Stacked Boxes Become New Museum

warhol self-portraitYou know your museum is going to be a success when people have as much to say about the outside of the building as they do about the art that’s inside.

The New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York’s Bowery neighborhood is just that kind of building. Designed by Tokyo architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, the museum is home for contemporary art and an exciting contribution to New York’s skyline.

Much has been made of the design that some detractors call a stack of gray boxes. The architect does not disagree. “A stack of boxes is exactly what it is,” says Sejima, “or rather a series of pearly-gray volumes piled with artful carelessness, each off-center to the one below. Being both blocky and stepped, they intentionally echo the profile of classic Manhattan towers …”

Sejima and Nishizawa were somewhat shocked when they first visited the campbells soupgritty Bowery neighborhood, but the scrappy venue suits the fiesty museum. Besides, the neighborhood is starting to gentrify already. How can you tell? There’s now a Whole Foods nearby and some new luxury condominiums and even a Ralph Lauren shop.

The architects had only designed one other building in the U.S. before this commission, and that was the Glass Pavilion at the Toledo Museum of Art. They were known for the diaphanous quality of many of their designs. With the New Museum they dollar signsused a corrugated aluminum panel that has aluminum mesh suspended in front of the panels. The exterior ends up looking like fabric, so it does have the lightness that has characterized many of their other designs. Seen from a few blocks away in different light the building takes on changing qualities. Up close, the first level is all glass that allows the visitor to see the gallery and bookstore from the street. Once you’re inside, you realize that the offsets of the layered boxes are what permits the skylights to add so much natural light to the gallery spaces. One offset also created space for a sculpture terrace.

The look has become a brand and in America, we are all about branding. With this imaginative piece of architecture, the New Museum of Contemporary Art has gotten itself an instant logo and a brand that will draw many visitors to see the building as well as the art.

Jay Harrison is a graphic designer and writer whose work can be seen at DesignConcept. He's written a mystery novel, which therefore makes him a pre-published author.

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