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Stopped Making Sense

To build a building is hard; to criticize a building is, by comparison, easy. For a serious critic, the impulse to write uncomplimentary things should always provoke a bout of preliminary introspection. Does one write from the lofty principle that truth must be spoken to power, or at least to fashion? Will the reader come away from this exercise in scorching criticism of buildings and urban spaces with a heightened appreciation for the built environment and its importance to our daily lives? Should one be strict even with buildings that are more or less positive contributions to the otherwise vast wasteland of mediocre urban construction, and if so, how strict?

These thoughts needled me as I walked away from the recently opened New Museum in New York by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, the principals of the Tokyo-based firm SANAA. The pair have been established in Japan for some years, especially with their widely admired 21 Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, which opened in 2005. SANAA's star has been rising in the West, too, since Rem Koolhaas anointed Sejima by convincing the city of Almere, a suburb of Amsterdam for which Koolhaas had done the master plan, to commission her firm to build one of the principal iconic buildings in its new town center--a theater and cultural center called De Kunstlinie, which was finished in 2007.

Here is why I was disinclined to write about SANAA's recently opened New Museum in New York. At fifty-two, Sejima is still young for a successful architect; and at thirteen years old, SANAA likewise is young. It is one thing to put the pressure on an international superstar--Frank Gehry or Koolhaas, architects who get far more publicity and accolades than anyone, much less they, deserve. But it is another to speak ill of the work of a still unfamiliar architect and her partner whose work is barely known in the United States. A critic must have a conscience about such things. Besides, so few women practitioners succeed. And the New Museum is SANAA's first major building in the States (although the much smaller Glass Pavilion at the Toledo Museum of Art in Toledo, Ohio was widely praised when it opened in 2006). And why write about another museum anyway, and thereby feed the media's museum frenzy, which conveys to the public the sadly mistaken notion that meaningful architecture can reside only in a handful of iconic cultural institutions? (A well-known architect recently remarked to me that designing a museum or a performing arts center "really isn't that difficult," because their programs are fairly straightforward and their technical challenges largely resolved.) Most new buildings are bad, or at least not good. Why pick on the New Museum?

But then one watches with increasing dismay as others inflate even a tiny bubble of competence into a balloon as big and as ridiculous as those floating by in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. And then one also reflects upon what the design of the New Museum inadvertently reveals about the world of contemporary art in New York.

SANAA's New Museum is a freeze-dried packet of desiccated minimalism. It is in no way miraculous. We are in more trouble than I thought if this is the project that is supposed to restore faith in New York City or point the way toward the future of architecture. The most that can be said in its favor is that in the New Museum, as in the firm's other projects, SANAA raises provocative questions about the value of minimalism in architecture.

The New Museum, on the west side of the Bowery, is set mid-block on a tight site (71 feet wide and 112 feet deep) in a huddled place, a visually, aurally, and olfactorily raucous environment of honking horns, restaurant supply stores, brownstone walk-ups, soup kitchens, and occasional islands of gentrification-- a Whole Foods market, a residential high-rise. The building's program is fairly typical of a small museum: a dramatic event space of the sort on which many such institutions rely for revenue, raised by rentals for private meetings and parties; an entry-cum-cafe-cum-bookstore-cum-gift-shop; offices for museum staff; and gallery spaces.

SANAA has packed these various functions into a single monolithic image: a seven-story, 174-foot-high tower composed of six lacy gray boxes set askew on top of one another. I say lacy because the building, above the plate-glass ground level, is shrink-wrapped in silvery-gray, diamond-perforated, extruded aluminum mesh. Exterior quietude set amid an urban cacophony, the New Museum's facade is a pleasing blank. From the street, prospecting the New Museum's compositional balance of seeming rectilinearity and actual irregularity is as momentarily amusing as looking at a child's uneasily balanced tower of wooden blocks.

