PRINT February 2005

Mark Wigley

AFTER A DECADE OF PLANNING, AN ENDLESS STREAM of symposia, surveys, retreats, reports, competitions, publications, exhibitions, reconnaissance missions, and negotiations, enormous investment, and three and a half years of construction, the new MoMA is open. An old friend has returned from the spa—refreshed.

As with any extreme makeover involving reconstructive surgery, daring implants, and advanced skin treatment, there is no point in extravagant celebration, even less in criticism. To complain that the resultant building is attractive but tame, that the architecture has been domesticated, neutralized, just as the artworks it houses have had their social and intellectual edge removed to be enlisted for a singular global mission, is as pointless as accusing a church of preaching. MoMA is devoted to a particular form of education and does not pretend otherwise. With unmatched expertise, it dedicates itself to carefully training its visitors, endlessly editing the objects it shows and the story it tells about them. Any increase in exhibition space only serves to widen the field being edited and thereby intensify the sense of reduction, the curated narrowing and focusing of the view. No matter how big the building gets—and it would be foolish to imagine that this latest expansion is anywhere near the end—the MoMA project is a minimalist one aimed at a maximum global audience. With the new building, the issue is therefore not the usual one in museum design of whether the architecture competes with the artworks, but rather how the building contributes to the narrative that the curators wish to convey. The only artwork that really matters here is the institution itself.

If you look at the extended history of any of the pieces in the collection—from the scene of their original production to their first exhibition, from their first sale to a collector until their final acquisition by MoMA—it becomes readily apparent that they can survive almost any building. It is one of the most unconvincing vanities of the present to imagine that the art of the recent past is so vulnerable that its power can only be experienced in the sterile atmosphere of a hospital ward. What is fragile are the stories we tell about the objects—and the role of buildings in the storytelling. The museum was understandably cautious, even afraid, and went to unprecedented lengths to avoid summoning the force that our best buildings can generate.

If the new architecture is to play a key role in the training of the visitor, acting as a reliable guide in the designed experience of this remarkable collection, we must first be trained how to experience the building itself. Our apprenticeship begins the moment we enter the lobby, where the ticket counter offers the ubiquitous Visitor Guide in six languages. The cover of the folded, single-page brochure bears an image destined to be the most reproduced of all—an image to be carried from gallery to gallery and beyond by more than two million visitors a year. Before we can be trusted to look at anything, we are asked to look at this one photograph.

The black-and-white image positions us halfway up and to one side of a big space, without giving any clear sense of its scale. A bridge with glass parapets passes overhead and disappears through the top of a vertical slot in the white wall suspended opposite us. Through the lower part of the slot, we can see the zigzag of a white stair presumably linking floors we cannot see. High above, narrow slits in the white ceiling cast a series of parallel diagonal lines of light across one side of the wall: white on white. Below us, a dark floor passes underneath the floating wall and disappears around a shadowy corner. The big white wall is abstractly tattooed by the lines of light, but there is no art or person on show. This must be the face of the new museum, and the collection we want to see must be behind it.

On opening our guide at its prominent question mark to learn more, a single short paragraph in bold welcomes us and identifies the role of the architecture we will encounter, ending with the words, “The renovated and expanded Museum was designed by Yoshio Taniguchi, whose uniquely elegant design enhances the presentation of the Museum’s dynamic collection of modern and contemporary art.” The completely different ambitions for the building and the art it exhibits could not be more clearly stated: The art is “dynamic,” the building “elegant.” The architecture is unlike the objects it houses, subservient to them, with its elegance somehow enhancing the experience of their dynamism. The adjective for the art is no surprise. It is hard to think of twentieth-century art, of modernity itself, outside a sense of dynamism. Yet it is equally hard to imagine many, if any, of the artists in the museum’s collection of 150,000 objects aspiring to have their work summarized with the label “elegant,” a word irreducibly associated with the very world their art is seen as modern for challenging and outdating.

