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MoMA: How to Look at Modern Art-Brillembourg

The Museum of Modern Art, designed by Yoshio Taniguchi. The Donald B. and Catherine C. Marron Atrium looking east towards 5th Avenue with Barnett Newman’s “Broken Obelisk” (1963-69) and Willem de Kooning’s “Pirate (Untitled II)” (1981). © 2005 Timothy Hursley.

Today, a few architects make architecture that looks like sculpture, and a few artists are making sculpture that looks like architecture. The “sculpture” that architects make would be banal and in some cases kitsch in the context of a museum, and the “architecture” that artists make would also be meaningless if inhabited. If these boundaries are confused today, it is due to the need for publicity. Neo-expressionist architecture makes for easy consumption, and is supported by some journalists who should know better. In this context, the new MoMA is a breath of fresh air—not so much because of its clean “modernism,” but because the trustees and curators were not under the spell of the “Bilbao effect.”

What role do Museums play? Who is the client? Louis Kahn said that a city was a place where a very young man could visit and discover his vocation. The old Museum of Modern Art was such a place. Robert Ryman and other artists could find work there and support their art habit. Will we find young artists sketching in the new Modern? Not yet—it is not possible with masses that can’t wait to be modern again. Yoshio Tanaguchi has made a place where you can find yourself in that space of meditation and confrontation with a singular work of art for the first time, and a place for the reunion and revision of old friends that we see hanging out (with some that previously had not been invited).

In 1954, when John Rockefeller hired the Japanese architect Junzo Yoshimura to design and supervise the building of a traditional Shoin-zukuri house in the new garden designed by Philip Johnson, could he have known that this would lead to the construction of the Japan Society in 1970 by the same architect, and in 2004 the new MoMA? Arthur Drexler noted, “Modern Western architects have borrowed so many ideas from the traditional architecture of Japan, that the exhibition of an actual house would show to American (sic) the origin, in it’s (sic) purest form, of all those ideas and technics (sic) we have so long admired.” Yoshio Tanaguchi’s new MoMA approaches the lightness of traditional Japanese domestic architecture by using walls that appear to float, a strong connection between the interior and exterior, flexible spaces that merge seamlessly, and a structural system that is hidden. If Eduard Manet’s inclusion of a Japanese woodcut in the interior space of his 1868 portrait of Emile Zola is the precursor of collage and a recognition of the influence of Japanese art, then this “Japanese” MoMA is the cultural graft that in return signals a new, more complex interchange between East-West and North-South, that characterizes the early 21st century.

When asked by some architects about the experience of building in the United States for the first time, Taniguchi answered in culinary terms: in Japan they have sushi and delicate flower arrangements, but in New York they have steak. Has modern architecture come to an end? Of course not; the heroic period of modern architecture ended in 1929, with Mies’s Barcelona Pavilion on the one hand, and Corbu’s Villa Savoye on the other, eventually leading to the complex and unorthodox architecture of Alvar Aalto. Johnson and Hitchcock’s International Style exhibit at MoMA tried to erase these differences, ignoring the most American of 20th century modern architects: Frank Lloyd Wright. To this day, the most radical piece of architecture in New York City was designed in 1948: the Guggenheim Museum by Frank Lloyd Wright.


Carlos Brillembourg

Brillembourg is the founder of Carlos Brillembourg Architects in New York.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2005

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