Given the dimensions of the site, the New Museum could get the square footage it needed only by building up. SANAA's parti for the project--that is archispeak for the overall design concept--is that by setting each story askew from the next, skylights could be created that would allow natural light to fall inside. It is not a new idea (the mid-twentieth-century American architects George Howe and William Lescaze proposed something similar for the original Museum of Modern Art, and so did Koolhaas in OMA's original scheme for the Seattle Public Library), but it is a reasonably good idea. In the case of the New Museum, someone--a cost-cutting consultant, or a curator demanding control of the light, or perhaps just an inept designer--got his or her hands on SANAA's parti and ruined whatever promise it held. Only minimal natural light is perceptible inside, because it is filtered through so many layers (two panes of glass and a polycarbonate panel below, a metal grating above), and because the dimensions of the wall-length skylight slits are too diminutive. Even worse, the main source of lighting on every floor is exposed fluorescent bulbs, which blare and glare out any daylight that might actually fall within. The natural light admitted is barely worth the ample $830-plus per square foot that it cost to construct such a structurally complex building.

The New Museum's first-floor façade is floor-to-ceiling glass. For technologically or detail-minded professionals, this floor offers wow factors. So then, wow! A seven-story building looks like it is floating on a base of glass! And, wow! How did SANAA get those enormous glass plates to slam directly into poured concrete floors? (In fact, there are expansion joints that allow this evident sleight-of-hand, nearly invisible because the material is dyed to match the color of the concrete.)

The New Museum's three principal exhibition spaces are simple white-walled free-span galleries, which are located on the second, third, and fourth floors. Each floor has a different ceiling height, as is common in museums of modern and contemporary art. (For a geographically proximate example, look at Marcel Breuer's Whitney Museum of American Art.) Connecting the New Museum's third- and fourth-level galleries is a staircase tucked behind a wall along the building's north edge. Cool staircases have become nearly a sine qua non in contemporary museums, largely because all that most museum curators really want from their architects is blank white walls and free-span spaces. This leaves few opportunities for actual design. Since most museumgoers must at one point or another ascend or descend a staircase, staircases have become a focal point of many recent museum commissions, including Yoshio Taniguchi's Museum of Modern Art in New York, Herzog & de Meuron's de Young Museum in San Francisco, and Tod Williams and Billie Tsien's addition to the Phoenix Art Museum.

The drama of the New Museum's internal staircase is owed to its being hidden away, so that one does not expect to find anything in the galleries other than exhibited art. And because the design of the staircase itself combines radical simplicity (one white handrail) with radical proportions: it runs between two tall white walls, a fifty-foot-long straight promenade which, at four feet wide, is so tight as to be nearly ludicrous. (Though not in Japan, where compressed proportional sensibilities, born of necessity, are common. One of Sejima's most interesting projects, which she did solo, is her House in a Plum Grove in Tokyo, in which she squeezed a family's entire two-story house into less than 1,000 fascinating square feet). The other attempted wow is the New Museum's event space, called the Sky Room. Glassed in on three sides and located on the top floor, the Sky Room offers views over lower Manhattan. That's nice. But SANAA's design contribution consists of little more than opening up the views. Moreover, placing the event space on the museum's top floor has the decided disadvantage of making what could be the New Museum's central space of respite and ceremony into an unnecessary side-trip for most visitors.

Other than its mildly amusing exterior quietude, its careful ground-floor detailing (mild wow), and its internal staircase-chute (for some, a mild wow; for others, oppressive), the New Museum offers little. And these modest virtues are vastly outweighed by its flaws. Begin with the most basic consideration. Is this a nice place to be? Alas, it is not. It is downright unpleasant. The main circulation route through the building, to which one arrives after a diagonal sequence from the front door, is a single, excruciatingly slow elevator. Desperate for escape, one hunts for stairs. Those stairs are, in fact, right next to the elevator shaft--but in SANAA's fanatical minimalism, they are hidden behind a barely marked white door. When, finally, you identify your escape route from the still-unarrived elevator, you spill into a tight, mean, and unremarkable fire egress.