The use of the word is no accident, of course. It is precisely the point. In a 1997 announcement, Glenn D. Lowry, the director of the museum, explained that Taniguchi had been chosen ahead of the other candidates because his designs “combined an elegance and clarity of conception with a sensitivity to light and space.” The word reappears in the official press release for the museum’s reopening and in the description of the architect’s work on MoMA’s website. Even Modern Kids: The New Building, the children’s version of our guide, tries to introduce the word to the very youngest visitors. The brochure begins by explaining who the architect is and his role before suggesting that each junior-apprentice art lover go to the fourth-floor balcony, a vantage close to that of the official photograph, and choose which words best describe what is seen. Only one of the fifteen words offered, the one placed top and center, is unlikely to be part of any child’s vocabulary: “elegant.” The first lesson in architecture, then. Critics around the world learned quickly, and faithfully repeated the magic word while singing the praises of the new architecture in virtually every publication. Veterans like Paul Goldberger and Ada Louise Huxtable (or at least their savvy editors) knew to work it into their headlines, with “Yoshio Taniguchi’s Elegant Expansion of the Modern” in the New Yorker and “In MoMA’s Big, New, Elegantly Understated Home” in the Wall Street Journal. By contrast, the word often used by the institution and critics alike to describe what was valued so much in the old museum is “intimacy,” a quality engendered by Philip Goodwin and Edward Durell Stone’s 1939 building, which successfully maintained the domestic scale of the museum’s original townhouse on the site donated by the Rockefeller family. With the loss of the domestic intimacy that sheltered the visitor’s personal encounter with singular artworks and the arrival of vast spaces filled with drifting crowds and substantially more works of art, the cultivated elegance of the original patrons must now be absorbed by the building itself. It is the refinement of the building, not the configuration of spaces it offers, that provides the needed sense of “home.”

Despite this commissioned reticence, the discreet charm of saying as little as possible, the new complex does have strong qualities. The single entrance lobby straddling Fifty-third and Fifty-fourth streets, the lively restoration of the 1939 building, the refreshing of Philip Johnson’s 1953 sculpture garden, the puncturing of holes in many walls to offer vignettes of the city or other parts of the museum, the galleries’ calibrated range of scale, and the reverse chronology of the main galleries as the visitor ascends are all convincing. The promenades along the edges of spaces, the sense that everything is a kind of threshold, is pleasurable, and almost all the spaces where the visitor finally stops moving—the cafés and shops where the building itself is savored along with the food and purchases—are wisely given the best locations; different architects (Bentel and Bentel for the eating and Richard Gluckman for the shopping) have sensuously refined the settings. The museum has taken a quantum leap forward.

Yet it all adds up to so much less than the strategy promises—less than even the “more of less” doctrine calls for. The potential strength of the scheme is to oppose two large open spaces, the horizontal volume formed by the 252-foot-long sculpture garden and the vertical volume of the 110-foot-tall atrium space featured on the Visitor Guide. Floating apart and off axis from each other, but close enough to generate a rich play between them, these outer and inner voids promise to unite the whole complex of diverse structures from different eras that now occupies the majority of a midtown block. The garden is an unambiguous success, building on Johnson’s celebrated design to establish an atmosphere that is good for the art and for the visitor—a pleasure to look at from the spaces that border it on three sides and a pleasure to look out from, whether to those spaces or to the surrounding city. In contrast, the atrium is good neither for art nor people. While supposedly “the defining feature” of the new design, its form is unclear because there is too much pushing and pulling to its vertical and horizontal limits, as if it has to absorb a range of pressures, when in truth it is freshly constructed on the only freed-up part of the site and could easily operate, like the garden, as an oasis from the urban and exhibition density surrounding it. To savor the holes that puncture its sides, offering framed glimpses of movement beyond, is to welcome relief from an indeterminate blandness that is a remarkable achievement, given the scale of the space. The vast void is meant to unify the project and offer a sense of orientation, yet it obscures so much more than it clarifies. A simple concept gives way to a stilted choreography of awkward and confusing movements.

The disenchantment is only intensified by the fact that our experience of the building starts off so well. Having picked up the guide and deposited our coat in the cloakroom off the lobby, we turn to face the garden through a delicately gridded wall of clear glass. While pocketing the coat check tag, we can shift our gaze from the horizontal volume ahead to the vertical one above, looking directly up through the one narrow slot of unblocked space that passes all the way up from the lobby to the ceiling of the atrium six tall floors above. The bridge depicted on our guide jumps across the gap far above us. To reach it, we first have to move toward the garden, entering a transitional space whose features seem to be mirrored on the face of the new Education and Research building at the far end of the garden. The shimmering white face of the 1939 structure stretches down the right side of the open space, and the city rises up behind the garden wall on the left. A simple, movable rope line (where our member’s card is electronically scanned) marks the initial moment of entrance—so much more welcoming than the old building’s narrow border-crossing stations. We step forward with anticipation.

