The New New Museum

Tomorrow or Wednesday I’m going to try to get down to South Michigan Avenue to look at the Spertus Institute. One question I have is if the new building’s crinkled façade is just a pretty face on an otherwise conventional box. The same question is being asked about the New Museum of Contemporary Art in Manhattan, another recently completed museum of similar size. Designed by the Tokyo-based architecture firm Sanaa, the New Museum is one of those buildings that almost looked better under construction than it does completed. The building is a stack of boxes piled slightly askew, like a children’s block set. Some people have had quite enough of playful façades that look like they’ve been designed by a seven-year-old working with a Backyard Architect program. The Washington Post‘s Philip Kennicott comes to the defense of the Sanaa design, asserting

the New Museum in New York works, and it works in part because its basic form suggests not just playfulness, but something supernatural as well. A mix of those two elements, an amalgam of brattiness and transcendence, silliness and the spiritual, would pretty much describe where the contemporary art world spends much of its time these days. By posing as something either built by God’s hand or by the hand of a prattling child, the New Museum manages something surprising for a building sandwiched into a relatively small space in an old neighborhood: It seems monumental.

While it may seem monumental despite its modest height of 174 feet, the eye-catching exterior isn’t structural; the New Museum isn’t six separate buildings. Inside, it’s organized more or less conventionally as a single unit hugging a concrete core, although the core itself is offset. That the exterior doesn’t mirror the interior violates a moral imperative to make the exterior of a building reflect its internal structure and purpose. Kennicott counters by appealing to both traditional architectural standards (monumentality) and a more conceptual standard: that architecture should reflect a state of mind, a condition of being.

This latter standard isn’t the familiar modernist celebration of technology as the essence of the modern. It’s more like a Heideggerian Andenken, or recollection of the history of modernity considered more critically the second time around.  The Sanaa design is aggressively modern, even confrontational, but it also expresses a certain dismissive attitude about the development of art, an attitude shared by many outside observers of the New York art world. The New Museum is located in the center of the global market for art, where paying millions for a bratty artwork is a very unsilly thing to do. The new New Museum perfectly captures our attitude about contemporary art: it’s absurd, but it’s an absurdity of our own making.

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  1. I was in New york in early November and caught a traffic-prolonged view of the New Musuem as my friend drove me to the airport. I’d argue, now after reading many of the reviews, that its most provocative meme is its ironic play on the contentious “museum as white box” idea. Not an insignificant number of art world mandarins have criticized contemporary museum architecture for it’s unwillingness to take a back seat to the art it must contain. The claim is in many ways valid, but in doing so neglects the reality of our current “starchitecture” society. I would never have experienced the spatial dislocation of a Serra exhibit had I not first been drawn to the electric tension of Gehry’s Guggenheim within which the Serra featured. My point: the art world asked for its big white boxes, and the architects gave it to them. Not surprisingly, the building’s delicate, diaphonous composition and outward-looking interior will undoubtedly draw more tourists than hard-core art buffs. My feeling though is that I’d rather have people visit a musuem than regress in front of their tv, so in that sense the design is a resounding success.


  2. Tyler Cohen makes an interesting observation about art museums: they exist primarily for their well-heeled donors, not the art-seeking public. Gate receipts are a small part of an art museum’s revenue. The donor lists displayed prominently on the walls of the new museums are the most important displays in the museum–more so than the art itself. Hence the need for snazzy new museums. Many times the new museums devote a lot of space to donor care. I don’t know if the New Museum does (I’ll bet it does). Calatrava’s addition to the Milwaukee Museum of Modern Art is dedicated almost exclusively to donors’ use. So you’re right: the architecture stands next to the art as works of aesthetic value, but the architecture is also about the realities of modern museum management.


  3. I actually like the design of the building. I don’t think it looks that bad. My first impression was that it does look like blocks stacked on top of each other. I think it looks playful and fun. I would love to see some interior shots of it. Perhaps I would think differently if I saw this building in person.


  4. I like the building, too. It’s very elegant, and the playfulness is appropriate to the mission of the museum. In some ways I like it better than the Spertus Institute in Chicago, which was completed around the same time. I wonder, though, how all that white cladding will weather.


  5. Several visits to the New Museum have each only served to convince me of its drabness. Sure, it takes a backseat in order to allow the art to stand out, but there is almost NOTHING to suggest the hand of an architect, or of a design that makes moving within the spaces memorable. I fear that too many critics are bypassing their intuitive reactions, in the rush to seem ‘au courant’, apparently falling over themselves to love what is really unlovable.
    On the plus side, the simple interior spaces are a welcome relief from the sort of pretentious bullshit that that Libeskind jackass has been getting away with for too long. He’s a different breed of asshole.


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