A City of Art

The real estate developer Hines has unveiled plans for a new 75-story tower by French architect Jean Nouvel to be built on land once owned by MoMA, which, under the terms of a complicated real estate deal, will receive three floors of the new building for exhibition space. The 40,000 additional square feet of space, Nicolai Ouroussoff implies, will make up for the shortcomings of the museum’s three-year-old expansion, designed by Yoshio Taniguchi.

A building that’s one half curatorial do-over and one half commercial opportunism doesn’t promise to be anything but bland and exploitative, but happily, and unexpectedly, the developer chose the more daring of the two designs Nouvel was asked to submit. Ouroussoff goes so far as to proclaim that the building "promises to be the most exhilarating addition to the skyline in a generation." Nouvel’s gothic design departs not only from the restrained rationalism of Taniguchi’s addition, but also from the heroic rationalism of the recent crop of supertalls under construction in Chicago. The Chicago towers use the new core and outrigger method of constructing  very tall skyscrapers. One advantage of the new method is more direct access to windows, but at the cost of a thick core. Nouvel’s building uses external buttressing, a method common in post-World War II skyscrapers such as Chicago’s John Hancock building. In fact, the building on the MoMA site resembles an Expressionist version of the Hancock tower, making the Nouvel’s design fit more easily into the Modernist tradition than its extravagantly gothic structure might initially suggest.  Oh, and the VP’s are going to love having their skyline views obscured by a steel buttress cutting across their windows.

The Nouvel design is also traditionally Modernist in its self-contained, city-within-a-city design that both intensifies the congestion of its Midtown setting and offers a respite from it. The MoMA block is developing into a city of art. Containing itself within one block, it segments itself off from the information economy structures surrounding it. In the city of art, skyscrapers sprout from sculpture gardens and galleries sprawl across buildings. The newest addition to the MoMA block underscores the tension between art and commerce within the museum, as well as the conflict between artists and the institutions of art that have defined the sequence of avant-garde art movements since Dada. Ouroussoff balefully notes that Hines is more daring and innovative than the Museum of Modern Art has been in recent years, indicating that the concepts of Madison Avenue marketing are currently ahead of the concepts that shape contemporary American art.


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