A second, even more subtle sense of entrance is established by a set of four steps that approach the glass wall, where we are offered the choice of turning to the left corner of the glass, to pass informally out into the garden, or turning to the right corner, to head up the formal stairway attached to the black side wall. The steps are precisely aligned with the tallest slice of vertical space, and the eye is aimed at the elusive bridge above as we ascend. Arriving at the top of the stairs, we are suspended for a moment on an edge overlooking the lobby we just came from. The full dimension of the vertical volume is immediately in front of us, and the full dimension of the horizontal volume of the garden immediately behind.

It is while poised here that, for the first time, we see all of the floating white wall featured in our guiding image, the blank facade that we correctly suspected marks the presence of the major galleries, but we are still looking at it from a lower point of view. To get to the heart of the new MoMA, we will need to climb higher. But no more steps are offered. The floor simply stretches out beneath us toward that mysterious opening in the bottom left of our image, while an odd-looking path heads off to the immediate left and a small bookstore is suspended over the Fifty-fourth Street entrance to our right. Unfolding our trusty guide to figure it out, we are presented with a stack of poorly drawn floors. Axonometric plans without walls are of no help with a project that is all about wall planes and volumes. Even the atrium we stand in cannot easily be read in the drawings. Nevertheless, a beige block of color lets us know that the opening on the other side is the smaller of two ways to enter the “expansive” Contemporary Galleries. On the way there, we pass some big works, like Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk, 1963–69, and Monet’s Water Lilies, ca. 1920, suffering from exposure in the great white void, but a new brochure awaits us at the larger entrance on the right to guide us through the landscape of art since 1970.

What if we want to go higher first? Or directly to Prints and Illustrated Books or to the Media Gallery on the same floor? We would have go along the passage behind one face of the atrium, finding a set of escalators and two elevators hidden around a corner with the bathrooms, like a necessary but unfortunate embarrassment. In an overreaction to the disdain with which the central escalators in Cesar Pelli’s 1984 expansion were held for their association with shopping malls, most of the escalators are now buried underneath Pelli’s residential tower. Only when the first of the tower’s apartment floors forces the escalator between the fifth and sixth floors of the museum to turn at a right angle and emerge across the face of the atrium does the simultaneously horizontal and vertical gesture of the moving steps take advantage of the hinge between the garden and atrium volumes. The visitor literally glides into a spectacular view on both sides, rising up over the huge portico that holds the garden in place to meet the atrium’s skylight. More crudely dynamic than elegant, this one diagonal accent in the whole complex, the very means by which we finally arrive at our bridge across the void, is strangely omitted from the architect’s richly detailed digital renderings of the project displayed in the exhibition of his work on the second floor and featured in the museum’s new book on the project’s design sold right there as we step off the phantom escalator—as if such a crucial decision was regretted. This disavowal through continued celebration of an earlier version of the project is symptomatic of a concerted effort throughout to minimize the perception of vertical movement in favor of the horizontal.

The escalator and elevators had already been veiled from view on the ground floor behind the sides of the formal entry approach toward the garden, with the steps presented to us as the superior way to ascend the grand narrative, as it surely is. Yet the whole building provides only three disconnected sets of stairs. The beloved, newly reconstructed suspended stair in the 1939 building links the smaller-scale exhibition spaces of the second and third floors, stitching the Prints and Illustrated Books Galleries and Media Gallery below to the sequence of Architecture and Design, Drawings, Photography, and Special Exhibitions above. Its new cantilevered echo—the staircase revealed in the slot in the atrium wall—links the 1940–70 works on the fourth floor to the 1880–1940 works on the fifth. The wide horizontal separation of these sculptural stairs encourages a rich range of vertical movements through the building, but only the embarrassing ready-made escalators offer access to and from the heart of the museum collection on the fourth and fifth floors, as if the institution is uncertain about the addition of the vast spaces for Contemporary below and Temporary above.

