Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street (between Fifth and Sixth Avenues)
New York NY 10019

Edward Durrell Stone and Philip Goodwin 1939;Yoshio Taniguchi 2004

MoMA's contribution to modern architecture in America began before it moved to its present building. In 1932 Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson organized a major show of contemporary European and American architecture, under the title 'Modern Architecture: International Exhibition'. The show, which toured nationally, brought European architectural developments to a wide audience in America. In the title of the tour and its accompanying book, Hitchcock and Johnson coined the phrase 'The International Style':

'...a style expressing several design principles: a concern with volume as opposed to mass and solidity. regularity as opposed to axial symmetry, and the proscription of "arbitrary applied decoration."'

'Hitchcock and Johnson, however, embraced the movement represented by Le Corbusier and Mies more for its novelty as a style than for its potential as social theory. For these museum curators, who were both well-born and thoroughly insulated from the harsher social realities with which the radical Europeans were grappling, Modernism meant something almost entirely aesthetic. Indeed, Johnson was to insist for the rest of his architectural career on the futility of addressing social issues through architecture. In the introduction to their book, Alfred Barr [director of MoMA] declared that "It should be made clear that the aesthetic qualities of the Style are the principal concerns of the authors," noting that they had made "little attempt to present here the technical or sociological aspects of the style except in so far as they are related to problems of design."'

Carter Wiseman, Shaping a Nation, 1998

MoMA followed this exhibition by building for itself the first 'International Style' building in America, in 1939.

Since then, Philip Johnson - who became the museum's first director of MoMA's department of architecture, but left in 1934 - created the sculpture garden and a new wing in 1953, and in 1984 Cesar Pelli created a controversial 53-story residential tower on top of the museum, to raise money needed for the museum's growth. In 2004 Yoshio Taniguchi created both a substantial further expansion along the street, and a major transformation of the original buildings, creating a unified museum space and integrating the different phases of building.

Yoshio Taniguchi's additions have created some exciting spaces for viewing art, with surprising openings that bring the whole gallery together, while not subordinating the exhibits to the building. The pristine but austere black stone facing of the new building contrasts, with a new milky-white glass skin over the garden facade of the original building (itself echoing fellow Japanese architect's facade for the Louis Vuitton store three blocks to the North along Fifth Avenue, completed the same year).

 

MoMA has fought hard and successfully to stay contemporary, not a frozen glimpse of the early twentieth century. It has done this through its gallery layout, which starts with today and works backwards, as well as through the boldness with which it has kept the best of its various original buildings, but has embraced new ways of bringing them together - so that the sculpture garden, for example, is now entered from the ends rather than the long front, and the whole complex is better integrated into the city with new  visual gaps and with entrances on both 53rd and 54th Streets.

 

Simon Glynn 2005

 


How to visit

The museum is on the North side of 53rd Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. For information on opening times and tours - and exhibitions - call +1 212 708 9480 or visit www.moma.org

The neighborhood's other star attraction: the local branch of the New York Public Library, right across the street from the MoMA entrance, keeps on display the original Winnie the Pooh and his friends (Christopher Robin's original toys, well pre-Disney).

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