MoMA Keeps Getting Bigger. Is That Better?

In 1939, the Museum of Modern Art opened its first purpose-built home on West 53rd Street, a taut, rectangular, six-story International Style palazzo clad in Thermolux glass and panels of milky white marble.

Stylish and surprisingly homey, the building, designed by Philip L. Goodwin and Edward Durell Stone, replaced four old brownstones. The neighborhood was mostly low-rise and residential back then, full of limestone rowhouses and Beaux-Arts townhouses. The Goodwin-Stone building landed on prewar 53rd Street like a U.F.O., planting the flag for modernism.

Ever since, the museum has ballooned on site. That’s never an easy thing to do in the middle of a busy block in the middle of Midtown. The story of the Modern, art aside, is one of those classic, ruthless New York real estate tales. The museum has gobbled up properties, conspired with developers, erected skyscrapers, torn down buildings in its way, built new ones and then sometimes torn those down too to make room for another reboot. During the ’50s and ’60s, Philip Johnson was in charge of expansions. During the ’80s, it was Cesar Pelli; in 2004, Yoshio Taniguchi.

Along the way, the Modern did a lot to transform 53rd Street into what is today a canyon of glass and steel that can bring to mind the headquarters of Darth Vader’s hedge fund.

Only 15 years after its last growth spurt, the Modern has now completed its latest metamorphosis. It’s smart, surgical, sprawling and slightly soulless.

The architects this time are Diller Scofidio + Renfro in collaboration with the global giant Gensler. DS+R, among other things, refurbished Lincoln Center and helped conceive the High Line and the Shed at Hudson Yards.

It has become a cliché and something of a crisis that art museums, along with a few commercial galleries, now believe they need to go big or go home, vying for our divided attention. The Modern has spent $450 million during the current makeover to add another 47,000 square feet of gallery space. Its goal is to show more of the vast collection but also partly to ease congestion by dispersing visitors around a bigger campus. Attendance, which was a million visitors per year during the 1970s, topped two million after Taniguchi, and reached three million by 2010, holding pretty much steady ever since. Mr. Taniguchi’s expansion squandered oodles of square footage on a dubious second-floor atrium, funneling visitors along narrow, aerial passageways and escalators that filled up like the 6 Train at rush hour.

Expansions tend to bring larger crowds. Transportation experts call the phenomenon induced demand: The more lanes you add to a traffic-jammed highway, the more cars will inevitably arrive to fill them.

Now comes the Modern’s westward push, which opens to the public on Oct. 21. We got a hint of its aesthetic when the architects unveiled their redo of the Goodwin-Stone interior a couple of years ago, repurposing upstairs galleries for temporary exhibitions, elegantly reconstructing the original Bauhaus staircase with steps that seemed to float on paper-thin sheets of steel and carving a lounge out of the new garden-facing lobby, filling it with Charlotte Perriand sofas and Grand Antique marble. It was all beautifully detailed and bolder than Mr. Taniguchi’s palette, if not much warmer.

How you judge current MoMA expansion may depend on whether you buy into the museum’s Manifest Destiny argument.

The architects have replaced Folk Art with a Jenga-like arrangement of sectionally linked exhibition and performance spaces facing onto 53rd Street. The spaces include a sound studio and ground-floor galleries for changing displays that will be free to anyone who walks in, visible, like a shop window, from outside.

Of course we’ve heard this before. “We cannot say any longer that we are handicapped by lack of space or equipment or technology,” one of the museum’s chief curators told The New York Times on the occasion of the Modern’s 1980s supersizing. “We have enough exhibit space, storage space and study space so that our primary problem now is love, talent, energy and passion.”

Actually, the problem back then turned out to be that Pelli’s expansion transformed the Modern into what looked like a suburban shopping mall. It didn’t solve the problems of space, modernism or love. And neither did the expansion that replaced it.

Sahred From Source link Arts

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