November 1, 2008
Critics of the Museum of Arts and Design missed the real point of the building.
When the new Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) opened in New York at the end of September, the critics descended on it, feasting on its failings. At the root of its problems, argued Paul Goldberger in the New Yorker, was the inability of Brad Cloepfil and his firm, Allied Works Architecture, to overcome the presence of the building it enveloped, the bizarre 1964 concrete-and-marble confection at 2 Columbus Circle. Cloepfil’s decision to encase in glass the famous lollipop columns of Edward Durell Stone’s original building epitomized the “trap,” as Goldberger put it, “between paying homage to a legendary building and making something of his own.” In the Los Angeles Times, Christopher Hawthorne concluded that Cloepfil’s designs look “schoolmarmish” wrapping the gregarious humor of Stone’s building, while Nicolai Ouroussoff twisted the knife: the “embalmed” columns are “meek and lifeless,” and MAD is “poorly detailed and lacking in confidence,” he wrote in the New York Times. “This is not the bold architectural statement that might have justified the destruction of an important piece of New York history.”
It is striking how none of the three critiques of the museum’s new $90 million white-terra-cotta-clad home discussed the building’s relationship to Columbus Circle, which, after years of traffic-choked neglect, has become a pedestrian-scale destination again, a public place where people actually dare to congregate (See “Completing the Circle”). Thanks to traffic-calming strategies and the landscape architect Laurie Olin’s creation of a spectacular tree-lined fountain—and perhaps in spite of the intimidating colossus of the $1.7 billion Time Warner Center—the stage was set for a cultural venue that contributed to a burgeoning street life more civil than the cattle-herding arrangement of nearby Times Square. But urban context was a discussion that apparently couldn’t happen with an architectural establishment still hurting over the lost battle to preserve Stone’s once maligned, retroactively beloved design.
But let’s recall the history: Stone’s building was dark, damp, largely windowless, uninviting, and empty for much of its life before Cloepfil’s embalming. It may have been an important step in the postwar deviation from the International Style, and it may look good in photos in history books, but it proved useless as a gallery and even more so as offices for the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs. In its place, we now have a museum dedicated to the tactile, lovable arts: throwing clay, blowing glass, firing glazes, weaving, and carving, and—lest we think those a little too 19th Century—their 21st-century counterparts, salvaging and piecing together. (In the current show, Second Lives, a jacket is made of U.S. Army dog tags.) From a cultural-utility point of view, isn’t that an improvement?
The MAD project has, at the very least, turned a dead, frilly box into a working building, and not without panache. For all the supposed humorlessness of Cloepfil’s work, the interior is surprisingly capable of producing delight: the light-filled entrance lobby (replacing Stone’s dingy arcade) offers access to the gallery floors above via a vast staircase suspended from the second floor by 40-foot-long woven-steel cables. Twanging the cables between finger and thumb as you ascend or descend the bouncy staircase is permitted; some fine-tuning of the tension might even produce an audible harmonic scale. At the bottom of the staircase, below street level, a shimmering bronze tile invites visitors toward the Aladdin’s Cave of the building: the original auditorium, a fully restored 150-seat space in warm wood and bordello-red upholstery, with vintage sconces and a dropped ceiling of undulating metallic-bronze disks. As a room, it is the antithesis of Cloepfil’s spare and capacious spaces above, but it’s dramatic and altogether appropriate.
The new galleries are punctuated by a ribbon of glass that meanders like a line taking a walk across the ceiling and facade, offering controllable daylighting and surprising, if frustratingly fragmented, glimpses outside to Columbus Circle, Central Park, and the connecting avenues. The reorganization of the elevators, stairs, and bathrooms helped increase usable space by about 40 percent, so the museum no longer has to close between shows as it did in its previous home on East 53rd Street. Equally important is an organizing principle of visible process: on the sixth floor, artists-in-residence will work in glass-walled studios adjacent to the education rooms, where visitors will be able to watch how stuff in the museum is actually made. Threading the entire building together is a user interface developed by Pentagram. Sleek, flat, wall-mounted screens announce floor numbers and exhibits, and display a rotating selection of images from the 2,000 objects in the museum’s permanent collection—nothing is hidden from view. On the third floor, the screens become interactive, so the public can play at curating the digitized collection.
