BY Irene Cheng in Frieze | 01 NOV 07
Featured in
Issue 111

New New Museum

Manhattan celebrates the reemergence of a much loved yet wholly reconstituted institution

BY Irene Cheng in Frieze | 01 NOV 07

In New York breaths have been bated for some time in anticipation of the reopening of the New Museum, slated for 1 December 2007. On a drizzly day in September, shortly after workers finished cladding the building in its distinctive aluminium mesh, I was not the only pedestrian standing across the street, gazing up at the elusively opaque façade and wondering what lay inside.

What is the big mystery? Why all the curiosity? For local art aficionados the New Museum opening marks the re-emergence of a much-loved yet wholly reconstituted institution. Imagine if an old friend departed, underwent a complete makeover and then came back years later: the reunion would invariably be sweet but fraught. Founded in 1977 by the feisty maverick Marcia Tucker, the museum – originally housed in several floors of an old cast-iron building in SoHo – gained a reputation as a scrappy downtown institution, a counterpoint to the commercial art world and to more tradition-bound institutions. The museum nurtured politically and socially engaged artists whose work grappled with AIDS, identity issues, Feminism and similarly charged concerns during the culture wars of the 1980s and ’90s. When it reopens in December after a three-year stint in temporary quarters in Chelsea, the museum will have not only a new landmark abode but also a fresh team of curators – Richard Flood, Massimiliano Gioni and Laura Hoptman led by director Lisa Phillips – charged with adapting the institution to a changed artistic landscape.

While art-world veterans bite their nails wondering whether they will recognize their old friend, local architects are drooling over the museum’s new container. The building was designed by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, of the Tokyo-based firm SANAA, best known for their sensuous, rigorous and deceptively simple buildings – until recently located mainly in Japan. An iconic example is the House in a Plum Grove, a one-of-a-kind four-storey Tokyo residence made of paper-thin steel-plate walls. Like much of SANAA’s work, the house is novel, unexpected, elegant and seems faintly inhospitable to human habitation.

The New Museum is Sejima and Nishizawa’s second building in the USA – the first being the revelatory Glass Pavilion for the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio, which, owing to its heartland locale, remains sadly inaccessible to all but the hardest-core fans. Florian Idenburg, project architect for both American museums, observes that although the Glass Pavilion features complex curved glass walls, the building in downtown Manhattan was logistically more challenging – and twice as expensive per square foot – than in Toledo.

For me one of the biggest questions was whether SANAA would be able to realize its brand of flawless, pristine architecture in New York. Steel-plate walls may fly in Japan, where clients are seemingly more acquiescent, budgets unlimited, disability provisions non-existent and the craft of building still alive. But what would happen when the designers’ vision landed on the streets of New York – and not just any street’ but the Bowery, where, in recent years, restaurant equipment supply stores, Depression-era flophouses, brand new luxury condominiums, a legendary rock club and a burgeoning gallery scene have (not always happily) collided?

It is not entirely clear how the New Museum fits into this conflicted landscape – or what its stance is on the urban transformations behind the jarring juxtapositions. Some local gallerists hope that the museum will anchor and help stimulate the surrounding Lower East Side scene to become a full-fledged alternative to the more established art district of Chelsea. Looming over galleries in both neighbourhoods, however, is the all-too-familiar cloud of gentrification – especially as new luxury residential condominiums sprout in their midst. Further darkening the skies is the fact that it is no longer clear that art and property interests are even opposed: after all, the much-discussed booms in both markets have been propelled by the same hedge-fund bonuses. The recent turmoil in the financial markets has led to speculation that art gallerists, equity traders and property developers may all be inhabiting the same precarious bubble.

The New Museum could be read as symptomatic of this conflation of art and development: its towering relationship to its neighbourhood and its design by global ‘starchitects’ link it to a rash of condominiums planned or already built in New York. In the last five years Richard Meier, Jean Nouvel, Bernard Tschumi and Herzog & de Meuron are just a few of the well-known architects who have been tapped to design luxury residential buildings downtown. Some of these projects are a stone’s throw from the New Museum. Indeed, the principle behind the museum’s selection of SANAA is not entirely divorceable from the new-found faith among developers that design does indeed have a cachet – and a marketable one at that.

If an iconic building is what the New Museum was hoping for, then it has got it. From the outside, Sejima and Nishizawa’s stack of misaligned boxes is arresting – a perfectly calculated balance of the sleek and the off-kilter, the refined and the pleasantly awkward. The architects recognize that, sometimes, unremitting beauty needs a stab of the ugly to keep from being cloying and that, in certain contexts, the ugly can be beautiful. Recalling her first visit to the site, Sejima describes the distinct atmosphere evoked by the neighbourhood’s mixture of elegant boutiques and coarse kitchen supplies shop. ‘It’d be nice if some of it could stay like that,’ she muses. Her aim for the project was to evoke this quality of the ‘beautiful rough’. The decision to wrap most of the building in anodized aluminium mesh – an industrial material commonly found in floor grating and public rubbish bins but here enlarged in scale and refined in its detailing – is perhaps a nod to the textures of the metropolis.

The metal skin stops above the ground floor, which the architects have kept entirely transparent, in a gesture of openness to the street. What one hand gives the other takes away, however: the overall building form, enshrouded in its relentless metal armour, is so uncompromising that I doubt anyone could really describe it as extroverted. But much in the way that inflection gets tantalizingly lost in email messages and translations, one isn’t sure whether to read the resulting edifice as aloof or as provocatively mysterious or both – which is maybe why the best love affairs are electronic, foreign or architectural.

Because it divulges so little outside, one naturally expects revelations aplenty inside – especially from the interstices between the boxes. As you enter on the ground floor, the spaces are pleasantly light and open. All of the utilities, stairs and lifts have been compressed into a free-standing structural core, leaving a column-free space for the reception, museum shop, café and a small gallery. Visiting the New Museum in its SoHo quarters, Sejima says she was struck by the indiscriminate quality of the space – the way art works and circulation areas jostled with one another, quite unlike the cleaner arrangements of most Japanese museums. She has tried to preserve something of that promiscuous atmosphere in the Bowery building’s entrance level. Here and in the three gallery floors above, high ceilings are combined with skilful handling of natural light – admitted through skylights in the misalignments between stories – to create generous exhibition areas with subtly varying spatial qualities. A basement level houses toilets and an auditorium, while the top three floors are occupied by offices, education and event spaces.

One of the few disappointments is the building’s failure – apparently due to climate and security concerns – to provide a publicly accessible outdoor terrace in one of those fortuitous misalignments between stories, especially since pre-construction publicity renderings appeared to promise such an amenity. (The only terrace is in the staff and private event space.)

The museum compensates, however, with numerous hidden pleasures. To give all of these away would be like spoiling a film, so I’ll mention just one of my favourite moments. Walking up the narrow crevice of a staircase between the third- and fourth-floor galleries, one passes a large window that opens onto the roof of the neighbouring tenement-scale building. The view of black tar, chimneys and ungainly parapets is grimy, gritty and consummately New York. It’s a reminder that in a city that one fears may soon be 100 percent sanitized, condominiumized and populated exclusively by day-trading art speculators and those who cater to them, mercifully some unrenovated pockets remain.

Time-lapse footage of the New Museum being built

Irene Cheng is a writer living in New York.