Indeed, the MoMA design is like an enormous, complicated, site-specific sculpture. The museum had grown in increments over the decades, but this time around, Director Glenn Lowry made it clear that the museum did not want just another discrete addition, no matter how distinguished.
Rather, Lowry wrote, if the museum were to meet the challenges of the future, "it had to create a new museum," not only bigger but different. New kinds of spaces and spatial relationships were called for, he emphasized, and it all had to be tied together on the tight midtown Manhattan site. (MoMA had provided the expansion room by purchasing and demolishing an adjacent hotel on 54th Street in the mid-1990s.)
The new MoMA offers dazzling views of the sculpture garden through glass walls, above, and the back ends of the West 53rd Street facade, at right.
(Photos Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)
Taniguchi responded with confidence and sophistication. He proposed selective demolition of existing buildings. He designed different facade treatments on the south and north, in accordance with the specific qualities of 53rd and 54th streets. He provided, for the first time, a through connection on the ground floor, with entrances on both streets.
As asked, he provided a variety of spaces for art display -- big, high, columnless spaces for contemporary art; smaller rooms for MoMA's permanent collection of easel-scale paintings and human-scale sculptures, and even more intimate contained galleries for photographs and works on paper.
Furthermore, Taniguchi linked new and reconstituted old spaces by focusing the whole composition on the splendid sculpture garden designed in 1953 by Philip Johnson. And he accounted for all the needed expansion space -- nearly doubling the museum's physical size -- with new buildings both east and west of the sculpture garden.
Thus, the most dramatic exterior changes are visible on 54th Street. To the east of the garden rises a medium-size building for education and research. To the west is the new exhibition wing and, behind that, a new mid-rise tower for administrative offices.
The architect also reshaped the edges of the sculpture garden and rebuilt all of the northern facades -- the back ends of the 53rd Street buildings -- so that the composition reads as a convincing whole. The scene is now quietly impressive. Every surface is crisply sheathed with thin membranes of glass, metal or stone. And two of those Taniguchi porticoes, characteristically huge, face each other across the length of the garden.
On the 53rd Street side Taniguchi preferred to preserve, as he put it, MoMA's "record of regeneration." Thus the iconic white Goodwin-Stone building remains. So does Johnson's elegant steel-and-glass facade of 1964 immediately to the east and, of course, Cesar Pelli's sleek 1984 residential tower to the west, whose lower floors are part of the MoMA complex.
To the west of that, a new Taniguchi facade, in dark reflective glass, completes the composition. Multiple entryways now enliven the street -- there's one for the museum's upscale restaurant, the Modern; the Goodwin-Stone doorway, restored to its original modern curve; the residential entry; MoMA's new main entrance; a door to a spacious new bookstore; and access to museum offices.
All of this exterior work is smart and fairly low-key. Unlike many museums designed from the 1980s onward, this is one you could almost pass by without notice. (It is worth recalling that Taniguchi did his initial design in 1997, the year that the shimmering shapes of Frank Gehry's Bilbao Guggenheim wowed the world.)