Anodized, expanded aluminium clad boxes, stacked in an irregular fashion. These distinctive forms are not an art work but the New Museum’s new building in New York.
The first of its kind ever to be built in Manhattan south of 14th Street, it opened in the Bowery on the east end of Prince Street on 1 December 2007. The Bowery is both the name of a district and a street.
At the end of the 18th century it was the most elegant in all Manhattan, but from the 1940s to the 1970s was the City’s Skid Row, notable for its Bums (people who were homeless, often alcoholic) and later, home to the CBGB club, which kickstarted punk rock in the States. Although the area has been gentrifying since then with high-rise condomiums, the street, lined with kitchen equipment shops, remains gritty in appearance. There has been very little conspicuous intervention by contemporary design in its dense urban tissue.
This curatorially adventurous institution founded in Manhattan in 1977, bought a parking lot for its first purpose-built home. They set a brief for a ground floor foyer, bookshop, café, gallery, basement gallery and an 182-seat auditorium, three levels of tall exhibition galleries, offices, a study centre, library and collections gallery, and a multi-purpose function “Sky Room” space at the top of the building. This gave Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of SANAA, the architects, a very tight zoning envelope in which to work and the ambitious programme, much bigger and radically different to any of its neighbours, meant going vertical, in true Manhattan style, was the only solution.
SANAA had to organise the programme in such a way that the Museum communicated a physical and metaphorical openness while observing the strict setback regulations. By contrast with the previous generation of architects, they are fundamentally concerned with programme, and its reconciliation with phenomenological factors, rather than with form in its own right. At the same time, all their work embraces transparency, but in this heavy context, it was essential that the mass appear light, but not completely dematerialised.
Typically in New York, architects take the maximum zoning envelope and end up with a box. They made numerous study models based on the Museum’s programme and the zoning envelope, and came up with the notion of stacked boxes, each box representing a specific part of the programme with its own floor area and ceiling height, housing the nine levels of the building, quite a grid-based idea in its own right. Their solution takes the shape of overlapping volumes of stacked boxes. It is a hybrid configuration that prevents giving new public space an homogenized condition.
Unlike most museums it is not based on hierarchical compositional rules. It reflects SANAA’s acceptance of these regulations but at the same time, their own treatment of boundaries - a distortion of their own grid. By shifting the boxes off axis, they found a way to feed light into the galleries, via skylights that open.
In the shift from levels six and seven on the south side is a terrace for the “Sky Room” tucked away from the street façade, enabling visitors to experience the city, including views of Bernard Tschumi’s new “Blue” condomium on Norfolk Street in the Lower East Side.
While there is doubt about the sufficiency of these apertures, and limited public access to the roof terraces, these tactics are certainly a good way to express freedom from urban regulations. SANAA, with their experience of building the Contemporary Art Museum in Kanazawa, have confronted the need for museums and their visitors to have fluid spaces. Intensifying the route from 3rd to 4th floor galleries is a narrow staircase 45 foot tall and just 3 foot wide. Although of slightly different dimensions, the three high ceilinged, column-free gallery floors, give the sense of a continuous experience, and as spaces are somewhat more reticent than other spaces in the building. Their exposed ceilings, industrial concrete floors and polycarbonate roof panels reads as reduced and utilitarian - a beautiful and rough spatial effect.
Overall, through the entire building, the impression is gradations of intimacy and grandness. That suits the curatorial vision, which is not so much didactic but about mixing and using the building in different ways. The bookshop with its semi-transparent mesh wall and all the display units on castors, allows for a flexible layout. Leftover façade panels were painted acid green and used to clad the elevator walls.
The mix of continuous expanded metal mesh façade and irregularly stacked boxes is potent. The surface reads in a more fuzzy way, with a degree of depth, than flat faced boxes would.
Although treated as a skin, with the windows behind it scarcely visible from the outside, a sense of the distinct identity of each box is never lost. Usually used in small panels, SANAA asked for large, custom-made diamond forms.
The visual intrigue of this alluring anti-monolith is heightened by SANAA’s placing of the rooflights and apertures on the façades. The metal, reflects the changing colours of the day, and came from Expanded Metal Company in collaboration with James & Taylor. Their appearance mutates as the light changes, and the façade takes on an orange glow that recalls the hue of the Bisazza decorative tiles in the toilets.
SANAA are not known for colour as it designates something so strongly, but their play with details here (the curtain in the auditorium is gold fibre), peps up the spaces. New Museum even invited a young architect, Christoff Finio, to configure the layout of the 5th floor education space, with tables on tracks. Here, the facade mesh, visible through the windows, throws shading and patterns across the floors.
The New Museum is a badly needed magnet to attract culture to the Bowery. It works because its spaces lack airs and graces and meet the curators’ needs for their plural programme.
An evocatively original edifice erasing the district’s lingering memories of skid row, it is sophisticated enough to play with art and commerce without being subsumed by them.