Banner image and featured image by Iwan Baan, courtesy of Diller Scofidio + Renfro.
LOS ANGELES AND NEW YORK have long mirrored one another as rivals in what the French call narcissisme à deux, each city envying the other while claiming cultural superiority and cool. Or, as the hard-core New Yorker Woody Allen put it in Annie Hall during a high moment of culture shaming: “I don’t want to move to a city where the only cultural advantage is being able to make a right turn on a red light.”
Both cities are now facing a cross-country duel of museums that pits the just completed renovation-expansion of New York’s Museum of Modern Art against the demolition-contraction being planned for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Their respective approaches to similar needs couldn’t differ more: $450 million spent on a 40,000-square-foot addition of gallery space at MoMA versus $650 million to be spent for a 53,000-square-foot subtraction of gallery space at LACMA.
Apparently Los Angeles continues to lag in cultural smarts: LACMA’s embarrassing deficit plan pays far more to get way less. MoMA has increased its gallery space by 30 percent while LACMA is decreasing its total by more than 30 percent. Counterintuitively LACMA is paying $4,500 for each square foot it is not building, probably a Guinness record in the spendthrift department.
David Geffen has a unique right to wonder why. The disparity should matter to the New Yorker-Angeleno because he is paying for both the New York gain and the Los Angeles loss with comparable chunks of change. He has contributed $100 million to MoMA for its largely successful expansion, and he is pledging $150 million to LACMA for a widely reviled plan that is helping to destroy that museum as we know it. Though Geffen can justifiably take pride in what is now the new Geffen Wing at MoMA, he is about to be embarrassed for being conned into buying a failure that LACMA is offering as a naming opportunity. His full name will now be planted forever over the door of the building that killed LACMA.
MoMA’s opening on October 21 offered Angelenos an object lesson in how, with adults in the boardroom, the New York museum has gotten right the big moves that LACMA is getting wrong: it is working with the buildings it inherited, not demolishing them. MoMA’s general success stands as an indictment of LACMA’s director and his pliant and gullible board, and the county supervisors who, as fellow travelers, have oafishly approved public funds and bonds that will sadly confirm that Woody Allen continues to be right, that turning right on red remains Los Angeles’s signal achievement.
When 10,000 visitors came two Sundays ago for a free, introductory day at the newly expanded MoMA, they walked in under a wide, blade-thin metal canopy floating under a tall ceiling. In a single image and space, Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R), the architects, not only celebrated the moment of arrival through a Minimalist Arc de Triomphe but also signaled their design approach to the existing building, a composite of four structures built over 80 years. Knifing through space, the canopy was a spare, elegant intervention that worked with, rather than against, the structures, a strategy of agreement the architects pursued as they enhanced the museum’s east and west flanks and added the museum’s latest and probably final expansion.
The visitors encountered a physical plant significantly improved overall. First, the museum is now substantially larger — a big plus for a museum that has had to garage so much art. But the success is also a matter of quality rather than quantity: the architects pushed the refresh button throughout the museum, refining details, sizing for generosity, dialing up the warmth, opening the building to the city, and making the environment upbeat and buoyant. The 40,000 square feet of new galleries added on three floors are seamlessly integrated into existing galleries. New types of galleries diversify the kind of art that can be displayed.
Visitors pushing through the revolving doors walked in under a ceiling that the architects raised in a gesture of welcome, and, beyond, they found that the architects expanded — and decompressed — the existing subway-like, street-to-street service tunnel for ticketing, coat check, and information. On the left, visitors found a large ticketing and seating area in place of the existing museum gift shop and bookstore, now moved into the basement, where, in a double-height space, it was expanded. The move liberated the ground floor to allow views to and from the street, giving visitors the luxury of breathing room.
At the far end of the new ticketing area, the architects slipped in a stainless-steel staircase with thin stairs cantilevered from a blade-like column. Quiet and understated, the staircase acts like an open sesame delivering visitors to the treasures above, landing them in the middle of three floors of the main event, the permanent collection in the expanded west wing. The “Blade,” as the architects call their Gillette staircase, is a masterwork deserving its own place in MoMA’s design collection: lithe, elegant, minimal, abstract, a Brancusi among staircases.
Besides delivering visitors directly to the core galleries, it offers the dividend of found views. Each intermediate landing opens onto a quintessential New York perspective outside, a pocket park in a canyon bracketed by skyscrapers. The stairwell establishes eye contact with the city, turning this slice of Manhattan into a framed painting. The staircase leads to a new café on the top floor.
As with all museums, the Jackson Pollocks matter most, but real estate, especially in Manhattan, is destiny, and acquiring the last available parcels on West 53rd Street allowed the museum to complete its westward march down the block in search of space.
The success of the DS+R addition was not a foregone conclusion. MoMA is a notoriously difficult client, conservative architecturally and as budget sensitive as the developers who have steered its building committees. Starting with the founding of the museum’s Department of Architecture and Design back in 1932, MoMA has perpetuated the genes of modernism’s right wing, the Bauhaus, delivering to West 53rd Street — and to a large degree, to the rest of the country — the white box that has since been the default template for museums and galleries.
