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Modern? Yes. But Not Exactly New

New York's Museum of Modern Art wanted a redesign consistent with its founding principles, but the three architectural finalists don't deliver the goods.

May 25, 1997|Nicolai Ouroussoff | Nicolai Ouroussoff is The Times' architecture critic

NEW YORK — More often than not, it is the losers who produce the great designs in big architectural competitions. The world's best architects commit huge amounts of time and money to compete for prestigious commissions, and then chafe because selection committees all too often ardently embrace the most banal designs. Nevertheless, some competitions, because of their cultural importance and the vision of their planners, still inspire hope.

When New York's Museum of Modern Art announced last January that it had selected a short list of 10 architects to design a major expansion of the museum, architects quivered with excitement. The client seemed ideal. The winner would rethink the museum's entire campus--including all public and administrative areas. The building's footprint will extend onto the adjacent site of the Dorset Hotel and two townhouses, which the museum purchased in 1996 for $50 million but plans to demolish.

The results of a monthlong study by each of the participants--which produced a series of conceptual sketches now on display at the museum's architecture galleries--offer a subdued, conservative vision for MOMA's future. If the schemes are shocking at all, it is for their timidity. The tightly controlled process did nothing to foster creative freedom. Nevertheless, this fall, MOMA will select a final design from one of three finalists, and then launch the ubiquitous capital campaign to fund it all--at present there is no budget for the project; that will be determined by the needs of the winning design.

How did MOMA's good intentions produce such muddled results? The museum's struggle to do the right thing says much about how hard it is to guarantee that a competition will produce a great work of public architecture today. For all the institution's professed interest in bold experimentation, when it came to spending its own money, MOMA once again retreated into the conventional. Architecture, after all, always exists in the fuzzy realm between artistic intent and the hard realities of the real estate market. And as so often happens in the battle between vision and financial interests, creativity has lost out.

No museum has closer ties to Modernist architecture than MOMA. In 1934, the museum's legendary International Style exhibition introduced the work of the great European Modernists to this country. Yet, MOMA has never been a patron of distinguished architecture. When the museum had the opportunity to test those visions with buildings of its own, it cowered.

Soon after the museum moved from its residential Fifth Avenue digs, where it first set up shop in 1929, to its current West 53rd Street location, Alfred Barr, the museum's legendary founding director, proposed commissioning Mies van der Rohe to design a Modernist landmark. Unimpressed, MOMA's trustees opted for the local duo of Philip L. Goodwin and Edward Durrell Stone. Goodwin was a trustee. Barr resigned from the building committee in protest. In 1953, Philip Johnson--another MOMA board member and founder of the museum's design department--created the museum's one exceptional space, the sculpture garden, a sort of Modernist backyard that emerged as the museum's only identifiable trademark. But already the museum was becoming a clutter of mediocre buildings and additions.

By 1985, a major addition had irreparably damaged the museum's already shaky architectural identity. Spurred by a Rockefeller clan tired of paying off the museum's annual deficits, the museum devised a scheme to fund its expansion through the complicated financing of an adjacent co-op tower bearing the MOMA brand name. A reliable commercial designer without great talent, Cesar Pelli fit the museum's needs perfectly and he designed both the tower and the expansion.

More mall than museum, Pelli's design is better suited to blockbuster shows and cocktail parties than the quiet contemplation of art. In his expansion, museum-goers peer down at the garden's domestic bliss while gliding up its sleek escalators, and art groupies attend openings on its vast balconies--a perfect monument to the giddy self-absorbed 1980s art market.

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The current competition was hyped as a clean break from that unspoken history of failure. In early October, MOMA's gang of four--the selection committee made up of the trustees Sid Bass, Agnes Gund, David Rockefeller and Ronald Lauder--left for a three-day retreat with architects Rem Koolhaas and Peter Eisenman, the enfants terribles of the architecture world. They were joined by Getty Museum director John Walsh, artists Elizabeth Murray and Richard Serra, and New Yorker essayist and art critic Adam Gopnik, among others, all recommended by the curatorial staff.

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