Taking Just the Right Angle

Visitors explore the $50 million building that houses the New Museum of Contemporary Art on opening day.
Visitors explore the $50 million building that houses the New Museum of Contemporary Art on opening day. (By Q. Sakamaki -- Redux)
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 9, 2007

NEW YORK -- The people at the New Museum of Contemporary Art built their strange, aluminum-clad ziggurat in lower Manhattan just like any other building. It was made from the ground up, a concatenation of concrete and steel, rising from the Bowery, a street once synonymous with alcoholism, homelessness and despair, to the height of 174 feet. You can watch a time-lapse video of its progress on the New Museum's Web site, a nervous, jumpy clip of steel rising, shapes forming, plastic sheeting flapping, yellow insulation creeping up the walls, and, finally, voila, the building itself, fully formed.

Yet the word "built" seems not quite right to capture the effect of the New Museum's new museum, which opened Dec. 1. It doesn't look built -- the product of a methodical fitting together of pieces -- but rather stacked, as if its blocky parts had been placed there by a giant hand from on high, seven toy boxes piled one on top of another. And that hand from on high wasn't a particularly steady one. The boxes are all just a little out of line with one another, so there are overhangs and empty spaces, and a lack of symmetry.

And so once again one needs a verb borrowed from the playroom -- stacked, smashed, twisted, jumbled -- to describe a major new piece of contemporary architecture. These buildings don't always work. By posing as forms that they really are not, they run the risk of seeming absurd. The "blocks" designed by the Tokyo-based firm Sanaa for the New Museum aren't really blocks -- separate structures piled on top of each other -- but interconnected floors tied to a central concrete core with structural supports on the sides. They are made to look like blocks by their irregular arrangement and the subtle use of aluminum mesh cladding.

Indeed, a rather cranky critic of contemporary architecture, former Boston University president John Silber, has just published a screed against buildings similar to the new Sanaa-designed museum, titled "Architecture of the Absurd." When singling out a Frank Gehry-designed structure in Boston -- the Stata Center at MIT, which looks like a block of office buildings that's been shaken a few times, like an omelet flipped in a frying pan -- he quotes a nursery rhyme that suggests the degree to which the playfulness in today's architectural form is reminding observers of all stripes of the romper room.

"There was a crooked man, and he walked a crooked mile," writes Silber at the end of his diatribe. This is not meant as a kind summation of his thoughts on Frank Gehry.

But the New Museum in New York works, and it works in part because its basic form suggests not just playfulness, but something supernatural as well. A mix of those two elements, an amalgam of brattiness and transcendence, silliness and the spiritual, would pretty much describe where the contemporary art world spends much of its time these days. By posing as something either built by God's hand or by the hand of a prattling child, the New Museum manages something surprising for a building sandwiched into a relatively small space in an old neighborhood: It seems monumental.

Monumentality, in architecture, is relative. The pyramids in Egypt aren't huge when compared with mountains. They're huge as man-made objects (especially given the technology available when they were made). The New Museum, which at 60,000 square feet of floor space is by no means small, seems much larger than it is by virtue of its shape and its placement. It is not an overwhelming presence on the street, but visually its bulk breaks down into smaller pieces that seem somehow oversize, which suggests monumentality rather as a Claes Oldenburg statue of a shuttlecock or clothespin suggests a preposterous bigness.

There is a worthy lesson in this for Washington architects who complain of the height limitations in the District. Buildings in Washington generally top out between 140 and 160 feet -- with an allowance for projecting spires and mechanical protrusions on roofs -- which means the 174-foot New Museum is not that much larger than what can be built here. It is also surrounded by older if not deeply historic buildings. The challenges faced by Sanaa, which included not just limits on the size and setback of the building, but also a relatively small budget of only $50 million (renovating the Smithsonian's Old Patent Office Building cost $283 million), are not that much different from the challenges faced by architects here.

And yet it is almost inconceivable that this museum could be built in Washington, where a de facto notion of architectural good citizenship has yielded a bland vernacular of buildings that either mimic the style of their elders or lapse into a blank silence aesthetically. Sanaa chose to do neither and came up with something far more confrontational. The aluminum mesh that covers the new museum gives the whole building sharp, industrial edges, which makes it bristle. And the interior spaces have been left raw. Structural supports sit exposed in the museum's offices, covered with gobs of white fire-retardant foam. The building, like the art within it, is intentionally unfinished -- a set of basic, boxy gallery spaces that make no idle effort at winning your affection.

By Washington standards, this is an antisocial building, a building without manners, a building that will never get an invite to the White House or the Cosmos Club or the Georgetown cocktail circuit. By New York standards, however, it is a building that obeys a different law of good citizenship -- it serves the city well by virtue of its nonconformity. Given its address in the Bowery, the independent spirit of the building is all the more poignant.

It also serves art fairly well. The rawness of the interior spaces is complemented by their pleasing eccentricity. The cement core that helps support the spine of this pile of boxes is placed off center, pushed toward the north wall of the slightly irregular square floor plan (Bowery Street was laid out before New York committed itself to a regular, rectilinear grid of streets). The galleries on the second, third and fourth floors are arranged differently around a central concrete core that contains the building's chartreuse-colored elevators. The off-center massing of the boxes also creates some magically confined spaces, including a stairway that leads to a small "niche" with a 35-foot ceiling that can accommodate artworks small or tall.

The "irrationality" that some critics might deplore in Sanaa's new building -- only its second project in the United States -- turns out to be skin deep. Not all buildings that play its game, hinting (or winking) at the hand of God in their shape, succeed so well. But this one does, and it suggests that others like it can as well. One might say its mix of boxy pieces and forbidding aluminum mesh is childishly sublime, or sublimely childish. Either will do. In a city like Washington, where serious people come to replay junior high school, with the fate of millions riding on the game, a building like this one would be a tonic. It is sober and silly, grand and playful, all at the same time, which means it has many points with which it might prick the conscience of a bureaucrat.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company