When I visited the newly expanded Museum of Modern Art in New York for the first time, during its October press preview, I arrived with baggage. I’ve been angry at the museum ever since it tore down the American Folk Art Museum, designed by Tod Williams, FAIA, and Billie Tsien, AIA, to make extra room for the expansion. When I’d last given the matter serious thought, nearly six years ago, MoMA’s director, Glenn D. Lowry, and the project’s standard-bearer, Elizabeth Diller, were doing their best to persuade an incredulous cultural community that the much smaller, one-of-a-kind museum had to be demolished to make room for more art and to support an optimized circulation pattern within the addition. At the time, I found it unsettling that a museum I’d loved my whole life had morphed into a rapacious engine of development.
My first visit to the newly expanded MoMA did little to counter that feeling. At the press preview, the galleries largely empty of visitors, I concluded that it had become a better museum but a worse building. I welcomed the new curatorial approach but found the architecture—despite moments of high-ceilinged grandeur—amorphous and bland, both inside and out. Then I returned a few weeks later, when the galleries of the new museum, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro in collaboration with Gensler, were crammed with visitors. And I came to a somewhat different conclusion.
I remained enthused about how the various media and disciplines were newly intermingled, paintings sharing wall space with film; works from across a broad spectrum—including architecture and design—cohabitating in galleries organized by cultural themes. But now, in part by watching my fellow visitors make their way through the revamped museum, I came to appreciate aspects of the architecture as well: especially the unexpected visual connections and cutouts between floors, between the new wing and the old.
Later, as I walked the perimeter of the museum, west on W. 53rd Street, then east on W. 54th Street, I found myself thinking, What is a work of architecture? The museum’s curators, in their full embrace of 21st-century intersectionality and ambiguous boundaries, had scrambled my sensibilities and left me with this slippery question—one that the architects had seemed unable to answer.
A History of Expansion
Like every New Yorker, I think of the MoMA I first visited as a child as the original. In reality, it was itself the product of several major expansions. The museum’s first true home was the W. 53rd Street townhouse it borrowed from the Rockefellers in 1932, before it commissioned its own building, still the most emblematic one, designed by Philip L. Goodwin and Edward Durell Stone in vintage International Style and completed in 1939. It was expanded in the 1950s and again in the early 1960s, both times by Philip Johnson. Johnson, of course, was responsible for the sculpture garden which, together with the Goodwin/Stone façade, are the signifiers for MoMA as a place (not to be confused with MoMA the institution).
The expansions that happened more recently, in my adult life, were a mixed bag. MoMA’s westward march began in earnest with a César Pelli–designed addition—completed in 1984 and topped with a 52-story condo tower—that doubled the museum’s size. It was widely panned for its central escalators that transformed the museum, critics said, into a shopping mall. Paul Goldberger, Hon. AIA, writing for The New York Times Magazine, tread more lightly in his critique. He noted that the glass-clad addition “exudes a contented, self-satisfied air.” It was a signal, long overdue, that modern art was the establishment, not the avant-garde.
At the time, I’d just arrived back in New York City after nearly a decade on the West Coast and I found the expanded museum thrilling. I was broadly interested in visual culture back then but was not so particular about architecture. The updated museum gave me more of what I wanted: eye candy.
By the time the next westward expansion, designed by Yoshio Taniguchi, Hon. FAIA, opened in 2004, I was well attuned to the building itself. While I was appreciative of the added gallery space, particularly the new galleries stocked with contemporary art, I found the redesigned museum to be unpleasantly huge—252,000 additional square feet, the size of more than two Walmarts—and disconcertingly loud. The addition somehow transformed the museum into a subwoofer, amplifying visitor conversations into a deep, steady roar. (At one point in the Taniguchi era, I found myself having lunch with the museum’s director and suggested to him that MoMA should hand out noise-canceling headphones to visitors.) As for the architecture, it felt like an homage to Modernism—the equivalent of a historic museum building a faux-historic addition. The museum had grown in size and, perhaps, in ambition, but not in vision.
The newest expansion takes MoMA most of the way west on its block of W. 53rd Street, into the lower reaches of a Jean Nouvel, Hon. FAIA–designed condo tower. From its origins near Fifth Avenue, it has spread across nearly the entire block toward Sixth Avenue, where its further expansion is—presumably—blocked by a 40-story office tower. After the Folk Art Museum, which opened in 2001 on W. 53rd Street, went bust a decade later, MoMA purchased the small building—40,000 square feet with a 40 by 100 footprint—and faced a public outcry when it announced plans to demolish it. The museum hired DS+R to do a circulation study for what they’d begun referring to as a “campus.” To no one’s surprise, the firm determined that the Folk Art Museum couldn’t possibly fit into the new scheme. Its floor plates didn’t line up with MoMA’s, its architectural style was more detailed and less stereotypically modern, and the building was, as Diller put it, “obdurate.”
Sometime in 2013, while DS+R was studying MoMA, I interviewed Williams and Tsien and asked them about the Folk Art Museum. “I should tell you that this was also a labor of love for the people who were building it,” Williams told me. He explained that he’d brought the construction workers on a field trip to the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Triennial to help immerse them in design culture. The message Williams wanted to send was, “This is not just any piece of work. We want you to give your best, because it’s something you’ll leave behind.”
That’s not how it turned out, of course. In early 2014, Diller spoke at a public forum and presented circulation diagrams for the expanded museum that she said demonstrated the impracticality of preserving the Folk Art Museum. I was unpersuaded. While it was clear that the floors couldn’t be made to line up, I thought that MoMA should have kept the building and used it as a satellite for special exhibitions or projects, much like PS1. But the desire to have a flawless, loop-shaped circulation pattern overrode that possibility—that preserving such a significant work of architecture might make MoMA an even better museum.
