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The New MoMA Tries to Get Out of Its Own Way. We’ll See If It Can.

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Gallery 206 of the renovated MoMA. Photo: Iwan Baan/Courtesy of MoMA

After a summer of closed doors and expensive introspection, the Museum of Modern Art is reopening with a total transformation that tries to leave nothing behind. The latest version, by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, with Gensler, is an enlargement of an addition of an expansion, and the architects’ mission was not only to provide the ultimate container for the history of modern art but also to repackage MoMA’s own 80-year architectural history. Each of its phases — Goodwin and Stone’s 1939 original, Philip Johnson and Cesar Pelli’s interpolations, and the wholesale 2004 revamp by Yoshio Taniguchi — has been absorbed into the new iteration. (Tragically, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s American Folk Art Museum was in the way and had to be erased.) The result might have been either a mess or a compromise; instead, it’s a work of confident and self-effacing elegance. Whether it will make a great museum is another question, one that may take time to resolve.

Touring the almost empty megamuseum shortly before the crowds arrive unsettles me with déja vu. Fifteen years ago, I wandered through another new, still vacant MoMA and was enchanted by Taniguchi’s meticulous cool. Without the distraction of other visitors, I could pay attention to walls that appeared to levitate just above the floor, and the deftness with which all the usual messy protuberances — vents, switches, knobs, cables — had been subdued into near nonexistence.

thunderous reverberations.

opened a couple of years ago, but only now can we appreciate how the black-and-white marble lounge, with its vaguely retro glamour, fits into the whole scheme. The challenge was to thread a horizontal paseo through a series of discrete buildings that couldn’t simply be fused into one. Thick walls and portals framed in black steel mark the boundaries between addresses. Slight variations in the floorboards distinguish Taniguchi’s galleries from DS + R’s, if you’re looking for them. The architects even pay a kind of homage to the American Folk Art Museum they demolished, preserving the ghost of its narrow, vertical shape and opaque facade in a stack of glass-fronted galleries. As the museum moves westward, it pushes into the lower floors of a residential tower designed by Jean Nouvel, framed by immense diagonal beams that are, for now, mostly obscured by demure white walls. All these moving parts are united by an aesthetic in which every facet is sharp, thin, smooth, and glossy, like Nicole Kidman on Oscar night.

shelter magazines, shopping centers, apartment towers, hospitals, and office complexes. The late-20th-century style wars that pitted postmodernism against deconstructivism, parametricism against neo-vernacularism, seem quaint today. Today, architects claim proudly to offer no signature look, instead adapting their tastes to the needs of the job. Having a style has gone out of style. Even making the claim for an avant-garde is an old-fashioned thing to do. Maybe that’s why a certain nostalgic yearning permeates the new design. The ghosts of Audrey, Grace, and Jackie sashay through the black-and-white-and-gray locales.

Taniguchi boasted to MoMA before the 2004 go-around. “But if you raise really a lot of money, I will make the architecture disappear.” The museum came up with several staggering fortunes ($850 million then, another $450 million now), and that aesthetic of quasi-nothingness has swallowed almost an entire block of midtown. I wonder how soon this latest giant will feel cramped, too — how soon MoMA will be on the move again.

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