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O C T O B E R 1 9 9 7
From the submission by Rem Koolhaas
by Witold Rybczynski
ART museums have become the chief patrons of trendsetting architecture. The openings of new museums such as the Getty Center, in Los Angeles, designed by Richard Meier, and the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, designed by Frank Gehry, are anticipated with the same sense of excitement that attends the openings of Steven Spielberg blockbusters. The anticipation is explained in part by art's quasi-religious status in modern society and in part by plain showmanship, resulting from the need of museums to increase attendance. Thus after the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, announced last year that it was going to undertake a major expansion, Herbert Muschamp, of The New York Times, described the commission as "one of the most prestigious plums that is likely to fall into any architect's lap within this decade."
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From the archives:
"By the time Mitterrand came to power, in 1981, the design of a prestigious building was supposed to be put out for bid, with a jury choosing the winning architect. Mitterrand, who as a man of letters had some reason to trust his own taste, merely kept up appearances when it came to this nicety."
The Museum of Modern Art has always seen itself as being in the vanguard of
progressive architecture and design. In 1932, only three years after it was
founded, the museum mounted an exhibition titled "Modern Architecture:
International Exhibition." The show, which popularized the term "International
Style," introduced the American public to European modernists such as Ludwig
Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius. The idiom of Bauhaus
modernism -- free-flowing spaces with movable white walls, contained in a
functional box -- was incorporated into the Modern's new building, on West 53rd
Street. That was 1939. Today modernism has joined the mainstream.
Home-furnishings chains like IKEA and Crate & Barrel have brought modern
design to the mass market. As for the avant garde, well, many upscale clothing
boutiques now outmodern the Modern. Being overtaken by Giorgio Armani and
Calvin Klein might cause a museum to worry -- which probably explains why the
Modern announced that its expansion would also involve a substantial
Breaking with tradition, the Modern decided to hold a design competition, and it invited ten architects to enter. Neither Gehry nor Meier was on the list. Nor
THIS is hardly a representative sample of contemporary practitioners. The absence of a canonic classicist such as Allan Greenberg or John Blatteau is understandable, given the museum's roots -- although both these architects would be likely to argue that their buildings are as modern as anyone else's. Certainly, though, the net could have been cast wider. Some of the most interesting buildings today are the work of architects, such as Aldo Rossi in Europe, and Thomas Beeby and William Rawn in this country, who are exploring the blurred edges between modernism and pre-modern architectural traditions. The buildings of John Ruble and Buzz Yudell, of Los Angeles, demonstrate that in capable hands a postmodern approach continues to produce humanist buildings of richness, satisfying complexity, and even humor. And what about an iconoclast such as Christopher Alexander, whose New Eishin University, in Japan, is a compelling demonstration of the theories he has explored in his writings? Since the late 1960s, when doctrinaire modernism ceased to hold sway, architecture has splintered; but you would hardly know this from the Modern's list of orthodox modernists. Or, more accurately, neo-modernists -- architectural modernism is now more than seventy years old. Nostalgia is a relative concept.
The museum's expansion will be onto land currently occupied by the old Dorset Hotel, on West 54th Street, and two adjacent brownstones. But there is more to the project than just adding space. The ten architects were asked to demonstrate how the entire complex of museum wings could be reconfigured into a unified whole. Certain parts of the existing museum had to be conserved: the sculpture garden, most of the façade
In April the museum announced that Herzog and De Meuron, Tschumi, and Taniguchi had been chosen to proceed to the next phase of the competition. The winner is expected to be announced by the end of the year. The ten initial proposals were displayed in one of the museum's fourth-floor architecture-and-design galleries, in an exhibit titled "Toward the New Museum of Modern Art" -- a self-conscious reference to Le Corbusier's great modernist manifesto of the 1920s. "Towards a New Architecture" was a call to arms full of slogans and stirring photographs of ocean liners, airplanes, and factories. The tract was more about the image of modernism than about the practical realities of building -- which, of course, is why it was so effective.