When returning to the question of the museum’s relationship with its urban context, a sticky problem emerges. Following Stone’s footprint, the building volume gently curves around Columbus Circle; the glass double doors of the entrance are oriented toward the dancing fountains flanking the newly spruced-up central plaza, but the lollipops lurking behind the glass actively block the ground-level streetscape from carrying through to the museum’s lobby. The architects removed a lollipop at the entrance and matched the stone on the lobby floor with the exterior sidewalk, which is at the same grade, but this is not by any means a continuation of outside public space on the inside of the building. That would have required lopping off more lollipops.
Received opinion is that Cloepfil’s battle was with the burden of Stone’s influence, a kind of Oedipal wrestling match that the younger man ultimately lost. Kyle Lommen, the Allied Works architect who ran the project from the firm’s New York office, strenuously denies that the decision to embrace, rather than remove, the skeleton of Stone’s building was a political move to appease preservationists. A classic Freudian reading would suggest that the denial is part of an elaborate defense mechanism and the embalming of Stone’s skeleton is another act of architectural penance for all the historic buildings torn down in the modernist zeal of the late 20th century, from Penn Station to the Dakota Stables. Thanks to the writings of Venturi, Scott Brown, et al., we don’t just bulldoze the past—we layer on top of it, make it into a sandwich, and wrap it.
But this view of the project inadequately explains the decision to keep the lollipops. Today we’re moving beyond the stage of “reading” architecture like a text, and toward a new, urgent pragmatism. The relevant question is not what a building signifies but what it does. Or, from the architect’s perspective, given the rules of the game (budget, time, anticipated revenue, code, etc.) and the pieces on the board (Stone’s building, the circle, the Time Warner Center, the park, the public): How do we proceed? MAD proceeded not with a grand formal gesture but with a strategy of getting the most for the least while formally holding its own against Time Warner’s glass behemoths, which incidentally cost almost 20 times as much as the museum. The museum’s glass, furniture, and fabrics were donated in kind, as were the lollipops, in a sense: they stayed because they were structure. Removing them all would have meant demolishing the building and starting from scratch, and one good reason not to do that was all the code (seismic, for instance) grandfathered in from the Stone structure.
My intent is not to make excuses for the building but to question the framework by which it is being judged. If we are to encourage frugality in architecture and the reuse of materials, structures, and foundations—both concrete and administrative—then we need to critique buildings for what they are: responses to a varied set of conditions, not contenders in a pictorial pantheon. Ouroussoff went as far as to include the new MAD in his list of New York’s top seven buildings that are candidates for demolition, a move Lee Rosenbaum rightly called “critical malpractice.” It’s a sad sign that architecture criticism in newspapers is stuck in the spectacle, the game of evaluating and arranging buildings like sculptural objects in a gallery.
Architecture should look more at the current product-design discourse. In 2001 the design theorist Richard Buchanan lucidly noted that designers are turning away from “visual symbols and things” toward “action and environment” as the means by which they create and evaluate design. Objects these days are inseparable from the experience of using them: the old standards of form, function, materials, and technique have begun to follow, rather than lead, design development. (The design of the iPod is not so much about the material object as its interface and the iTunes infrastructure.) As their conceptual tools have shifted, Buchanan argued, designers and theorists have started to understand products not from the outside but from inside the experiences of the people who make and use them.
So while the new MAD building may have some unresolved issues in its form, materials, and proportions, it does make an argument about the use of old materials and the usefulness of history. And as an experience, it’s incomparably richer than standing in a dank, empty folly or shopping in the Time Warner Center’s Whole Foods across the street. Cloepfil and Allied Works have not created a visually resolved building. But they have conceived a rather clever one.