MoMA mia!

Rendering of proposed expansion of MoMA from 53rd Street. Image Diller, Scofidio + Renfro © 2014 .

Rendering of proposed expansion of MoMA from 53rd Street. Image Diller, Scofidio + Renfro © 2014 .

Disqualification: I haven’t been to MoMA in at least fifteen years and after this week hesitate to ever go again. If this disqualifies me from commenting on the museum’s latest expansion plans then adieu, dear reader and happy days. The planned demolition of the former American Folk Art Museum is scandalous and, after MoMA seemed ready to reconsider earlier in the year, surprising as news rarely is. It is one of those demolitions, not on the order of the old Penn Station, but similar to the extent that thought of a wrecking ball piercing that facade, the actual moment of impact which now seems so likely to happen, makes one wince. Absent ideas and evocations, architecture can fall into this particular etiolation of the imagination, a kind of dime store minimalism whose effects are indistinguishable from the property developer’s philistinism. It is also self-punitive; if the former AFAM needs MoMA as an earthworm washed up onto the sidewalk needs a kind rescuer with a leaf, MoMA needs AFAM just as much, for a child needs to eat more than white bread and margarine for dinner. You can’t just dress up in glass and call yourself modern.

The design itself, to the extent that it has been revealed, tends to support the observation that big-time architecture by big-time architects is less and less reliable these days, even as spectacle. The Tour triangle in Paris, the new shopping center across the street from St. Paul’s in London, the OMA hotel proposed and then abandoned in Sydney, many projects in China and the Gulf of dubious taste; evidence is growing that you can’t just order up a decent Nouvel, Koolhaas, Calatrava, Hadid, Herzog and DeMeuron or Diller and Scofidio like you used to (Gehry seems to have a bit of mojo left, though). Likely this is healthy, but until architecture moves beyond its late late modernism into something perhaps more gentle, we must look at proposals such as MoMA’s and ask ourselves just what are they thinking? What does MoMA imagine it is expressing through this architecture of yet more enormous panes of nearly-frameless glass? Is this modernism, revived? In an age when for many the blunt-cornered, seamless and resolutely mute minimalism of a certain leading brand of personal information transmitters defines design, and when the stores in which said devices are sold could not be more glassy were they carved from ice by a Zamboni, one wonders who is capable of being moved by this kind of architecture. Retaining the former AFAM as an architecture gallery, a project space, a townhouse for resident artists, a free sampler of the big MoMA, offices, classrooms or even a gift store would at least have provided some resistance to the juggernaut, one grain of sand not yet squished into glass.

Party at MoMA. Photo by Michael Miller.

Party at MoMA. Photo by Michael Miller.

Along with the tense perfectionism of digital renderings meant to provoke a contented sigh of awe at the perpetually groovy wide angle urbanity of it all, no architectural proposition of our time is complete without a circulation diagram. Such a drawing, usually colorful arrows on a plan or axonometric, is the contemporary architect’s vow of sincerity. It is meant to say ‘I am practical’ when all it really says is ‘my building will have corridors and stairs.’ When circulation is complex or a matter of life and death — in airports, train stations, hospitals — circulation is determined well above an architect’s pay grade, or by copying what has worked in the past. This leaves architects with their flashy arrows, but what happens when a museum becomes a problem of circulation, as seems to be the case at MoMA? The museum as circulation diagram is dehumanising and impractical; it resembles nothing so much as those new freeways which immediately fill up with all the traffic they were built to reduce. Just how wide would the grande galerie at the Louvre have to be to create a space where the viewing of art is as pleasant as it can be at the Accademia in Venice, the Gardner or the National Gallery in London on a good day? By one measure the three million visitors who circulated through MoMA galleries last year are evidence of the museum’s success, but what of the museum’s role in the city? What kinds of emotional, intellectual and kinaesthetic pleasures or agonies should we expect at a museum? It is perhaps too much to ask that a museum of our times be the one place in New York where, as in The Age of Innocence, two lovers can meet in solitude, but surely a bit of calm never hurt anyone’s appreciation of a picture.

Louis Kahn said that a city should be a “forum of the availabilities” and the “place of the assembled institutions” where people can find the things that interest them in all their particularity. How can this happen in a a museum which costs $25 to visit, in which one as conscious of the crowd as the art? And the tourists compelled by the tyranny of their bucket lists to suffer any indignity on the road to fun, what do they take away from their traipse from post-impressionism to performance art other than a desire to cocoon in the gift shop? I don’t know much about the economics of museums, but when the cost of visiting a museum reaches a certain point wanting to see art gives way to wanting to get one’s money’s worth, two very different things.

That there is resistance to MoMA’s plan is healthy, even if resistance is futile. Architects and their clients might design better and cheaper if they occasionally paused to listen to their opposition. Proposing to build something does not automatically mean defending “truth against the world.” It is possible for resistance to architecture to be flabby and reactive or firm and considered; the difference as always depends on who opposes and what their reasons are. The difficulty in the case of MoMA is not only that there is no legal basis for preserving a twelve year old building but that the sensibility which would have that building preserved is incompatible with MoMA’s idea of itself. The renderings make this obvious; perhaps the closest thing to an idea that they manage to express. I’m not for crowd-sourced architecture or crowd-sourced critique, but building a museum should be a joyful occasion for a city. To the extent that it has provoked indifference where there should be anticipation, the MoMA expansion a bit like Barangaroo, the project to develop the best remaining site on Sydney Harbour, now a mess which only the invisible hand could have created, far worse than the worst architect could have managed on his own. What MoMA is proposing is not nearly as ugly, dubious or damaging, but both projects have an air of disappointment about them which no amount of spin or self-confidence can wash away.

The stakes here are somewhat higher than your average New York scuffle; with only retail and cafés to ‘activate’ the streets of our neoliberal cities, institutions — “the availabilities” — are tremendously important nowadays. This means museums and libraries. Libraries are suffering a tragic dumbing-down, a capitulation to what some idiot imagines the digital world demands evident from the New York Public Library’s proposal to rip its own guts out to the library near me which suddenly looks like a furniture sale in a discount airline lounge. Museums can turn themselves into traffic problems and they might even have their reasons, but don’t cry to MoMA when the availabilities are suddenly unavailable.

Alan Miller

About Alan Miller

Alan Miller is a graduate of the Sydney University Faculty of Architecture and the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. A fanatical cyclist, he is a former Sydney Singlespeed Champion. He reports on cycling, film, architecture, politics, photography and various mixtures of the above.

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