MOMA Reopened

By Lewis, Michael J. | New Criterion, December 2004 | Go to article overview

MOMA Reopened


Lewis, Michael J., New Criterion


One weakness of modernist architecture that was not recognized at first was the question of the addition. For the great buildings of the past this was not a problem. Organized along a lattice of monumental axes, they could simply thrust those axes farther into space, and grow. Both the Louvre and the Metropolitan Museum of Art grew in this manner, and transformed themselves from compact blocks into leviathans with no loss of legibility or coherence. Strangely enough, modern architecture--for all its celebration of the free plan--is not so free, at least not in this respect. The free plan might indeed be polished to a kind of crystalline perfection, as in Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona Pavilion, but the moment one tries to add to it, and alter the invisible calculus of its equilibrium, the building falls apart. If one extends the axes of movement, it becomes a pinwheel; if one multiplies them, it becomes a labyrinth. Things are no better on the exterior. To the extent that a modernist building is also a work of abstract sculpture, then every addition is a disfigurement--or so recent controversy over proposed additions to Louis Kahn's Kimbell Museum and Marcel Breuer's Whitney Museum has shown.

Strangely, the museum most intimately associated with the course of modern architecture, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, has never been embarrassed by additions. MOMA itself, after all, is nothing but a loose congeries of additions, huddling companionably around its sculpture garden. It has never possessed, except in its earliest years, a singular, pristine form, one which its trustees felt obliged to protect. Soon after its construction in 1939, the original Philip Goodwin and Edward Durell Stone building on West Fifty-third Street was joined by a west wing (1949), the celebrated sculpture garden (1952), the east wing (1964), and a fifty-four-story tower on the site of the west wing (1979). The first three were by Philip Johnson, whose spare, cool modernism lent the ensemble a vestige of architectural unity.

Despite this tradition, there was uncertainty in 1997 when the Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi was commissioned to enlarge MOMA yet again. This addition was to be of another magnitude entirely than its predecessors; furthermore, architectural modernism no longer meant what it did even two decades ago. Would Taniguchi defer to the existing architecture, demonstrating MOMA'S cultural respect for itself as a landmark of modernism? Or would he intervene ruthlessly and without sentimentality to create something fresh and original, demonstrating MOMA'S commitment to the art of the present? In other words, would the new MOMA be a contemporary or a modern building? These terms were no longer interchangeable, as they had been in 1939. As can be seen in the lavishly renovated building, which opened to the public this November 20, MOMA has tried to have it both ways.

Architectural modernism, in its canonical form, is in some sense the creation of MOMA. It was there where the first comprehensive exhibition of modern architecture was held in 1932, which coined the term International Style. One of the curators of that exhibition was Johnson, who for a good half century dominated MOMA's architectural scene--as architect, donor, and impresario--when it was the arbiter of modernist orthodoxy in America. From the very outset, the museum endorsed a particular strand of modernism, preferring the intellectually strenuous and purist work of Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, and LeCorbusier while disdaining anything smacking of expressionism or willful individualism, such as the work of Wright. Through its prestige and influence, MOMA helped make this specific variant of modernism the dominant one in postwar America.

But in time MOMA helped to topple modernist orthodoxy, and to summon the fleshpots of postmodernism. In 1966, MOMA published Robert Venturi's Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture; a decade later, the curator Arthur Drexler organized an influential exhibition of the architecture of the Ecole des BeauxArts--i. …

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