Modern Mediation Today

Creating a restaurant inside the new MoMA required acts of imagination—and diplomacy.

The complexities of designing the Modern, the restaurant at the expanded Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), started at the door. The museum wanted an amenity for visitors and trustees: an in-house eatery—accessible from within` the building—whose food was up to MoMA’s stellar standards. Danny Meyer and David Swinghammer, whose Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG) includes Zagat stars Gramercy Tavern and the Union Square Cafe, wanted to create a new Midtown icon with its own entrance from 53rd Street. To add to the challenge, the restaurant space also had to cross three decades of building: Philip L. Goodwin and Edward Durell Stone’s 1939 International Style gem, Philip Johnson’s 1964 steel-framed wing, and Yoshio Taniguchi’s 2004 addition. Bentel & Bentel, the Long Island-based architecture firm hired by the museum, had to figure out how to negotiate these complementary and conflicting goals to satisfy both clients while not turning the restaurant into some sort of mid-century theme park.

Naturally the one thing everyone agreed on was that the restaurant had to be the best. “Danny is a person who lives in a world of superlatives,” says Paul Bentel, who designed the restaurant and the quick Cafe 2 upstairs with partners Carol Rusche Bentel and Peter Bentel, and Susan Nagle. “It was the same thing with [MoMA director] Glenn Lowry, who said, ‘You’re going to do this for me, right? You’re going to make the greatest place possible—and shave a few hundred thousand dollars off the budget?’”

The process began in 2002, when longtime Union Square Cafe patron, former MoMA trustee, and art book publisher Paul Gottlieb told Meyer—after lunch—that the museum was looking for someone new to run their restaurants. Meyer immediately applied and, after more than a year of deliberations, was told his group had the job. This delay is an indication of how seriously (and secretly) the museum made every decision relating to its reopening. Meyer still doesn’t know who his competition was. “We wanted to elevate our food services to a level commensurate with the museum itself,” says MoMA chief operating officer James Gara. “The other restaurateurs were talking about the fanciest food and the most innovative design. Danny talked about all that but also about service.”

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After his selection Meyer, Lowry, and MoMA’s chief curator of architecture and design, Terence Riley, put together an international list of architects for the restaurant. “We wanted someone who could provide a distinct environment within the overall aesthetic parameters set out by Taniguchi,” Riley says, “someone speaking the same language but with a different accent.” Paul Bentel says, “Terry wanted it to strive to the level of the truly enduring—perhaps even monumental. He wanted something designed like the Barcelona Pavilion, with the reflecting pool and the travertine wall.”

Bentel & Bentel, who have designed a variety of small institutions (churches and libraries) as well as four of USHG’s other restaurants, were not originally on the list. “The museum was working with the same thinking they had used in selecting Taniguchi,” Meyer says. “They were not a firm on their radar screen, but the museum understood that there’s a huge expertise that goes with creating restaurants.”

Bentel & Bentel eventually won the commission with a presentation that emphasized their Modern roots, longtime love of the museum, and interpretations of the ambitions of MoMA and the restaurateurs. Paul and Peter Bentel’s parents and firm founders, Frederick and Maria Bentel, studied architecture with Alvar Aalto, R. Buckminster Fuller, and Walter Gropius. Paul and Carol live in a barrel-vaulted concrete-framed house Maria designed for her parents in 1956. Both Bentel brothers remember the museum’s original restaurant, on the top floor of the Goodwin and Stone building, as being a formative childhood experience. In a series of sketches they tried to relate art to the dining experience. “The first idea was platforming, so that you can create territories without inserting walls,” Paul says. “We talked a lot about defining spaces without enclosing them.”

Once the Bentels were hired in summer 2003, they immediately started meeting on the construction site. “The first thing we did was lay out the kitchen on the basement level,” Paul says. The Bentels, Meyer, and Swinghammer also had to quickly educate the museum about the needs of restaurants. “The original plans Taniguchi had done were just a sea of tables from the front of the museum all the way to the garden,” Paul says. “You should never have more than three tables across.” Carol adds, “More than that and people feel like you gave them the worst table in the house.” In addition, the museum had radically underestimated the amount of back-of-the-house space a high-quality restaurant requires; the architects ended up carving out kitchens on three floors, displacing some offices.

The designers went through dozens of designs (and an equal number of mock-ups) to figure out how to subdivide the squarish space, sandwiched between Johnson’s superlative 1953 sculpture garden and the resurrected curvy canopy of the Goodwin and Stone building. “There was a concern that when somebody walks in they won’t see people,” Swinghammer says. “Some designs had people on the window on 53rd Street, but then there was a vastness of tables, and it didn’t allow for much kitchen space.”

Everyone was committed to having a more casual dining area in the restaurant—called the Bar Room—as well as the high-end Modern. The Bentels turned to their experience at Gramercy Tavern, where the front of the house is for drinking and walk-in dining. “We like the notion of people having to confront a party before they go on to a more refined dining experience,” Meyer says. A 56-foot-long bronze-glass liquor cabinet gives patrons entering from the museum a glimpse of the action; and the bustle of the kitchen is visible in slivers from the Bar Room, but only as mime. The Bentels employed a theater trick, canting the walls in to trap sound, but felt it was important to show the one place in the museum where people were still working to make art.

