Page D4.2 . 08 October 2008                     
ArchitectureWeek - Design Department
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    New York New Museum


    Maintaining Its Edge

    The New Museum, the institution, is just over 30 years old. Devoted to new art and new ideas, it started in lower Manhattan as a small operation that worked out of gallery space in the New School of Social Research, later moving to loft space in SoHo, according to the current director, Lisa Phillips.

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    By the turn of the century, in cramped quarters and with no building to call its own, the New Museum sought its own place. The problem, of course, is how does a 30-year-old operation stay fresh, off-balance, and edgy when it finally decides to hire an architect and put down roots?

    The New Museum made some decisions that were in line with its original founding. It decided to stay in lower Manhattan, near the art scene, on a street synonymous with skid row, just to keep things interesting. And it hired Japanese architects who were "new talent," virtually unknown in the United States: Kazuyo Sejima, Ryue Nishizawa, and their Tokyo-based firm, SANAA. The architects supplied a building that seems perfectly aligned with the New Museum's persona.

    Novel Alignment

    The site was a parking lot on the Bowery, where Prince Street intersects it, forming the terminus of a long thoroughfare noted for off-beat street life and open sidewalk markets where artists and craftspeople sell their wares. Nearby on the Bowery are shops that trade in restaurant supplies, building materials, plumbing hardware — all sorts of odds and ends that are gritty, shiny, hard, and above all, machine-made. In this neighborhood, the New Museum feels right at home.

    SANAA's approach to translating the museum's program into volume was straightforward yet ingenious. They arranged the spaces in a series of stacked boxes, each pushed off-kilter — one this way and the next that way — introducing the sense of tension that you find in a house of cards. The building has eight levels, seven of them above grade, with a rooftop mechanical space. Where a lower box slides out from the one above, the architects introduced skylights to illuminate galleries.

    The topmost box slides north to create a terrace to the south, revealing views of lower Manhattan. This level is completely devoted to a 2,000-square-foot (190-square-meter) "sky room" that seems perfect for parties. The terrace has an all-glass railing that from street level makes it look as though people are walking around on an open ledge. Edgy indeed!

    The 174-foot- (53-meter-) tall tower rests on a wall of glass. The watchword for SANAA's design is transparency, and the first floor is an open invitation along the Bowery. The street wall is floor-to-ceiling glass, detailed in such a way that the concrete sidewalk visually extends right into the building, becoming a concrete floor.

    Apparently the wall was too transparent. In the first few months after the museum opened, several people walked into the glass, unprepared for a smart bump on the nose. A horizontal row of decals now warns visitors that they're about to collide with a glass wall.

    In keeping with the theme of letting it all hang out, even the loading dock is unobscured. It's at the north end of the street wall, open and visible to passersby. This might be the first loading dock in history that has been turned into a design feature.

    Inside, the first floor is without partitions, completely open, housing a reception desk, bookshop, small cafe, and a glassed-in back gallery.

    Floors two through four are devoted to galleries. The fifth floor houses an education center with an expansive ribbon window looking west. In keeping with the raw nature of much of the art, the galleries have an unfinished feel to them, with simple gypsum-board walls and concrete floors. The ceilings are the undersides of the floor decks above, with exposed steel structure, pipes, conduits, and lighting.

    A secret treat is a north stair connecting the third and fourth floors, rising east to west. At the landing halfway up this staircase is a small exhibit space called "the shaft," five by eight feet in plan (1.5 by 2.4 meters) and 35 feet (11 meters) tall. It was carved out of the core space, and will be a challenge to any artist who wants to create an installation fitting for a gallery with roughly the proportions of an upended cigarette carton.

    A tower of volumes like this could be banal. But in SANAA's hands it becomes an inscrutable stack of…what? Nesting boxes, ice cubes, a defunct telephone switching facility?

    The architects completely wrapped the New Museum in anodized expanded aluminum mesh — a nice retro material that during the 1950s and '60s was slathered over Victorian storefronts, but never with as much style as here. Variations on the material are found inside, such as the cladding for the serpentine gift shop wall, and the ground floor's suspended ceiling.

    The effect is to keep you guessing, and so we are back where we started — staring at this downtown mountain of solids as it seems to dissipate into a mist, to become part of that passing cloud.   >>>

    Discuss this article in the Architecture Forum...

    Michael J. Crosbie is editor-in-chief of Faith & Form, the chair of the University of Hartford’s Department of Architecture, and a contributing editor to ArchitectureWeek.



    ArchWeek Image

    The New Museum's simple, stark interior is finished in concrete, glass, steel, and white partition walls.
    Photo: © Dean Kaufman Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    Each floor of the New Museum is offset from the floors above and below, allowing for skylights in the galleries.
    Photo: © Dean Kaufman Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    Site plan drawing.
    Image: SANAA Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    Ground-floor plan drawing.
    Image: SANAA Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    East-west section drawing, looking north.
    Image: SANAA Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    A narrow gap separates the New Museum's service core from the building's north wall.
    Photo: © Dean Kaufman Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    Electrical lighting acts in concert with skylights to illuminate gallery spaces.
    Photo: Benoit Pailley Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    On the seventh floor, a terrace adjoins a large event space, providing views of the city.
    Photo: © Dean Kaufman Extra Large Image


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