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Temporarily Available in Queens Only

A plan for transitional home of New York's Museum of Modern Art is a departure from its past and future.


At the age of 71, New York's Museum of Modern Art long ago has shed its aura of youthful rebellion for the mantle of a Grand Old Socialite. So the new design for its temporary exhibition space in Long Island City, Queens, which is scheduled to be unveiled today by museum director Glenn Lowry, should be seen as one last binge before settling into a dignified old age.

The new space, designed by Los Angeles-based Michael Maltzan, is scheduled to open in summer of 2002, when the museum's permanent 53rd Street home shuts down for a massive, 3-year-long expansion. Housed in a former Swingline stapler factory and with a budget of $2.4 million, the project pales in comparison to the planned $650-million Manhattan scheme. Yet the fact that it will be the only place anyone can see the museum's celebrated collection gives the Queens project added resonance. MOMA expects about a half-million visitors in the first year alone, to see the permanent collection's highlights as well as a blockbuster show on Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso.

The temporary space--it has not yet been given a formal name--will be a radical departure from the tasteful, cosmopolitan feel of MOMA's 53rd Street home. With a labyrinthine entry leading to gaping, warehouse-like galleries, the project recalls Frank O. Gehry's Geffen Contemporary, which was originally designed in 1983 as a temporary space for Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art. Both are rough, inexpensive renovations of existing industrial sheds. Both limit the architect's input primarily to exterior details and interior public and lobby areas, leaving the bulk of the space intact as exhibition space. There is even a personal connection: Maltzan worked for Gehry for seven years before launching his own firm in 1995, making the similarities between the two projects that much more intriguing.

But the comparison ends there. Gehry's design was a conscious rejection of the pristine white gallery spaces that were ubiquitous in the 1980s. In their place, he created a tough, flexible environment, evoking the messiness of the creative process. MOMA's temporary exhibition space is conceived as a compact, critical narrative, one that holds the museum experience up to a microscope. It should establish the 41-year-old Maltzan, already an important figure in Los Angeles' architectural scene, as a talent of national stature.

The narrative begins on the No. 7 subway from Manhattan. The Swingline building is set alongside the tracks, which are elevated by the time they reach Queens, and the train rumbles by at roof level. Maltzan saw this as an opportunity to extend the museum's identity beyond its walls, and to conceptually link it back to 53rd Street.

In the design, all of the building's mechanical systems are enclosed in a series of mismatched black boxes scattered across its roofscape. As the train approaches from the west, fragments of letters painted on the boxes' black surfaces appear. Only when the train puts the observer squarely in front of the building do the letters slip into place, spelling out "MOMA" before fragmenting into nonsense again as you pull into the 33rd Street stop. It's a perfect visual play on MOMA's ambiguous relationship to the sprawling borough.

The museum plans to shut down the Swingline space once the Manhattan project is complete. But it has also formed a permanent partnership with the nearby P.S.1, an experimental art space. Do these plans represent fragments of Manhattan imposed on Queens, or will their distance from Manhattan allow them to establish independent identities? Is MOMA out to colonize Queens?

Such questions set up the building's architectural narrative. At street level, you are first confronted with the shed's blank facade, its surface painted a steely gray-blue. A delicate line of florescent bulbs extends along one side of the building, leading you to the main entry. The bulbs are a sort of hand-holding device, especially for Manhattanites whose only contact with Queens is through the back-seat window of a taxi on the way to Kennedy Airport.

Once inside, the pace accelerates. As you climb the main-entry staircase, a vertical opening quickly comes into focus, allowing a glimpse into the main galleries. At the top, however, a broad ramp switches abruptly down to the left, drawing you into the lobby.

The ramp is framed by a narrow staircase on one side that leads to a mezzanine bookstore and cafe before looping back down to the lobby floor. But the main route is along the ramp. As you descend, the form of one of the galleries--dubbed the Projects Space and meant to showcase emerging artists--pushes into the lobby, with one end cantilevering out over the ticket counter. Standing underneath, you can peer up into the gallery through a cutout in its floor.

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