Exploding the Canon
When I first set foot in the newest MoMA, I had no idea where, exactly, I was supposed to go. I was unsure whether I could still use the pathways I’d established after the Taniguchi expansion. What I really wanted to do was find the addition, the three floors of galleries known as the David Geffen Wing. Fortunately, I was handed a map when I walked in the door, and I used it … a lot.
The circulation path through the new galleries felt more wobbly than I would have expected given the bold, red line Diller showed in her 2014 presentation. Occasionally, unexpectedly, I’d hit a dead end. But I didn’t mind. Most of what I believe about modern art, the canon, is based on my repeated visits to this very museum. What MoMA has done with this renovation is extended—or exploded—that canon. Yes, there are very familiar works on display: Hello Jackson Pollock! Hello Henri Rousseau! And Monet’s Water Lilies have a strangely inert—think hotel conference room—dead-end gallery all their own. But much of what’s on the walls is new to me. There are artists, many of them women, I’d never heard of, including Polish constructivist Katarzyna Kobro. Or women I have heard of, like Faith Ringgold and Louise Bourgeois, who have been given added prominence by their new proximity to Picasso.
Similarly, disciplines that used to be isolated in their own corners of the museum—architecture, design, photography, and film—are now interspersed. Works are arranged chronologically and thematically, instead of by specialty. So my old pathways through the museum, in which I would first visit my preferred realms—photography, design, and architecture—no longer exist. And I’m thrilled. Architecture, in particular, benefits by being sprung from its ghetto.
My favorite gallery in the new arrangement is 417, “Architecture Systems.” It was flanked by a gallery full of photography and another one, “Idea Art,” containing conceptual works. In 417, I found something great that I’d never seen before, a marketing brochure for Mies’s Seagram Building, designed by Alvin Lustig and Elaine Lustig Cohen. And something equally great that I’ve seen many times, a clip from Jacques Tati’s 1967 masterpiece, Playtime, best described as a parody of Modernism. Indeed, my favorite thing, architecturally speaking, about the revamped exhibition scheme are the screens that appear to be seamlessly embedded in the gallery walls, so that a film by Tati, or a 1945 dance film by Maya Deren and Talley Beatty, can occupy wall space as if it’s simply another painting. (It’s also a major plus that an acoustic consultant has helped dampen the building’s irritating din.)
Still, the museum has become one of those buildings—like a major airport terminal—that you can’t exactly see from the outside. Yes, it takes up nearly an entire block of midtown Manhattan, but as it’s grown, it’s become less distinct. Yes, the 1939 International Style building at 11 W. 53rd St.—an early experiment in maximizing the use of glass—remains an icon. But it’s sandwiched by museum additions in black glass that more or less blend into the overall midtown aesthetic. The museum’s new entry features a matte black façade with a 95,500-pound steel canopy, an elegant move that could just as easily be the entrance to a hotel or a corporate office. The portion of the Nouvel tower that houses new galleries meets the street with remarkably little fanfare. What drama exists stems from a view downward from the sidewalk into an expanded museum store, which gives off a seductive golden glow and might appear to passersby to be the focal point of the building. (The Nouvel tower, which should be fabulous, given its height and muscular diagonal ribbing, is wasted on a side street; you have to crane your neck to see it.)
An Unnecessary Demolition
If Taniguchi’s addition was too deferential, too beholden to the timeworn conventions of Modernism, the DS+R design is weirdly postmodern in that it isn’t a specific architectural object, but rather a process, a sequence of conduits and connections. Diller, on the firm’s website, describes the project as “incorporating the Museum’s existing building blocks into a comprehensible whole through careful and deliberate interventions into previous logics.” She adds, “This work has required the curiosity of an archeologist and the skill of a surgeon.” I think what she’s saying is that almost everything that matters, architecturally speaking, is inside.
One aspect of the museum that the architects feature on their website is the “blade stair,” a vertical passageway that “marks the threshold to the new expansion of the museum and acts as a palette cleanser.” While this staircase actually sits within the envelope of the Taniguchi building, it appears to me to be a subliminal eulogy to the Folk Art Museum, which famously was designed so that its stairways doubled as galleries. I’d like to think that this minimalist staircase, situated so that it’s visible from the street, at least at night, is a memorial one architect has left to the work of another.
Immediately west of that staircase, on the former footprint of the lost museum, is an interlocking stack of galleries intended for performance art and other works that don’t fit easily into the flow. This includes the Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis Studio, an industrial-looking double-height space equipped with a sound booth, currently occupied by an endearing 1970s sound sculpture called Rainforest V. It’s a nice gesture, but it prompts a question: If you’re going to set aside a special set of galleries that, in a subtle way, honor the distinctive, eight-story building that was razed to improve the circulation pattern of this mammoth museum, why demolish the building at all? Imagine if the Folk Art Museum had been left standing, forcing MoMA’s big glass curtain wall do a detour around it. How genre-busting would that be?
Certainly that block of W. 53rd Street would benefit by being a little less homogeneous. And an interruption in the unbroken expanse of MoMA might have furthered the curators’ penchant for “fluid, interconnected narratives” and advanced their current enthusiasm for illuminating contrasts. Before you even walked under its new canopy, MoMA could have imparted a lesson that the 21st century insists on teaching us: No matter how hard you try to erase it, the past never truly goes away.