Good Box Work

­SANAA’s New Museum makes compelling use of an elemental form.

It is a little shiny. Inside one finds white walls and art varying from the profound to the hilarious. There’s a place to sit with coffee and contemplate it all. There’s a gift shop. And there end the similarities between SANAA’s new building for the New Museum of Contemporary Art, which opened in Manhattan in December, and the products of that grand international fad that has, over the last decade, raised or proposed strident museum buildings following the lead of that once humble Iberian port everywhere from Akron to Abu Dhabi.

The October 2005 ground-breaking ceremony for the New Museum was auspicious. Luminaries gathered under a tent on a lot that had until a few weeks before stored cars; a Shinto priest gave a blessing at a portable Shinto shrine. Laurie Anderson announced that she got “kind of a thrill” putting electronics in her mouth and then, inserting a small speaker modified into a microphone, played (sang?) a haunting little threnody as kitchen appliances were bought and sold and traffic flowed on the adjacent Bowery, as on any other day. Two years later we have a building—this ragged stack of six tall boxes floating over a glazed lobby plane—that is not only beautiful, urbanistically deft, and primed to function well but also illustrates the power of employing architectural thinking—versus sculptural or hysterical thinking—in the design and construction of a museum.

Last point first: the 90-degree angle is the architect’s friend for good reason. It is a fact that, due to whatever unforeseen laws govern our particular strand of reality, any angle much smaller will create an uncomfortably tight corner, while any angle much larger, though in itself capaciously open-armed, most often defers that same tightness to another corner of the room, assuming full enclosure, as one must when designing an art museum in a place where thieves roam the streets and it rains. So, yes: boxes often result when we think soberly about use. No shame there.

My favorite studio critic, when he saw his charges charging off toward ill-considered formalist delights, liked to lay down the law as follows: “You’ll have to give me a really good reason why this building should not be a dumb box.” He meant dumb lovingly; he had, as I do, an affection for things that answer honorably to a task without waste or fuss. Though this is changing slowly as we learn to better sync the fractured or oblonged visions in our computers with the possibilities of construction, as our material culture still stands, answering honorably to the task of making space that is efficient—in time, money, and use—still begins with that “dumb box.” If you can solve the problem with a Butler building, my critic’s reasoning continued, any deviation from or complication added to that solution must be backed by some poetic or practical logic that makes the expenditure pay.

It’s a good basis for rigor, and who among us doesn’t need a little more of that now, all dogmas discarded, all hot forms so easily attained and beckoning? Even Frank Gehry works in this way, sort of. His office typically roughs buildings in as rectilinear models, massaging square-footage in easy-to-suss squared units before the inevitable arrival of signature spatial distortions and surface blips. The impetus for Gehry, of course—as I’ve written here before (and as the suit filed against him last fall by MIT implies)—is foremost style, not function. At the New Museum, SANAA appears to have had the inverse—dare I say correct—­priorities: tweaking the noble starting point of the box so that it works inside and out, both as structure and delightful conundrum.

As they do at the building discussed here last month, Herzog & de Meuron’s admirable 40 Bond, not too far away, people tend to gather in front of the New Museum, puzzling it out. It is incongruous. To the left is the three-story, yellow-brick Sunshine Hotel, vestige of the fashionable Bowery’s late High Homeless period, and to the right there is another casualty of time, a six-story building as nondescript as its neighbors on both sides of the street, limping in disarray for half a mile to the south. This contextual strategy—let’s call it kerplunking—results in an interesting inversion, turning the street on its ear. SANAA has dropped a high pile of largely blank boxes into a long row of largely faceless ones, but the careful proportioning of the newcomers, approximating in some cases the dimensions of the abutting ­buildings—albeit horizontally rather than ­vertically—makes it a rich, not an alien, contrast.

That’s good box work, and it continues at scales large and small. In the last five or six years, as the Lower East Side was discovered by people with money and those who build their apartments and hotels, the area’s generally low-rise continuity has been colonized by finger and sliver towers—and in one case by a giant blue fist: Bernard Tschumi’s car-crash-fascinating condominium on Norfolk Street. If it is decidedly taller than the buildings just around, the New Museum is just tall enough to take its place in this new aerial rhythm, one that resembles stretches of Tokyo, where the museum, with the pro­vision of appropriate signs, might be mistaken for just another little honky-tonk mall. From the terrace wrapped around two sides of the event space on the building’s seventh floor, there is a wonderful through-the-water-tanks view southeast to Tschumi’s Blue Power salute and the Hotel on Rivington (known to all as THOR), a furtive conversation among interlopers.

The terrace is also the place to get close to the skin of the building. At the ground the expanded aluminum grille cladding is too high, but here you can touch it and appreciate the elegance of the little brackets, stamped flat on both ends, that fix it to the silver-toned panels beneath. Close up it makes a tantalizing moiré; from far away on hot days, as William Gibson wrote of the sky over Chiba, it is “the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

Having decided on their boxes, having arranged them just so to provide terraces, skylight slots, and a pleasingly anti-iconic aspect—having even tweaked that arrangement considerably during the design process to respond to newly discovered spatial demands and the needs of the client—the architects of SANAA tooled the interiors with precision and a light touch. There are explosions of color in unexpected places—the lower-level public toilets are an absolute must-see—but the three main galleries themselves, one each occupying the second, third, and fourth boxes (all varied by well-considered proportioning), are rec rooms ready to be used and abused by the curators. The exposed beams and skylights above tell you that you’re in a working space for the study of art, not a dead shrine to it, but the concrete floors set the tone. Poured without relieving joints, they were left to crack as they cured. Raw: brutal. Still, and this is the level of detail—of boring, essential, purely architectural thinking—seen throughout, the architects specified a tiny trough reveal all around where the floors meet the walls. It will hide cables as needed for the shifting installations, the sort of end-user consideration not always found in new museums. But it is also just enough, and not a touch extra, to make these dumb boxes into something very much more.

Find out more facts about this story on the Reference Page: January 2008

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