“Beautiful Rough”, Domus #909, January 12, 2007

The New Museum of Contemporary Art opened its new building in downtown Manhattan to the public in early December. The roughly 6000m2, eight-story structure of loosely stacked boxes provides the institution a perfect platform for the advancement of new ideas, in a time and place where they are most needed.

The New Museum was born out of a defiant spirit. Marcia Tucker, a strong minded curator, started it in 1977 after being fired at the Whitney Museum in New York, over a show deemed too provocative. In the following 22 years of directorship at the New Museum, she ran the institution with her founding motto, “Act first, think later—that way you have something to think about.” The museum became a shelter for art shunned elsewhere, because it was thorny, out of fashion or made by non white, non male or non straight artists. Shows were strongly political, infused by her feminist, liberal convictions. Her show “Have You Attacked America Today?” caused trash cans to be thrown through the glass storefront of the museum.

In 2001, under new directorship, the New Museum aspired to an independent home. It invited five offices, all relatively unknown in the US, to propose plans for an empty parking lot on a degenerated boulevard in downtown Manhattan. The Bowery, a few blocks east of Broadway, was a disregarded street, infamous for its gangs, bums and punks. The decision to move here, rather then the more obvious “art—neighborhood” Chelsea, accelerated a process of gentrification already under way. Rapidly the last odd homeless shelter is making place for luxury apartments and the few cheap businesses are overtaken by fancy clubs and bars.

The change happening on the Bowery illustrates a shift taking place all over Manhattan in the last decade. 911 and the Bush regime turned the U.S. in a fearful, inward looking society. Ideas have been twisted for economical gain and intellectual debate suffers. In the meantime, due to successes on Wall Street, enormous amounts of money came pouring into the city. High-end residences and designer restaurants soothe ideological discontent. Too eagerly, art, architecture and design gave its carefully acquired credibility to this trend. It is about selling rather than searching.

How does the SANAA-designed New Museum fit amidst this delirious landscape? SANAA found inspiration in various facets, most strongly in the mission of the institution and the character of the site. The museum’s desire to engage alternative voices and a willingness to explore uncertain conditions formed the conceptual design threads. It concerns an eminent synergy between the urban atmosphere and the institution. The building consists of a number of stacked boxes that shift in relation to one another, opening the building up to the city. Its slight instability resonates with today’s erractic society. As a tall building it sits on axis with a Chinatown housing project on the south and the Empire State building towards the north. Not maximizing the buildable envelope—unheard of in a city where every square inch counts—it was possible to break the mass down into smaller volumes that relate to the neighboring buildings and root the institution in its urban context.

With its fully glass storefront disappearing into the concrete floor, the lobby feels as if the sidewalk has extended itself all the way to the back of the building. This floor demonstrates the museums bold stance as a public forum and its openness towards the city. Freely accessible, there is a café, a bookstore and a glass walled gallery towards the back, all visible from the street. Behind the core for vertical transportation, the loading area is also fully exposed. Fourteen feet tall glass doors offer views of art coming in, crating and uncrating; the museum as organism.

Designing space for art not yet conceived often results in large, flexible rooms awaiting future division. The SANAA building explores a different type of flexibility by providing the museum with a number of distinctive, well-proportioned galleries, many with skylights at different orientations. Every space has its own atmosphere. The natural light is augmented with a strict grid of fluorescent tubes. At night the slits spill out the interior light, softly illuminating the exterior. Higher up are the education floor and office spaces, whose long band windows further open the building up to the city. The highest public floor is an event space. Here the shift between the boxes creates terraces for the public with views to massive housing projects on the east and a dense cluster of towers on Wall Street to the south.

In materialization the building is basic. Concrete floors, vandal proof sheet-rock, exposed I-beams and metal-deck make the building sit comfortably within its rugged context. The strategy was to embrace the notoriously challenging construction conditions in New York, beautiful rough. The exterior boxes are clad in brightly anodized, expanded aluminum mesh that continuously changes character depending on environmental conditions. The abstractness of the exterior functions like the neutral backdrop in a Walker Evans photograph. It forces you to look more carefully at that which sits in front of it, be it the lost alcoholic or the banker on his walk home.

Just as New York has transformed, the art world has gone through dramatic changes during the past decade. Will the museum keep its radical roots in a more money driven environment, especially with an expanded staff, a larger board and many more visitors? A recent article in the New York Times is discouraging: “ With the contemporary art market boiling over as newly rich collectors compete at fairs, auctions and galleries, the New Museum will be a ready-made hive for dealers, clients and the Prada-clad art-world swarm that follows them. For artists, having works on display there could bring faster recognition and probably higher prices.” There is no reason to believe that this is where the museum is heading. The opening show, Unmonumental, a collective effort of the new curatorial lineup, wants to prove that.

Ms Tucker passed away October 17, 2006. In her memory, the fully glazed ground floor is named the Marcia Tucker Hall. Amidst a city in flux, it sits fearless awaiting a trash can.