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In Design Contest, MOMA Throws Win to Caution

Commentary: Yoshio Taniguchi's concept is the correct, though safe, choice for the New York museum's expansion.

April 13, 1998|NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF | TIMES ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

NEW YORK — Identity is a touchy thing. Or so New York's Museum of Modern Art discovered during a yearlong effort to select an architect for the design of the museum's expansion plan, a search that ended in December with the choice of Japanese Modernist Yoshio Taniguchi.

Since the search began in earnest in late 1996, when members of MOMA's board retreated to a bucolic Rockefeller estate to brainstorm about the museum's redesign with a group of prominent artists and architects, MOMA officials had toyed with the project's potential to reshape the museum's identity. The dilemma was whether the museum should launch a radical reexamination of Modernism's mission as the 20th century comes to a close or choose a more cautious path, mindful of the museum's historic role in defining the high Modernist cause. With the selection of Taniguchi, caution won.

The current show "Rethinking the Modern: Three Proposals for the Museum of Modern Art" plants MOMA's identity firmly in its own past. On display are designs by the three finalists in the competition: New York's Bernard Tschumi, the Swiss team of Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron and Taniguchi. The models and drawings demonstrate the varying degrees to which each architect accepted the museum's legacy.

Taniguchi's success stems from his ability to reinforce the historic image of the museum. His design, a serenely elegant package, exudes confidence in Modernism's cultural importance. When built, it will be a tremendous step forward for a museum that had become a series of mediocre additions since it was built in 1939 and whose physical structure has never lived up to its reputation as a standard-bearer of Modern design.

From the start, MOMA was keen on preserving the building's few truly iconic elements. According to the competition's guidelines, the architects were asked to retain both the museum's existing 53rd Street facade--designed in 1939 by New York's Philip L. Goodwin and Edward Durrell Stone--and Philip Johnson's 1953 Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden. Nor could competitors tamper with Museum Tower, the adjacent 1985 cooperative apartment building that is a source of much of the museum's income. Nonetheless, the scale of the proposed project is phenomenal: The expansion includes 250,000 square feet of additional space, and the architects were free to reconfigure all of the existing galleries and curatorial offices any way they chose. Part of the task was to reshape the institution's various elements into one cohesive composition.

In Taniguchi's design, the galleries are stacked vertically at the northwest corner of the site. The curatorial offices, education department and a library are relocated to the east. The sculpture garden and departmental galleries separate these areas from the main collection. Each of the components is delicately placed. The garden once again becomes the museum's central focus, growing to twice its original size: To the south it becomes a vast outdoor cafe, to the east, a staff terrace. Circulation up to the galleries is tucked inside the existing Museum Tower, overlooking a narrow atrium that joins the tower to the northwest addition and becomes the building's new heart.

But Taniguchi's scheme also reveals a keen sense of the urban metropolis. The stacked galleries evoke his vision of a dense, vertical city. By stepping back the gallery floors, Taniguchi allows in natural light to several of the upper galleries. The lobby, which cuts through the block joining 53rd and 54th streets, is reminiscent of many urban lobbies from the turn of the century that act as internal streets. The expanded garden court is an improved version of the urban plaza. Finally, the building's skin evokes an overtly optimistic view of Modernism that also dates to earlier in the century: clean, gleaming, spilling over with light.

Nonetheless, both Tschumi and Herzog and De Meuron's schemes raise questions about Taniguchi's overall strategy. Shrewdly anticipating the museum's continual growth even after the current expansion plan, Tschumi, in particular, created an aggressively linear scheme. In his proposal, galleries are set at both ends of the site and they are joined by a long sculpture court that overlooks the garden. The curatorial offices are designed as a narrow bar that extends along 53rd Street and interlocks with the galleries. Taniguchi's vertical plan, on the other hand, is less adaptable to growth.

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