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Required reading: With extensive new accommodation, above and below ground, Renzo Piano brings unity and order to the Morgan Library.

J. Pierpont Morgan was a ruthless financial wizard with superb taste, whose monument--the library designed by McKim, Mead & White in 1906--was a surprisingly restrained product of America's first gilded age. Still more astonishing in that country's latest era of obscene excess, the Morgan has been doubled in size without losing its distinctive personality. The Renzo Piano Building Workshop has wrought its customary magic in weaving together old and new, strengthening the sense of place, and opening up the new central court to views of the street on three sides. Visitors walking into this serene, light-filled atrium, or looking down from two upper-level balconies can savour the sensation of floating within a transparent bubble at the heart of the metropolis.

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Nearly all museums have a compulsion to expand, to display more of their holdings and find room for new acquisitions, but also to accommodate ever-greater crowds and boost revenue. A happy few, like the Frick, stay small and are cherished for doing so. In contrast, the Museum of Modern Art abandoned its early role as a tightly focused shrine of the avant garde, and turned itself into an overpoweringly vast emporium with all the appeal of a convention centre. By choosing Piano, who cares as much for the sacred (contemplating art) as the profane (socialising, shopping and eating) and manages to keep the two kinds of space distinct, the Morgan avoided that fate.

The institution badly needed more gallery and storage space for its 350 000-item collection of rare books, master drawings, and manuscripts that range from priceless medieval miniatures to musical scores and correspondence from Ernest Hemingway, plus a better performance space for its renowned concerts. It also wanted to appear less intimidating (Morgan's library was a hermetic strong-box, designed to exclude the hoi polloi and natural light) and to develop its role as an art museum.

For the architects, the challenge was to find a footprint on which to build. The library, the 1850s Morgan family brownstone to the north, and the Classical-style annex that J. P.'s son added in 1928 were all listed properties, and the spaces between were cluttered with later additions. The Landmarks Commission would have opposed a tower. The solution was to clear the additions and to go down, blasting out the Manhattan schist to a depth of 18 metres to accommodate three levels of storage vaults, and a steeply raked auditorium. More than 50 per cent of the 13 800sqm complex is now located below ground. Three new pavilions have been inserted between the existing buildings: offices on 37th Street to the north, a 6m cube called the Thaw Gallery to the south, and a three-storey entry pavilion on Madison Avenue that, in its transparency, offers a symbolic welcome mat. New and old structures frame the 15m, glass-roofed courtyard, evoking an Italian piazzetta.

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The lucidity of this plan, which grew organically from Piano's concept sketch, is matched by the lightness and precision of the architecture, and the strength and honesty of the materials. The steel panels and thin mouldings are painted white with an almost imperceptible rose tone that picks up on the Tennessee pink marble of the library and annex. Piano likens the high-transparency, low-iron glass to crystal. As in all his buildings, natural light is filtered by louvres that are oriented to the north, motorised blinds, and white scrim in the Thaw Gallery, whose proportions were inspired by those of a Renaissance studiolo. The hierarchy and interpenetration of spaces, plus the glimpses of traffic and greenery (a public park to the south, a bamboo screen to block an apartment tower to the east) distil the energy and richness of New York. Each of the new structures is separated by glass from the old buildings, which have been meticulously restored. The planar roof of the atrium is linked to the cornice of the library by a neoprene seal. As project architect Giorgio Bianchi notes, 'they kiss but don't disturb'.

A glazed lift and open stairwell pull natural light from above into the service areas and subterranean theatre lobby. The steeply-raked 280-seat auditorium is panelled in cherry, with curved baffles above and on either side to achieve optimum acoustics for chamber music, though the hall will also host lectures and movies. The old entrance and reading room on 36th Street have been reconfigured to serve as a suite of three intimate galleries, with drawings and manuscripts flanking the former lobby, where Middle Eastern cylinder seals up to 5500 years old are displayed to brilliant effect. There's a new, third-level reading room and four new galleries. The cafe occupies a side of the courtyard, and a new restaurant and museum store are comfortably accommodated on the ground floor of the brownstone.

The contrast in style between the period furnishings of the library and Morgan's study, with their scarlet brocade, velvet drapes, and softly glowing Renaissance paintings, and the cool white volumes beyond, is as bracing as a leap from a sauna into an icy lake. In its harmony of scale and refinement of detail, the new respects the old without mimicry. Each strengthens your appreciation of the other--a lesson that is badly needed in New York, where a former neglect of heritage has now given way to an obsessive protectionism.

Robert Stern, the Quinlan Terry of American architecture, predictably found the Morgan plan too radical. Forty blocks up Madison, neighbours of the Whitney Museum successfully fought to save the skin of an unremarkable brownstone house with nothing behind it, preferring this Potemkin gesture to the elegant new entrance proposed by Piano as part of his recent remodelling scheme. There was a prolonged and anguished appeal to save Edward Durrell Stone's dysfunctional and abandoned museum at Columbus Circle, with its Venetian wallpaper facade, though reason finally triumphed and the building is now being transformed by Allied Works. Even as other major architects, including Frank Gehry, Norman Foster, Kazuyo Sejima, Jean Nouvel and Enrique Norten, are adding to the city's legacy after a long drought, the retro spirit is strong. As an Italian, Piano is a veteran of these wars, and a master at finding an appropriate balance of history and invention.

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Article Details
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Title Annotation:McKim, Mead & White
Author:Webb, Michael
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2006
Words:1058
Previous Article:Civic locus: From galleries to libraries; Do libraries contribute more to civic life than galleries? Trevor Boddy considers their role.
Next Article:Midwest modesty: As part of an ambitious landscape regeneration strategy, Chipperfield brings figure to the city grid.
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