This general architectural conservatism has been reinforced by cost-conscious administrations, which value-engineered the largest additions, by Cesar Pelli in 1984 and Yoshio Taniguchi in 2004, to the prevailing standards of New York’s commercial architecture. The results were good enough but never extraordinary. The museum didn’t follow the lead of its own architecture department, and with the single exception of DS+R, never hired any architect who had, or deserved to have, a show in its design department. The B-grade designs never saddled the museum with the burden of greatness that distinguishes the collections in general.
The MoMA that DS+R was asked to expand and to a limited extent upgrade was really a composite of four structures that originally started when a Rockefeller townhouse was replaced in 1939 by a Bauhaus-style building designed by New York architects Philip Goodwin and Edward Durell Stone. Philip Johnson added on to the Goodwin in 1964, and then Pelli added onto Johnson’s (with a revenue-producing residential tower). Later, Taniguchi added his blockbuster to Pelli’s. But it was the Goodwin building that established the enduring Bauhaus precedent of the white-box gallery as the model for all future expansions at MoMA. Pelli and especially Taniguchi imported escalators into the museum — Taniguchi big time — bringing with him the fatal kiss of a Japanese department store. Taniguchi also committed the irreversible, five-story mistake of verticalizing what should have been a three-story building, necessitating the escalators. (More about this later.)
By the time DS+R arrived, the composite structure had become a sketchy agglomeration of disjointed buildings, like a Surrealist’s accidental cadavre exquis without even a cogent circulation pattern yoking them together. In the ensuing architectural kerfuffle — masked by the whiteness of it all, as though white brought clarity — the museum lost its sense of intimacy and that anchoring feeling that you could return here time and again to visit a painting that had become a friend. The buildings marched down West 53rd Street leaving redundant staircases in their wake. The whiteness alone, and perhaps the orthogonal geometry, was the visual binder, but as a group the composite never formed a larger organizational whole. The collage of the facades did not succeed as a collage of spaces inside.
Enter DS+R, which started working on the older east end of the complex several years ago. Refining details and opening the interior to the city and garden, they performed architectural acupuncture on such energy points as the original, much-loved Goodwin staircase, the intersection of corridors, and a long corridor gallery overlooking the garden. The architects decommissioned a mechanical room to create a convenience lounge off a corridor adjacent to the garden and surfaced its walls in a graphic black-and-white Grand Antique marble, a period stone similar to one that originally decorated the Goodwin building. Its stormy patterns resemble the “action paintings” now upstairs.
Architectural acupuncture and selective detailing amounted to a strategy for tuning up the older buildings without major surgery. Detailing is a subject that only architects seem to love and understand. Perhaps Frank Lloyd Wright explained it best when he said that architecture, like tailoring, is a matter of terminal points, as in collars and cuffs. In a building, that translates to edges, corners, and the interfaces where one material meets another.
At MoMA, the new, tighter detailing had the cumulative impact of waking up spaces that had become inert, or had always been inert. The architects refreshed lax moments in the existing building with crisp edges, corners, and reveals. This strategy carried over into their new addition. Miniaturized lights ride discreetly in gridded tracks neatly incised into the ceilings. Handsome blackened steel-plate doorways mark the thresholds into the new Geffen Wing. In some galleries, the architects ease MoMA’s brisk white into a calming off-white. The wide-plank, blond oak floors, glowing under the spots, warm spaces with a luminosity that buoys the visit. The architects carefully calibrated the proportion of room size and height.
It’s hard to identify just what gives the spaces the lift that delivers visitors to the artworks in a receptive mood, as though the architects dialed up the ambient well-being of the space. But it’s probably the subtle environmental glow of light striking blond wood that cuts the clinical chill that has always left MoMA’s galleries cold to the touch. The museum was birthed when notions of science and objectivity permeated modernism, as though paintings should be inspected rationally under a cool, objectifying light. Spaces now are warmer, touched by a subtle environmental affect that makes the galleries less indifferent to how people feel in the space.
Until now, architects were neutralized when they stepped into the MoMA orbit to work on a commission. As the Vatican of modernism, the museum has always patronized architecture in its most canonical Bauhaus form. DS+R, perhaps the wittiest, most wry architects now working in the United States, practices a conceptual brand of architecture tinged with ironies and subversions that come from their admiration of the work of Marcel Duchamp. Some of their buildings make you laugh; some make you wonder. All make you ask questions.
But not at MoMA. DS+R had to check ironies and its cheek at the door and accept working within a more limited expressive range. However, the architects, Houdini-like, found a way of escaping MoMA’s neutralizing modernism. They adopted the kind of minimalism that makes the subtly colored, faintly lined grid paintings by Agnes Martin, on view upstairs, so ineffable. They out-minimalized modernism. The sensibility that DS+R invokes in the quiet environmental radiance of the galleries, and in the thin, tapering edges of the levitated entrance canopy and staircase, is more closely associated with Japan, where artists have made an art of emptiness and nothingness. In MoMA’s prevailing design environment, the architects pushed the Zen button.
