Not all buildings need to shout. If you are a typical reader of Architectural Record, you might conclude that most contemporary architecture speaks assertively, even independently of its surroundings. Bold, inventive architecture maintains ascendancy, while finesse or urban fit seem to have been relegated to second-class status. What has happened to the refined, respectful urban solution? New York’s recently reopened Museum of Modern Art proves that skill and subtlety are still thriving.
In weaving together a disparate smattering of parts that the Modern had become, including the Philip Johnson and Cesar Pelli additions, the architect, Yoshio Taniguchi, faced formidable obstacles. Initially, he lacked recognition by a star-crazed public; few in the United States knew his work, since the architect had built almost nothing outside Japan. But his patience and tenacity, legendary among his peers, had produced a painstaking body of work, significant for its perfection of detail and devotion to scale and proportion. Taniguchi’s work has refined the International Style, forged in Europe (and at the Modern), and honed it to a classic, minimal language that clarifies Modernism. His projects, like the Museum of the Horyuji Treasures [RECORD June 2002, page 90], unfold like origami, offering a procession of sensory experiences in three-dimensional, interlocking space.
His pared-down material palette deepens the architectural dialogue. The list is brief, but pungent: translucent fritted glass; walls of black granite and gray glass; silver anodized aluminum panels; simple white interior walls; green-slate and light-oak flooring. Here, the architect deployed the materials to maximum effect, allowing glass to glow or grounded walls to hunker into solidity.
Taniguchi’s client, a foremost repository and expositor of the Modern movement, needs no forceful declamation, no statement of identity as have its newer rivals like the Guggenheim Bilbao, in Spain. Instead, the Modern needed significant expansion, coherence of multiple parts, which had grown through the years, and a functional shake-up. The world had shifted since Abby Aldrich Rockefeller’s early galleries confronted a new century. Today the Modern’s collections and support, unrivaled and superb, warranted a kind of understated hegemony that this new museum would provide.
Blissfully, the Taniguchi design, executed with the skills of the associate architects, Kohn Pedersen Fox, transcends its brief. Visitors now enter and rise to the fifth floor via escalators to commune with Matisse or Jackson Pollock, then descend toward a voluminous atrium, where zooming spaces intersect and project out toward the sculpture garden. From 54th Street, the rising floors offer an urban drama.
Galleries provide intimate moments away from the hype and scale, appropriate to the art they contain. If the largest spaces seem overwhelming for their installations, overall, the Modern seems to resolve the dichotomy between spectacle and privacy outlined in an interview with Victoria Newhouse in this magazine in January 2004 [page 80], offering both quiet and sociability in due measure, all bound within a single, unified plan.
The highest compliment may reside within the visitor’s experience. Upon completion of a tour, the art is what remains memorable—the chromatic, glowing canvases or the parametric curve of a bronze sculpture, attesting to a welcome lightness of touch. Few architects today, outside of a handful, including Renzo Piano, would have the confidence to allow the objects contained to outshine the container.
During the recent opening days, some cognoscenti groused about the Modern’s apparent lack of “newness”or innovation, as if every structure should advance architecture intellectually or formally. Rather than a theoretical display, today’s MoMA represents a culmination, a mastery of idiom that we seldom witness in the United States. Replete with its own ideas, the new Modern’s translucent unfolding sets a standard for a new century’s ideas, and works of art yet to come.