New York

“A New Brooklyn Museum: The Master Plan Competition”

Brooklyn Museum

Like many art institutions, the Brooklyn Museum recently began to find its facilities too small for the changed conditions of museology, and sponsored a limited architectural competition to accommodate its expansion. The program and enormous challenge for all of the entrants was to “complete” the museum, a McKim, Mead & White-designed structure selected in an 1893 competition. (Less than 25 percent of the original scheme was realized, and numerous additions to it resulted in a misshapen hybrid.) This would remedy the chronic lack of storage, exhibition, and educational space, resolve a bewildering layout of galleries, and forge a stronger connection between the Brooklyn Museum and its neighbor, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. The task was to orchestrate existing with new facilities, to preserve, restore, and rejuvenate the institution, and to establish a meaningful dialogue between the 19th-century vision of the museum and the pressing realities of a 20th-century building.

These days, the responses of architects to historical precedents have ranged from the dandyish to the deferential, when what is needed is a fruitful discourse between the old and the new: a dialectic that views the past in relation to the present and is enlightened by evidence of change and adjustment.

Three of the five proposals acquiesced to the authority of history and made deep bows to the original Beaux-Arts scheme. Atkin, Voith & Associates with Rothzeid Kaiserman Thomson & Bee; Kohn Pedersen Fox; and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill with the Vitetta Group/Studio Four followed the strong axial directives of the 1893 plan. Apparently, the call from the chairman of the board of directors to rekindle the spirit of the age when art museums were sources of great civic pride, suggested an adaptation of the late 19th-century, neoclassicist idiom for these architects. The two other entries, by Voorsanger & Mills Associates and the winning proposal by Arata Isozaki & Associates/James Stewart Polshek and Partners, attempted less timid responses to the formidable force of the past. Both projects offered a respite from the orthodoxy of the original scheme, completing the building without appropriating McKim, Mead & White’s grandiose intentions.

The Isozaki/Polshek entry proposes a secondary axis for the museum, conspicuously challenging the grand gestures and broad boulevards of the City Beautiful movement of the 19th century. Another debate is set up between the existing dome and a proposed truncated obelisk. A barrel vault connects these strong symbolic forms: one neoclassical in origin, the other derived from both ancient and modern sources. With these and other interventions, there is no confusion about where McKim, Mead & White left off and where Isozaki/Polshek have begun their amendments. This is not easy-listening architecture— thankfully —nor facile historicism, nor bland contextualism. Rather, it is an embodiment of the contrasting, resistant realities of the old and new conceptions of the museum.

—Patricia C. Philips