The architects also introduce new types of galleries, including a state-of-the-art, glass-walled, black box studio space located adjacent to the gallery circuit for all to see, and the Street Level Gallery, which operates like a free port for off-topic shows just in from left field, its glass wall open to 53rd Street. The exceptional galleries diversify the menu of spaces and the type of art that can be hosted.
The major flaw in this new expanded version of MoMA is not what the architects did but what they weren’t asked to do. Their mandate was basically restricted to the addition, and though they worked outside the expansion in the older buildings, the acupuncture they performed there was insufficient to correct the problems resulting from decades of museum creep, when the place became unintelligibly large and incrementally confusing. DS+R’s site-specific interventions remain anecdotal, lacking the power of strong moves necessary to make sense out of a block-long building. With about a hundred white-box galleries, seven staircases, and four elevator banks all mixed episodically on six floors, the building’s interior complexities effectively required architecture performed at the scale of city planning. Unfortunately, that was not DS+R’s assignment.
Each successive addition of the existing buildings came with its own staircases and elevators, creating redundancies and confusion, including dead ends and stranded spaces, all provoking the where-the-hell-am-I question that required visitors at the openings to consult maps, like foreigners visiting a new city. The critical mass of the permanent collections moved so far west, in a kind of continental drift, that the east end adjacent to the garden has been left trailing and vestigial, almost forgotten, thinly connected to the west by a single corridor and some back galleries. The left-behind galleries in the east wing are interrupted by a bookstore, service cores, and floors that include offices. The east end lacks consistency between floors and within any one floor. The verticality of Taniguchi’s godforsaken addition within the dominantly horizontal context of the earlier buildings created the biggest barrier to flow and connectivity. The museum dodges the problematic wayfinding, maintaining that it wants visitors to get lost so they can discover and invent their own path through modernism. That’s PR doublethink that abnegates curatorial responsibility.
The problem is not that the museum became too large during its conquest of 53rd Street but that MoMA, as a client, didn’t realize that greater size required greater clarity. MoMA really needed to empower DS+R to act like a Baron Haussmann, devising big, bold moves that recast the collage of spaces into a new, more cohesive whole. The 19th-century architect and urban planner modernized Paris with axes and radial avenues that cut through the old medieval city. The five juxtaposed MoMA buildings on five floors need strong gestures that drive through what has become a right-angled, three-dimensional warren of galleries, corridors, and rooms confusingly interspersed with offices, escalators, elevator cores, and staircases.
The Haussmann touch was all the more necessary because galleries now rehung for inclusivity, diversity, and mixtures of media no longer make up a straight march through modernist history. Each gallery now operates as a galaxy of its own, with an explanatory statement to clue visitors in to why these pieces are hung together; it’s rarely obvious. Visitors need to bring their reading glasses.
Each galaxy connects only vaguely to the next in an approximate chronology arranged along the loosely defined loops Taniguchi built into his five-story addition. Room after room, you have to read the texts to orient yourself to yet another themed gallery. Without a self-explanatory visual and historical through-line, the organization of the building itself needs to offer the spatial roadmap now lacking. In a museum where each gallery tells its own story, the thread that keeps the visitors moving has been cut. Spatial sequence has to replace the thread.
The biggest roadblock to intelligibility is the five-story cube of nothingness in the center of the whole, the atrium that Taniguchi, evidently in a fever, must have thought would work like Frank Lloyd Wright’s inspired vortex at the Guggenheim uptown, whose continuous ramp turns the seven-story structure into a one-story museum. Instead, Taniguchi’s atrium — a walled, inert space in the wrong place at the wrong time — blocks communication between east and west, dividing the museum from itself. This centrally located, difficult-to-use void is, however, an open invitation for a major intervention that could tie the museum together.
In fact, according to Elizabeth Diller, DS+R did propose a staircase in the unpopular Taniguchi atrium, a move that might have centered and ordered the whole complex. What the architects proposed has not been made public, but a smashing staircase taking over the obstructive void would have given the museum a spinal column leading to all five floors, endowing the atrium with a purpose and the museum with a binding order. A staircase branching east and west, some gyroscopic version of the Blade perhaps, would have created equal access to west and east wings, which are now hyphenated tenuously by a corridor. The museum’s center of gravity now lies so far west that the two wings have effectively pulled apart. Ripping out the hateful and confusing department store escalators and replacing them with a staircase could equalize east and west and balance both sides of the atrium.
DS+R did a commendable job refining and expanding MoMA within the scope of their limited brief. As a result, the museum has been greatly improved. But it still needs one more go. Until MoMA takes the bull by the horns and gives architects Haussmannian powers to decisively correct the muddle that is their cumulative floor plan, they should probably just issue a ball of string to all visitors at the door.
Joseph Giovannini is a critic, architect, and teacher based in New York. Trained at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, he has written for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, New York Magazine, Architect Magazine, and Architectural Record, and has taught at Columbia, Harvard, UCLA, USC, and SCI-Arc.