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architecture

the MoMA expansion

THESE DAYS, it’s hard to blame architects for being jealous of art. Times are tough, and buildings always seem to get the worst of it, battered by innumerable market pressures, while artworks manage to float above the storm, enjoying a sacred status both cultural and economic. This disparity is at the heart of the furor that erupted this past January, when the Museum of Modern Art in New York reaffirmed its intent to demolish the building formerly occupied by the American Folk Art Museum. MoMA acquired the home of its far smaller, next-door neighbor in 2011, after the latter found itself in a postrecession financial crisis. A common refrain among the vehement protests was that the structure in question, designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects and completed in 2001, should be afforded the same respect as any other object in MoMA’s collection. And, indeed, Williams and Tsien’s project is striking as an object: It is best known for the rich materiality of its bronze facade.

Yet in seeking to elevate the building to the status of art, its defenders are fundamentally mischaracterizing MoMA’s institutional role in the field of architecture. Moreover, they are underestimating the depth and resilience of architecture itself. MoMA’s undeniable impact on architecture and design in the eight decades since it established the world’s first curatorial department in those disciplines has never stemmed from preserving great buildings (or, frankly, from commissioning them). Rather, the museum’s influence is rooted in the combination of its groundbreaking exhibitions and its vast archive of the models, drawings, and other materials that record the approaches and ideas that have driven architecture forward over the last century. For in the modern era, architecture’s identity increasingly lies not in built structures but in a set of processes, techniques, and conceptual strategies. And while architecture is always tied to broader frameworks of knowledge, power, and community, this entanglement, rather than any myth of artistic autonomy, is its strength. It may be that today, in the face of the very cultural and economic pressures that are driving MoMA’s growth, the problem of destroying an architectural object is less urgent than that of ensuring the continued vitality of architectural discourse.

With this in mind, we should probably be more concerned about the design with which the AFAM is being replaced than with its demolition. MoMA made its spatial preferences all too clear with its last major expansion, in 2004, designed by Yoshio Taniguchi: endless progressions of white-box galleries arranged on sprawling floor plates. At the time, justifiable complaints about this arrangement arose: that many of the classic works in MoMA’s collection were originally scaled for more intimate, domestic interiors; that the spaces produce an atmosphere of bland sameness, which suppresses the hotly contested ideological differences that define the history of modernism itself. The only problem that MoMA seems to have registered, however, is that the circulation connecting these magisterially dull spaces is insufficient to handle the increasing crowds that are cited as one of the primary motivations for its latest addition.

Suggesting that the judgment of the architect matters less than the underlying corporate vision, the new design, by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, promises forty thousand more square feet of the same generic space, carved out of three floors at the base of an adjacent residential tower to be developed as part of the real-estate deal the museum brokered to help finance its expansion. DS+R proposes, however, to solve crowding by combining galleries and circulation spaces into an enormous, one-way loop. The resulting arrangement should relieve the traffic jams, but it will also effectively eliminate space designated expressly for the contemplation of art. With no dead ends or odd corners, it will be impossible to get stuck or get lost. It will also, presumably, be impossible to really stop and look.

Another justification for the project is MoMA’s need to open up its canon to the display of currently underrepresented practices such as non-Western art. While this rhetoric articulates a worthy goal, of course, it also creates a false choice, even a disingenuous one—as if only a building expansion, and this expansion design, would allow the museum to address cultural inequities within its program. In this scenario, alternative modernisms are less likely to subvert the museum’s historical narrative than to be made over in MoMA’s own image. The effect, if not the goal, of the architecture, now as before, seems to be assimilation rather than revolution—with all works succumbing to the vacuous homogeneity of the museum’s endless blank expanse.

It’s ironic that this kind of space originally stemmed from the desires of artists, who have long voiced a contempt for architecture, demanding that it offer nothing more than a neutral background, even as they have become increasingly dependent on the white box as a framing device. But what began as an attempt to create ideal viewing conditions for art may eventually make it irrelevant. If DS+R’s circulation-driven galleries already hint at this dilemma, it is made plain by the two “alternative” spaces offered as the centerpiece of the new design. These spaces are inspired by the architects’ stated goal of making the museum more publicly accessible; as they are quick to point out, visitors to the current Taniguchi galleries must walk a quarter mile from the entrance before encountering any art. Oddly, though, the new spaces aren’t presented as offering specific encounters with art per se, but rather—in an ostensible nod to the expanded field of contemporary culture—as sites for a wide and nebulous range of “performances,” “concerts,” and “spontaneous events.”

Two large blank boxes, stacked one on top of the other, these galleries are located just behind a transparent glass wall that can be raised to open directly onto the adjoining street, a signature element of the plan. Incredibly, the two volumes are located on nearly the same footprint as AFAM—an arrangement that has incensed advocates for that building’s preservation, since it implies that perhaps the demolition was unnecessary for MoMA’s expansion—even though DS+R suggests that this was the only way for them to achieve the desired adjacency to the street. Yet the design’s ostentatious visibility indicates that the architects’ intent may have been less to provide a venue for any particular form of artistic activity than to frame the spectacle of activity in general, as if the mere sight of a crush of moving bodies is enough to activate a space.

Transparency is deployed to similar effect in DS+R’s proposal for MoMA’s sculpture garden, where a section of the opaque metal-clad wall that separates the garden from the street will be replaced by a glass barrier. Again, unimpeded sight lines will be redoubled with open space, as several large glass panels will be hinged to swing upward, creating an entry into the garden directly from Fifty-Fourth Street. This move seems to be another populist bid, but optical transparency does not guarantee ideological openness (as the sleek facades of corporate modernism taught us long ago) any more than no-cost access emancipates a space from corporate control (as we were recently reminded by Occupy Wall Street’s eviction from the privately owned “public” space of Zuccotti Park in New York). DS+R has explored the visual construction of public space in other projects with great success: Chief among these is the High Line, where a sea of tourists and locals alike can watch themselves against the infinitely diverting backdrop of a frenetic city. Yet in the case of the expansion, the approach allows MoMA to avoid difficult questions about its evolving role as a public institution, even as it marks a puzzling shift of emphasis in a museum where a world-class collection already offers more than enough to look at.

Of course, MoMA cannot ignore the reality of global art tourism today, any more than its architects can turn a blind eye to art’s changing modes of production and reception in designing the museum’s new spaces. But this proposal does not so much suggest a new stage in the exchange between art and architecture as it does the dawn of an era in which the two fields have neutralized each other—mutually surrendering to less demanding, and more familiar, forms of activity and entertainment. It is in the interest of both artists and architects to agitate for more ambitious museum architecture in the future, as probing the dynamic interaction between their two fields—whether complementary or agonistic—may be their best hope of remaining relevant.

Julian Rose is a senior editor of Artforum.