THERE was not much passion in evidence at the Modern. Most of the entrants seem to have concentrated their energy on the complicated but mundane task of shoehorning additional space into the narrow site between 53rd and 54th Streets. Herzog and De Meuron pragmatically illustrated two alternatives that they confusingly called "agglomerate" and "conglomerate." Bernard Tschumi, a Swiss-French architect who is currently the dean of architecture at Columbia University, is best known for the Parc de la Villette, in Paris, which is generally considered one of the first built examples of architectural deconstructivism. Yet his entry had none of the jagged edges and odd angles that characterize that eccentric approach. Instead his sketches showed a sort of choreography -- slide the entrance lobby over here, push the new galleries up there, slip in the curatorial offices. This was architecture as a Rubik's Cube. It looked competent, but I soon lost track of its permutations. At fifty-nine, Yoshio Taniguchi was the senior competitor, and his skillful planning was workmanlike even if his actual design was hard to pin down.
The people around me at the exhibit appeared to be looking intently at the sketches displayed in the vitrines. What did they see that I didn't? Were they, like me, looking not at something but for something -- inspiration, maybe?
The competition had required that the entire set of drawings for each entry fit into a small flat box, eleven inches by seventeen inches. As I peered at the sketches, it seemed to me that this salutary attempt to prevent the entrants from overwhelming the jury with elaborate presentations had backfired. Neo-modernist architecture relies for its effect on unadorned surfaces, large sheets of glass, articulated details, and attenuated structural supports. Transparency, precision, delicacy, and
Two architects from whom one might have expected a grand gesture are Rafael Viñoly and Dominique Perrault. In 1989 Viñoly won an international competition for a $1.5 billion convention and performing-arts center in Tokyo -- a dramatic, monumental building with vertiginous glass lobbies and bold structural effects. Viñoly is a pragmatic modernist of the knock-your-socks-off school of design. Unlike some of the other competitors, he is also an accomplished draftsman. Yet here he seemed to be at a loss as to what to do on the cramped, hemmed-in site. Perrault is the architect of the controversial National Library of France, in Paris, a grand projet if ever there was one. Parisian wags, paying homage to the engineering of the TGV train, have christened it the TGB -- "très grande bibliothèque." Perrault did his best with the Modern. He suggested a huge two-floor bridge the full length of the site, flying over the sculpture garden.
I had the feeling that Perrault's très grand musée would have been out of place in New York. That was also true of many of the other entries, which simply looked like they would be too tasteful to survive the gritty free-for-all that is midtown Manhattan.
KOOLHAAS'S proposal was a real effort to shake up the museum: to keep the Modern modern. "Theoretically, MoMA is about newness," he wrote in an accompanying text. "Newness is ambiguous. It cannot last; it cannot have a tradition." Koolhaas's bravura design was striking, but he had confused modernism with newness. Modernism does have a tradition -- a rather long one, in fact. It was an evangelical, utopian, simplifying (some would say simpleminded) moment in history -- and it has passed. It is, in Robert Hughes's pithy phrase, "the future that was." Shaking things up, as Koolhaas proposed, will not re-create it. Nor will any amount of the minimal, austere, and functionalist architecture that the Modern seems intent on building.
Indeed, there is something wrongheaded about the very idea of "making over" the Modern. For almost sixty years the museum has grown in fits and starts. The sculpture garden was added in 1953, a lobby, two wings, and an enlarged garden in 1964, and the glazed garden hall and additional galleries in 1984. With the possible exception of the garden, none of this architecture is particularly distinguished. (This has not prevented the Modern from becoming the premier museum of its kind.) The most that can be said about the varied bits and pieces is that they reflect their different times: the white box of the idealistic thirties, the perfect Miesian garden of the fifties, the curtain walls of the self-assured sixties, and the atrium of the pragmatic eighties. For better or worse, this clumsy patchwork embodies the ebb and flow of modernism itself. If we must have austere minimalism in the nineties, then let it take its place alongside the other styles. It, too, will pass.
Witold Rybczynski is the Martin and Margy Meyerson Professor of Urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania. His most recent book is City Life: Urban Expectations in a New World (1995).
All graphics courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art
Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; October 1997; Keeping the Modern Modern; Volume 280, No. 4; pages 108 - 112.