Street Cred

Another way of looking at the new MoMA.

MoMA at street level

“If you raise a really lot of money,” architect Yoshio Taniguchi is supposed to have told the Museum of Modern Art in New York when he was approached to design the major new extension, “I will make the architecture disappear.” Most of what has been written about the new MoMA has lauded its minimalist interiors, which, even if they don’t exactly disappear, have an opulently ethereal quality. It is appropriate to focus on the inside, since an art museum succeeds or fails according to the quality of its galleries. Yet this urban building is not experienced only from inside—and, seen from the sidewalk, Taniguchi’s architecture does anything but fade away.

MoMA’s relationship to 53rd Street has always been problematic. Exhibition spaces require mostly windowless walls. The challenge to the architect in designing the exterior is to overcome this impediment, which is particularly difficult when the facade is inches away from pedestrians on the sidewalk. The original Philip Goodwin-Edward Durell Stone building had a large glazed lobby, so there was something to look at, but successive extensions turned blank faces to the street. Taniguchi’s solution is to treat the exterior with various types of glass: transparent, fritted, or translucent. The plate glass is screened by curtains, even in the bookstore, while the other glazing provides a milky blur or simply an opaque surface. I suppose that window displays were considered déclassé, but the alternative MoMA has chosen reminds me of the papered-over windows of a CVS drugstore.

MoMA from 54th Street

Most of the new construction is along 54th Street, and it is here that Taniguchi’s minimalist architecture makes its maximal impact. The blank walls of the new addition are clad in black modular panels of what I think is granite, but which might just as well be kryptonite for all the character it displays. The five-story wall slices down next to the sidewalk with the finality of a guillotine. The brutal scalelessness resembles something out of a Kubrick science-fiction fantasy. As for the lobby entrance, which might have been an opportunity to humanize this unrelenting composition, it is merely a utilitarian slot, the mirror image of the truck bay next door.

As before, Philip Johnson’s sculpture garden is separated from the street by a wall. There are two places where louvered security gates permit the passer-by to see in—sort of—but the effect of 196 unrelieved feet of corrugated aluminum is extremely unpleasant. It looks like the sort of temporary hoarding that is used to keep people from falling into an excavation at a building site, but without the posters and fliers.

The University Club

One does not have to go far to find architecture that deals more sympathetically with the street. At the corner of 54 th and Fifth Avenue stands the University Club, designed in 1900 by Charles McKim. This, too, is a monumentally scaled building whose walls rise up from the very edge of the sidewalk. But with rusticated masonry and arched windows they are hardly blank, and the giant torus molding at their base is a forceful nod to the passing pedestrian. This happens to be a Beaux-Arts classical design, but that is not the point; it is a building that responds sensitively to its urban setting. Walking beside McKim’s behemoth, one feels small, but never ignored.