January 8, 2008
by Daniel Fox

Event: The New Museum of Contemporary Art opening
Location: The New Museum of Contemporary Art
Architect: Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa/SANAA (Tokyo) — Architect; Gensler (NY) — Executive Architect

New Museum

The exterior (left) and lobby (right) of the New Museum of Contemporary Art.

Jessica Sheridan (left); B.A. Cook (right)

The New Museum of Contemporary Art has been open to the public for a little more than a month, and this author believes it is one of the best new built projects. Designed by Tokyo-based Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of SANAA, with Gensler (NY) serving as executive architect, this small building continues the New Museum’s role as rebel for the cause of culture.

There were challenges. Landowners on the Bowery did not want to sell their lots to yet another developer looking to make luxury apartments. The museum decided to continue building downtown post 9/11. The design team instituted artful and careful use of materials on a frugal budget ($64 million for 60,000 square feet).

Quietly strong, many feel the building works at street level by provoking passersby to peer into its glass lobby. Unobstructed views within welcome installation art. The rest of the building is composed of five almost translucent aluminum clad offset stacked blocks. The top two house the offices and education center with skyline views, while the other boxes provide three open-plan gallery levels partially lit from above by natural light. Gallery levels three and four with a connecting stairway offer choices for multi-media art. The subterranean level forms a theater, quite large for a small museum that will host film series and projection artworks.

The building has flaws, however; the circulation among the levels is bumpy, gallery spaces though open are small, and craftsmanship is not impeccable.

Time will tell if the New Museum’s impact is only of this moment or if it will be able to re-invent itself with the city’s future. The first scenario is akin to Marcel Breuer’s Whitney Museum — a building that was innovative for the post World War II period, but by the end of the 20th century became an agent for the Upper East Side elite, as the institution attracted the upper-crust creating high-end luxury residential development. The second scenario is comparable to the Pompidou Centre, by Renzo Piano, Hon. FAIA, and Richard Rogers, RIBA, Hon. FAIA. It was equally original when built and constantly re-invents the concept of the urban plaza to this day. Could the New Museum and the Bowery co-exist and follow this example? The realist would say no but for now let’s enjoy this moment.

B.A. Cook is a NYC-based architectural designer and freelance writer.


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