The final design replaces street life with social life, layering the bar, the Bar Room, and the Modern’s dining room in bands parallel to the street. The curve of the entrance hall—a reference to Stone’s canopy—continues across the marble bar, lit from below so that the 46-foot-long stone surface floats. Other lines are straight but equally protracted. Bar patrons can sit on spindly-legged red leather seats or at intimate tables lining the longest leather bench you’ve ever seen. Casual dining is set off by a change in ceiling treatment and floor surface: oak-veneered Flamingo tables strut across the same white oak floor Taniguchi specified for the galleries. Above, stretched sheets of PVC hide the grilles of the ventilation system.

These choices were made with the input of the museum’s many constituencies. The security staff was concerned about the restaurant adding an additional entrance to the museum. James Gara was worried about maximizing the number of seats. Several trustees also weighed in on furniture and finishes. Ronald Lauder (who funded the restoration of the 1939 facade) was particularly involved and opinionated. He believed the museum’s cafeteria should be reborn as an Automat, a suggestion Bentel & Bentel had to decline. “Ron Lauder was at one time energized by the idea that the interior glass wall in the restaurant could be removed so the museum could have a larger event,” Paul says. “But Terry was adamant that there would not be any movable furniture.” This “sticking point” was resolved with a classic compromise. The translucent glass wall separating the Bar Room from the Modern is removable, but not without effort. “Terry and Glenn were not eager to make flexibility a touchstone,” Paul says.

The furniture, china, and cutlery are a mix of custom-designed Bentel & Bentel and the best of Danish design, vintage (Poul Kjaerholm), and Modern (Flamingo chairs). The Danish consulate, looking for a revolutionary way to promote the country’s Modernist tradition, had offered a deal: the museum would receive a discount on Danish wares thanks to a sponsorship program. To take advantage, the Bentels, Meyer, and Swinghammer took a 48-hour buying trip to Copenhagen in February 2004 with MoMA architecture and design curator Paola Antonelli.

Another potential sticking point was the use of art in the restaurant. In early presentations the Bentels included sculpture. Later, video art and projected images were discussed. But the curators felt that to have art in the restaurant was, one, a liability issue, and two, potentially stigmatizing for a living artist. An Ellsworth Kelly work, a gift of Ronald and Jo Carole Lauder, was also a lingering suggestion. “We tried hard to work that in,” Paul says, “but physically it didn’t really fit.”

In the Bar Room, the curving legs of the tables and coordinating Flamingo and Kjaerholm PK9 chairs perk up what might otherwise have been a too strict Miesian field of flat surfaces. Also adding some pseudonatural curves is the restaurant’s sole artwork: Thomas Demand’s 2003 The Clearing, selected by MoMA curator at large Kynaston McShine. “I think it was very successful to keep the spaces planar and abstract, and have the mural act as a foil,” Riley says. “It occupies the space much more impressively than a larger number of works would have.”

The photograph, made to fit the glass panel masking the unisex bathrooms, is jungly and mysterious, adding depth and a garden view to the windowless space. In the evening the leaves reflect onto the Plexiglas ceiling, causing a slight rippling effect resembling water. The Bentels designed a series of tufted leather ottomans to occupy the space in front of the mural. “The couches say ‘Yes, just relax,’” Swinghammer says. “Monday night, Glenn Lowry was there, and that’s where he decided to go.”

Those not ready to lounge will definitely feel comfortable in the Modern, screened from the bustle by a translucent glass wall. This room is really in Taniguchi’s museum—on a glass-walled porch overlooking the sculpture garden. “I still think we need a piece of sculpture on the porch to occupy the middle ground,” Paul says. Fabric sound baffles hang like pennants above; the Bentels would have preferred acoustical treatment set into the ceiling, but Taniguchi didn’t respond to their requests for a change.

In summer months, the restaurant will serve outdoors; in the winter there will be just the incomparable view. Not wanting to add anything heavy to such a light, bright environment, the Bentels designed a series of horseshoe leather banquettes mounted on more curved stainless-steel legs to line the glass wall and echo the Jacobsen dining chairs. They’re tweaking the final arrangement—the servers need more room to move between the banquettes, which may eventually (per Riley’s wishes) be bolted down, and some of the central tables are a little squeezed—but the overall effect is simple.

Even on the door, finally, there was compromise. The hungry museum visitor crosses into the refurbished lobby of the original MoMA. He or she makes a left at Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawing, floating above a mirror-polished stainless-steel baseboard, and is funneled into a long hallway illuminated by the bronze-glass cabinet, the wine glinting red from inside. At the end of the hall a stainless-steel maître d’ stand awaits. The walk-in patron also strolls past an expanse of period bronze glass—the glazed facade of the Johnson addition—and is funneled down a very 2001 curved opaline corridor into the Goodwin and Stone building, ending up at the same shiny stand. “It was really important that everyone be met the same way and that the same materials be used on both entrances,” Paul Bentel says.

“That was just one of 500 examples of the kind of back-and-forth that was constant between Bentel & Bentel, the museum, and us,” Meyer says. “It’s a rare soup that gets better with more cooks.”

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