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The art of transparency: the latest phase in the evolution of the Museum of Modern Art refocuses, refines and adds to a historic urban complex.

To colonize a large swathe of Manhattan is an opportunity afforded very few institutions and even fewer architects. The august Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) first moved into a townhouse belonging to John D. Rockefeller, at 11 West 53rd Street, in 1932. That site was redeveloped in 1939, with a stylish Modernist building by Philip L. Goodwin and Edward Durell Stone. Subsequently, the museum expanded with a series of projects by Philip Johnson, including Johnson's seminal Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden of 1953, before Cesar Pelli erected his condominium tower--with its gridded, Mondrianesque curtain wall--over extended gallery space in 1984. Now MoMA has grown again, but at a significantly different scale from its domestic antecedents: the museum has jumped past the base of Pelli's tower to command much of its urban block.

After a two-stage competition in 1997, MoMA selected Tokyobased architect Yoshio Taniguchi for its complicated expansion plan, a feat as much of organization and funding--the total cost is estimated at $850 million, or [pounds sterling]460 million--as it is strictly architectural. Less radical than some High Concept proposals by other competitors (Herzog & de Meuron and Bernard Tschumi were the two runners-up), Taniguchi held true to the bespoke, typically orthogonal architecture that established his reputation in Japan. Working with associated architects Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF), he has extrapolated the monochromatic planes of earlier MoMA structures--stretching taut skins of glass, aluminium and dark Zimbabwe granite across new buildings along 53rd and 54th Streets--and he has refocused the multi-part complex about a restored and subtly extended Sculpture Garden, an oasis of green in Midtown Manhattan.

The white Goodwin/Durell Stone building, with its horizontal fenestration and penthouse canopy, and its immediate neighbour, a black-framed infill by Philip Johnson, are retained and renovated on 53rd Street. However, the primary entrance, formerly in the Goodwin/Durell Stone building, has moved west past the base of the Pelli tower to the largest of Taniguchi's interventions. Here, next to the silver Museum of American Folk Art by Tod Williams & Billie Tsien (AR February 2002) and across from Eero Saarinen's dark CBS tower, MoMA presents itself as a sleek monolith of almost opaque glass, without mullions or cornice or protrusive shading devices to interrupt its smoothness. The north facade on 54th Street (this volume replaces the demolished Dorset Hotel) has a similar treatment. As daylight fades, areas of facade become illuminated to create a limited porosity, allowing tantalizing glimpses from the streets of artwork inside.

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The new entrance on 53rd Street is a horizontal void opening into a low concourse that leads clear through to 54th Street; a single line of five circular columns stakes out its centreline. With the MoMA store (interior by Gluckman Mayner Architects), cloakrooms, and ticket desks organized to the sides, this new passage between parallel streets also opens to the east, past the ticket check, into an exposed hall that looks out into the iconic Sculpture Garden at the heart of the institution. Taniguchi and perhaps MoMA itself have been tactically clever in renovating the garden to make it the exposed centre of the total agglomeration, the void about which the institution is most clearly read and remembered.

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If that sounds Zen-like, the architect and his client tread a delicate balance in their joint presentation of the project. On inauguration day, for instance, Taniguchi said: 'You don't notice the architecture ... you notice only the air'. Like many of his compatriots, in conversation the architect seems cautious of any glib, Orientalist tag--of generalizations about Japanese architecture--while speaking of light and space and structure with finesse, and a slight air of mystery, that could, surely, only be Japanese.

The space between entry hall and Sculpture Garden is double-height; above it, one portion of the Department of Architecture and Design, a sculpture gallery, and one of three new restaurants are stacked beneath a delicate canopy roof. From 54th Street, a vivid red Pininfarina Cisitalia (the car that transformed postwar automobile body design) is visible beneath a multi-coloured Donald Judd, topped in turn by the restaurant terrace. These floors, framed by aluminium panels, read collectively as a discrete pavilion, partnered across the Garden by MoMA's somewhat isolated education building. Between them, the pre-Taniguchi buildings have membranes of horizontally fritted glass applied to their north exposure, diffusing their distinct legibility and aiding MoMA's general ethereality. Pelli's glass-encased escalators have been removed so that his 1984 tower now extends down to ground level and acts as a powerful vertical fulcrum to the total composition.

If the tower and twin pavilion facades are key cognitive elements of the Garden, an internal hall--a vertical volume above the broad entry passageway--serves as the principal orientation device for the internalized galleries. A sweep of green Vermont slate leads from the passage up broad steps towards the Garden--there an open dogleg stairway takes the visitor up again to the museum's piano nobile. Initial glimpses from the stairs--currently of the lower portion of Barnett Newman's Broken Obelisk and a horizontal zip of Claude Monet's Water Lilies--are enticing. This upper volume is really a tall internal patio illuminated from above by natural light. It rises through four storeys, each punctured by openings like large windows that allow for a changing series of diagonal cross-views adding rotational interest to the visitor's peregrination.

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This growth from town house to agglomerative element colonizing an urban block is phenomenal, but Taniguchi nevertheless attempts to retain something of the domestic scale of MoMA's original facilities. Although bigger than the old galleries, new exhibition spaces remain orthogonal and white-walled, typically floored in white oak and broken ever so discreetly by deep doorways. The metal trim of these openings is pared down to appear as only the thinnest line in elevation; similarly, the shadow gap between white walls and oak floor is reduced to an almost invisible seam that also functions to supply air. Slipped views between rooms provide visual enticement to the promenade on most floors. The fifth, uppermost, floor is almost loft-like, however, with two vast galleries for temporary exhibitions parallel to the streets and joined at the middle.

During inauguration ceremonies, Taniguchi spoke of 'animation of public spaces', 'seamless flow between departments', and 'glimpses allowing new associations to be made'. All of these admirable qualities are present in the new MoMA. The old linear history of art leading the visitor ineluctably from one room to the next, and one movement or decade to the next, is scrambled somewhat by more extensive floor plans and different views offered of several adjacent spaces almost simultaneously. Yet such energy wanes as the visitor wanders away from the vertiginous atrium, the current home of Newman's Broken Obelisk. In certain static corners, the new galleries are simply too big or too enclosed for Taniguchi's sensitive touch.

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On the fifth floor, skylights seem unduly domestic in scale relative to the vast Special Exhibitions gallery. Might not other architects have tackled this opportunity with a bolder proposal? Through the skylights, the new MoMA office tower is detectable (the upper floors of the Goodwin/Durell Stone building, with its glamorous penthouse, will also be used by MoMA staff). This must be the most bashful tower in Manhattan. Taniguchi's original horizontal massing has expanded and grown upwards to form an eight-storey box floating free of the Special Exhibitions gallery roof. Its north and south facades are of contiguous glass held forward to the structure. From the city, its corners glint and dissolve in sunlight. As in the internal atrium, these diagonal views gently energize the new MoMA.

From 54th Street, overlapping of vertical and horizontal planes, occasional square cut-outs with views through to surrounding buildings, and meticulous detailing of glass curtain walls all contribute to a beautiful architectural assemblage. Taniguchi's art of transparency is apparent in these facades; MoMA's art is mostly elsewhere, safely contained inside.
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Article Details
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Author:Ryan, Raymund
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Feb 1, 2005
Words:1331
Previous Article:Nothing there: the art and science of transparency is evolving from Modernism's preoccupation with light and lightness to intelligent skins.
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