Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa/ SANAAby Benjamin Friedman
The New Museum of Contemporary Art Opened December 1, 2007
When the Whitney Museum was completed in 1966, who could have guessed that New York would have to wait until the 21st century for another building of comparable brilliance? With the opening of the New Museum of Contemporary Art in December, a long era of disappointment has finally come to a close. The building, designed by the Japanese firm SANAA, is the finest piece of architecture to go up in the city in 40 years.
The New Museum is a striking presence on the Bowery. Its six tiers of unevenly aligned rectangular boxes clamber skyward in a glittering composition whose air of spontaneity belies its scrupulously balanced proportions. The key to the New Museum’s luminosity is the skin of aluminum mesh that envelops the building. Porous metal carapaces have enjoyed something of a vogue in recent years. They have been used to good effect in, for example, the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco by Herzog & De Meuron, and Thom Mayne’s Caltrans building in Los Angeles (both from 2005). With the New Museum the visual impact of this device is stunning—a lambent sheen that suffuses the entire structure.
In place of the standard placard or raised lettering, the building’s identity is announced by a crisp LED display on the glass-fronted street-level façade. Its name spelled out in chunky digital characters, the New Museum signals its embrace of the contemporary. By night the illuminated uppermost cube appears to float above the darkened lower floors like some ghostly, Kubrickian monolith.
For all its glamour, the structure does not ignore its gritty surroundings. The reticulated pattern of the metal scrim in fact resembles nothing so much as a chain-link fence. It also suggests the ubiquitous security gates of the neighborhood’s storefronts. More subtly, the New Museum’s gleaming exterior manages to evoke the utilitarian wares of the restaurant supply businesses that still dominate this stretch of the Bowery. By day these stainless-steel sinks, sideboards and pastry-counters are parked on the sidewalk. The New Museum does not look out of place among them.
In the lobby the metal screen motif is elegantly reprised at ceiling level. The polished metallic surfaces of the front desk and gift-shop counters sustain the sleek, tough look. A minimalist tone prevails in the main galleries: pored concrete floors, standard-issue white walls, overhead fluorescent lights. The exposed fluorescent tubing has its own industrial-aesthetic appeal, à la Dan Flavin. If these naked fixtures are also somewhat harsh, one suspects that this is intended: a nod to contemporary art’s notoriously combative relationship to the notion of beauty. This suspicion is confirmed in the long, expressionistically narrow staircase between the third and fourth floors: here stubby fluorescent tubes protrude from the wall perpendicularly, the effect stark but invigorating.
The New Museum’s muted palette is relieved in the transitory interior space of the elevators. Here a tart tree-frog green creates the impression that we are catching a glimpse of the palpitating innards of the organism. This expertly modulated dash of color is a characteristically deft touch.
New York has not seen an architectural achievement of this caliber since Marcel Breuer’s Whitney, which went up four decades ago. It is Breuer’s building, more than any other in the city, with which SANAA appears to be in dialogue. Always a handsome structure, the Whitney commands greater respect with each passing year. With its stacked, cantilevered massing and eccentrically placed trapezoidal windows, it would look quite at home alongside the experimental forms of contemporary architecture.
If (as Marx famously did to Hegel) you turn the Whitney on its head, you get a form strikingly akin to the bottom segments of the New Museum. SANAA’s design also perfectly inverts the overall tone of the Breuer building. Where the outward thrust and dark granite cladding of the Whitney create an imposing, weighty effect, the New Museum conjures an impression that is all shimmery lightness. What is more, this architectural interplay mirrors a historical relationship between the two institutions: Marcia Tucker had been a curator at the Whitney for years when she was fired in 1977 and promptly founded the New Museum. SANAA’s building can be read as a concrete expression of this rivalrous history.
It is no surprise that such an agile design should come from the hand of Kazuyo Sejima. Since she founded SANAA with Ryue Nishizawa in 1995, they have produced a string of architectural gems, marrying formal dynamism to flawless aesthetic precision. A typically accomplished work (from Nishizawa’s office) is the Moriyama House in Tokyo. The “house” is actually a jumble of individuated white blocks strewn across the site, as if all the rooms of a building had been disassembled and then randomly reconfigured as separate modules. The idea is simple but innovative, the execution smart and graceful.
SANAA’s New Museum arrives in New York at a time of renewed architectural optimism. Half a century ago, the golden age of corporate Modernism brought us such landmarks as the United Nations Secretariat, the Seagram Building by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Eero Saarinen’s TWA Terminal. By the mid-60’s a long period of decline had begun. Later Modernism, dull and ossified, was followed by a tacky, pandering Postmodernism. Only in the last decade have matters begun to improve. Renzo Piano’s Morgan Library, Steven Holl’s Higgins Hall addition at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, the Korean Presbyterian Church in Sunnyside, Queens, by Greg Lynn: these are among the exciting works of architecture from the last few years. Still it seems fair to say of each of them that it lacks the transformative power of an urban icon.
The New Museum doesn’t look like any other building in New York. It does not, for that matter, look like another building anywhere in the world. Yet its very distinctiveness makes it emblematic of the current era of heady architectural experimentalism. The international success of one-time mavericks such as Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas and Zaha Hadid has opened the field as never before to innovative designs. The New Museum’s off-kilter forms and ornamental cladding belong to this moment of novelty, even as the overall simplicity of the composition hearkens back to the verities of functionalist Modernism.
There is no formula to identify an architectural masterpiece. The elements that come together to make the New Museum such a success can, however, be brought into tight focus: The building is first of all an object of beauty in its own right. It engages sensitively with its location. It enters into an intelligent dialogue with architectural history. Its look is fresh and vividly captures the adventurous spirit of contemporary design.
New York City has a marvelously rich architectural history. After a long dry-spell, a new work of true brilliance has joined the skyline. The New Museum takes its place alongside the Lever House, alongside Grand Central Terminal and Louis Sullivan’s Bayard Building, as one of the city’s treasures.