange Sound Project, 1998. A wall text explains that architecture’s recent investigations “challenge the rational clarity and perfect totalities of Euclidean geometry, producing works of disconcerting fragmentation but also delirious beauty.” Physical evidence of this, however, is minimal, and the new MoMA itself sends a different message. There is a difference between showing a model that is an idea and showing a model of a building, just as architectural ideas are not necessarily found in models of function or circulation. In the museum, it is not important to show architecture that works but to exhibit drawings and models of architectural ideas. The building is here to stay, but the exhibition of architecture can and should work to overcome it.

Cynthia Davidson is editor of Log, a journal on architecture and the city, based in New York.