Standing in the second-, third-, and fourth-floor gallery spaces offers this: white, rectangular, largely windowless loft-like boxes, which one surveys from foot-unfriendly, rock-hard concrete floors while shielding one's eyes from the glare emitted by the relentless, repetitive grid of long, narrow, exposed fluorescent lights. Now, there is nothing wrong with grittiness in architecture. Many modern and contemporary architects have made a virtue of the everyday, from Alison + Peter Smithson's lovely little Sugden House in England to a number of contemporary architects' recent experiments in prefabrication, seen in Dwell magazine and exhibitions such as "Some Assembly Required: Contemporary Prefabricated Houses," which traveled to various venues around the country in 2006-2007. But at the New Museum grittiness is not elevated to greatness. Standing in the New Museum is akin to standing in a cleaned-out subway station. It is merely grim.

There are other, more unsettling problems. The way that SANAA deals with the administrative offices betrays an assent to institutional hierarchies that responsible architects should challenge. The New Museum's administrative offices are crammed under the lowest ceilings in the building's seven stories. Underlings are stuffed, 1950s-style, into wholly pedestrian office cubicles in an open interior loft space. Only the top administrators get "window" offices, though even these windows, in deference to the building's monolithic gray extruded aluminum skin, do not look onto the street. Instead they look at the perforated metal grid.

There is more in what this building's design reveals about the institution it houses. The New Museum is one of the few museums in New York City, and the only major one in Manhattan, devoted exclusively to the exhibition of contemporary art in all media. In recent years, contemporary art has become the transitional fetish object of so many venture capitalists and hedge fund managers that one should cheer for an institution where, in theory, one can see cutting-edge examples of it in a non-commercial, or at least less commercial, venue. Yet what have the New Museum's curators and administrators chosen to house new art? The most conventional exhibition spaces imaginable: free-span, artificially lit white boxes. Shouldn't a museum of contemporary art challenge one's expectations of contemporary architecture? Shouldn't a museum devoted to the new offer up new experiences along with new objects? That is the real irony of the New Museum: in architectural conception and as a space to exhibit art, it is wholly, uninterestingly conventional--as conventional, indeed, as much of the contemporary art that was displayed in its opening exhibition.

There is much pluralism in contemporary architecture, and in museum design. In the latter instance, the past decade has seen two prominent trends. There is the sometimes tasteful, often merely pretentious shopping-mall mentality of the Renzo Piano-Yoshio Taniguchi set (epitomized by Taniguchi's fatuous promise to the MoMA Board of Trustees that if they raised "really a lot of money" (as opposed to the $858 million that they did raise), he would "make the building disappear." And there is the overwrought complexity offered by the likes of Daniel Libeskind, Zaha Hadid, and Coop Himmelb(l)au, architects smitten with the possibilities offered by digital technologies, which they use to create ever more complex, ever more unthinkable buildings. To shopping-mall mediocrity and florid complexity, SANAA's simple geometries, stripping away of ornamental flourishes, and meticulous attention to detail (as in the unforgettable joining of the ground-floor glass panels to the concrete floors), offers a welcome retort. The New Museum is not itself a distinguished or even a very good building. Still, the lesson for contemporary architects should be that neither lavishly expensive shopping centers nor exhibitionist contortions are the only paths into our architectural future.

SANAA's New Museum leaves me with a bigger question, too. Is there anything left to be squeezed out of minimalism? After Donald Judd built his boxes and, in the process, transformed our understanding of space and the role of our own bodies in creating and recreating it, what can we learn from more Judd-like boxes? To put it in architectural terms, after Ludwig Mies van der Rohe created minimalist lofts for art, as in the New National Gallery in Berlin, do we really need more paeans to his vision? Mies's biographer recounts the German architect's amusing dismay at the turn American architecture took in the 1970s, when historicist eclecticism captured the imaginations of many up-and-coming practitioners. Shaking his head in befuddled protest, Mies reportedly complained, "We showed them what to do ... what the hell went wrong?" Maybe there is more to explore in minimalism than simply to do it again and again with feeling. But the New Museum has not demonstrated what that more might be.

 Correction: We regret the several errors of fact in Sarah William Goldhagen’s piece,“Stopped Making Sense”: The New Museum is on the east, not the west side of the Bowery; Mies van der Rohe made the comment about historicist post modernism in the late 1960s, not the 1970s (he died in 1969); and the square footage of SANAA’s Glass Pavilion at the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio exceeds that of the New Museum by 18,000 square feet. 

Sarah Williams Goldhagen reviews architecture for The New Republic.