There is reason to be uncertain. The medium-scaled spaces on the fourth and fifth floors successfully update the museum’s traditional strategy, with three different openings to most rooms offering a multiplicity of trajectories between the accumulated treasures, even though the relentless preservation of the single hanging level effectively counters that new freedom. Horizontal dynamism is again tamed by vertical restraint. In contrast, the huge spaces above and below the middle gallery floors serve only to highlight the museum’s greatest weaknesses of collection, exhibition, and explanation. On the Contemporary floor, the artificial segregation of video art in a smaller-scaled gallery threatens the basic understanding of the other work in a multimedia electronic age, and the temporary-exhibition space on the sixth-floor is just a gaping question mark, a hotel ballroom barely occupied (if only for the museum’s opening) by the sixty-five feet of Ellsworth Kelly’s Sculpture for a Large Wall, 1959, and the eighty-six feet of James Rosenquist’s F-111, 1964–65—the dimensions of the artworks, like those of the building, having become their central feature. For now, the twenty-plus-foot-high gallery volumes work against the museum. The institution will no doubt reconfigure them and eventually develop new forms of understanding and expertise in this area, learning many lessons from the newer work, with the temporary-exhibition floor perhaps acting as a place to test emergent curatorial thinking without regard to media or period. It will always be a complicated relationship, since so much contemporary art is produced in pointed reaction to MoMA’s canonical view of prewar (largely Eurocentric) and postwar (largely American) art. Yet it will not be long before a new generation of bright minds in the museum takes advantage of the complications to develop new forms of storytelling.

Meanwhile, the smaller-scaled galleries on the second and third floors are a compliment to the architect and the respective curators. Each room is a distinct pleasure. In my own field, Terence Riley, Paola Antonelli, and Peter Reed have chosen thoughtfully for the Architecture and Design spaces, with a refreshing presence of models of innovative buildings by architects like Toyo Ito and William E. Massie situated within the open display of industrial-design objects rather than confined to the closed gallery. The looser design landscape overlooking the sculpture garden has something of the feel of a tropical garden, with its series of differently shaped beds overflowing with a diverse array of species. It offers an energetically different model of density and fluidity to the rest of the museum.

The quality of these displays only highlights the fact that the new design of MoMA would not itself normally be collected by the museum. Of course, it is too much to expect any project to shine alongside the best architecture and design of the last seventy-five years, but the decision not even to try remains a disappointment. This is not to doubt the great success that the freshly made-over museum will enjoy or to question the thoughtfulness of the trustees and the curators—if anything, there may have been too much self-reflection. It is just to point out that the chosen game of discretion could have been played much better and that this game is anyway not so discreet in the end. All architecture intrudes, must intrude, and, despite its advertised politeness, the rebuilt museum is no exception. The real issue is which forms of intrusion are seen to enhance the particular story being told and which ones allow that story to evolve.

It was the 1939 building that established the international reign of the ubiquitous white wall, replacing Alfred H. Barr Jr.’s preferred wall covering of beige monk’s cloth. The slide of our sense of neutrality from beige to white, which was facilitated by removing color from the whole building, was a more radical move than any geometric complication or refinement conjured up by the most gifted designer. Taniguchi adds some nuances to this strategy while being careful to keep the end result the same. One of his unheralded achievements is to have built the whole new complex as a black-and-white photograph, with the single row of red chairs in the restaurant (chosen by a different architect) coming as a complete shock. In a color image, only the sky, trees, visitors, products, food, art, and exit signs would look different. Our guiding image of a punctured white wall might be in color after all.

On the two street facades, the architect skillfully confuses the effect of polished stone and glass to present a unified composition of black, white, and gray planes with accents in aluminum. The interior palette systematically blurs these tones, steadily working through every possible combination in between, starting with the green-gray stone with light and dark streaks in the new lobby floor and the black stone with white flecks in the old one. Each spatial transition is sensitively modulated by a slight shift in the balance. But the black surfaces quickly recede as one heads deeper inside, leaving the main dialogue between whites and grays, with a single white soon emerging as the clear winner. The white-coated atrium has a dark floor and the Contemporary Gallery a light gray floor with white flecks, while the smaller galleries are allowed the occasional gray carpet or wall; but the generic gallery floor is white oak and the walls of all the major galleries are white. Except in the Media Gallery, every ceiling, even the skylight of the atrium, is white. It is as if the mission of the new design was not to increase exhibition space but to increase the amount of white surface. Even one of the inner walls of the “black box” for video works is white, and some of the glass itself contains fine horizontal strips of white ceramic. The craft of the architect is to soften or veil the ultimate imposition of white. The purpose of all the nuanced transitions is to have the color and diversity of the outside world steadily but almost imperceptibly give way to a uniformity of white, so that the diversity of the work itself should dominate—or so the story goes.

