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Architecture That Blends In And Stands Out

The new MoMA is an attractive integrated collection of buildings, each with its own delicately detailed surface. Only by being inside the buildings, however, does one begin to comprehend the degree of integration among them. You learn the new MoMA, and learn to love its architecture, by moving about its interior spaces.

At first, there's almost nothing. From either 53rd or 54th Street you enter a long, wide, rather low-ceilinged blank space with white walls and an attractive slate floor. You buy tickets or make reservations at long black tables made of stone.

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)

It is an oft-used architectural device, of course, to deploy a compressed space as an entryway to a more expansive one. But unlike, say, a medieval cathedral, here the transition is gradual. You can get but a glimpse of great height from this ground-floor corridor. The real impact doesn't hit until after you've ascended a graceful stairwell to the second floor.

There, on a platform shared by "Broken Obelisk," Barnett Newman's mammoth bronze, many first-time visitors will do a 360-degree turn, looking up and around at a tall open space, not easily decipherable despite its 110-foot height. One senses right away that this will be the beginning of a journey with many routes and many surprises.

One senses, too, that Taniguchi has planned it all with the skill of a sensitive choreographer or expert landscape gardener. Throughout the spiraling journey in the six tall floors of the new wing or the lower-ceilinged galleries of the Goodwin-Stone building, the visitor again and again will find himself crossing the central atrium. All paths, eventually, lead to it.

In this, it is very like the atrium of I.M. Pei's 1978 East Building of the National Gallery of Art. In most respects, however, Taniguchi's atrium is a very different sort of place. Unlike Pei's triangulated atrium, for instance, this one is based entirely upon right angles. Nor is it wide open, with almost all points visible from all others. Nor is it bathed in natural light from an astonishing skylight.

Rather, because its configuration differs from floor to floor (except on the fourth and fifth, where it is the same), the space is subtly, or sometimes dramatically, unpredictable. There are six bridges and more than a dozen openings of different sizes cut into its soaring white walls.

In consequence, not only does a visitor repeatedly cross the space during the stroll, he also is constantly looking into it -- down, up or across. The openings vary in dimension, from nine-foot squares, say, to rectangles more than 40 feet tall, and they frame views of artwork and people on different floors. It all makes for an exceedingly pleasing, dynamic (and sometimes even a bit dizzying) spatial experience.

Likewise, openings in the exterior walls are many and carefully calculated. Dazzling views into the garden through glass walls contrast with framed views through tall niches in the architecture. Glass panels with white ceramic frit give an entirely different feel to the outside than do views through the dark tinted glass, which make New York seem a city without sun. The effect, in sum, is to intensify one's awareness of both outside and inside, of architecture, nature and city.

And, it is almost needless to say, the architecture in some way helps to intensify one's experience of the art. That's the aim every time a new museum is built, but it doesn't always work. Happily, it did happen here.

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© 2004 The Washington Post Company


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