The dark grooves cut into the white for light fittings, for moving walls, at the base of every wall, and at every joint between ceiling and wall hint at a hidden technical condition of the white surface that seems to be confirmed when one of the grooves comes all the way down the edge of an atrium wall and a strip of aluminum glimmers inside the darkness. On the fourth and fifth floors, each deep opening between galleries is lined with aluminum, with a small gap between the metal and the white surface, as if the display wall itself has a technological heart, its thin surface suspended on a hidden metal core. Yet technology is basically hidden throughout the building, starting with the veiling of all the structural ingenuity provided by Guy Nordenson. Mechanical systems like escalators, elevators, and bathrooms are carefully wrapped. The sides of elevators, escalators, steps, and bridges, or any exposed floor edges, are covered in a matte-finished, whitish-gray aluminum, with shiny aluminum or stainless steel marking the rare points where technological systems almost surface: air-conditioning grills, sliding doors, bathroom fittings, recessed lighting in the ceiling, elevator buttons, and so on. Yet only the white light fixtures, a few video projectors, the audio guides, the moving stairs, and the bathroom fixtures are visible in the end. This illusion of emptiness requires a massive effort. The museum’s vast technical infrastructure of transportation, storage, conservation, security, archiving, administration, accounting, and marketing has to be hidden so that the rooms can seem empty of everything but art. This is no different than the way that an extensive hidden infrastructure allows any family to sit down to have a quiet meal in their apartment, but it has its effect. The apparent absence of moves, the endless discretion of the architectural servant, is dominant in the end, and actually places a great pressure on the artwork. The endless horizon of white constrains the work it supposedly liberates.

Quiet architecture gets in the way. And this is precisely the lesson offered by contemporary art. From the first work we encounter on entering the Contemporary floor, by Gordon Matta-Clark, and on up through each level, so much of the famous collection is actually about architecture. Not just in the most literal cases of the more recently collected works by Matta-Clark, Rachel Whiteread, and Robert Smithson, but in the works of every medium and period. Can so-called modern art and whatever came after be thought of outside the condition of the city? The famous collection is a collection of reflections on space. The call for a tame architecture actually makes it harder to appreciate the collection for what it is. Take Rosenquist’s F-111, flying along one enormous wall in the highest gallery. The work was violated by the blank volume. It is precisely not a painting. It is a room. The work originally lined all the walls of Leo Castelli’s gallery in 1965, creating a new sense of space, and Rosenquist insisted that all his work was concerned with space, not image; that the images were but a tool, a means of engaging space. Something similar can be said of so much of what is on exhibit in the museum.

The real design question is not how to suspend insulated images in a monolithic space and efficiently choreograph the visitors’ movements between them, but how to support a cosmopolitan urban dialogue between diverse concepts of space, a multilevel conversation in which the building itself will always be active. All the talk of architecture not intruding on the art is nonsense, given the violent acts of unfolding the Rosenquist, putting Barnett Newman’s sculpture indoors, and displaying Donald Judd’s Untitled, 1989, on the diagonal. It is obviously the curators’ work that is not to be intruded on. Every curatorial act, from the smallest label to the most extreme repositioning, radically changes the works it presents, transforming the way we see things—and so it should. This is itself an art, the real art of the museum. Yet architects are meant to lower their sights and withdraw, like the artists before them. Since exhibition is itself a form of architecture, the curator and the architect are rivals, but the tension should be productive. Curators are understandably annoyed when prodded into new modes by a building, but that is architecture’s role. An architecture that serves only the current wishes and the predictions of the best minds in the museum is unable to help the curatorial breakthroughs of the future. The best architects not only satisfy their clients’ desires but stimulate new desires. Potentials emerge in the collaboration that surprise and intrigue both sides, and further surprises happen in the building itself.

No amount of detailed planning, none of the admirably self-reflective thoughtfulness by the museum about its unique mission and the inevitable changes that will define its future, could more fully embrace that future than taking the risk of a strong work of architecture. While savoring the return of this wonderful collection and expressing our appreciation to the museum, this is not a moment to celebrate architecture for its capacity to maintain subservient yet elegant good manners. Like the best art, the best buildings make us hesitate, disturbing our routines so that we see, think, and feel in ways we simply could not have imagined before. Architecture itself should be an education.

Mark Wigley is Dean of the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University in New York.