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12.05.2007
A Rough Beauty
An irreverent client and the realities of building in New York taught Tokyo-based SANAA to get tough.
Zoning required a setback roughly in line with the building's third box. A tight budget prevented a full build out to that line, creating the opportunity for SANAA's playful composition.
Dean Kaufman

S

ome renderings, like some photographs, become fixed in the brain. Architects equipped with ever more sophisticated techniques for producing ever more seductive—and seemingly real—images must contend with the expectations their renderings produce. Some visitors may grouse that the built reality of SANAA’s New Museum of Contemporary Art does not correspond exactly with the shimmering rendering that the late Times critic Herbert Muschamp breathlessly called “little SoHo lofts that died and went to heaven,” but so much the better. The building’s unexpected toughness is appropriate for its location on the Bowery, where a still-active flophouse sits next door and restaurant supply wholesalers line the block across the street, and for its client, known for showing experimental work and for eschewing the preciousness of more established institutions.

Which is not to say that the building doesn’t shimmer, sometimes. When sunlight or nighttime illumination strike the aluminum mesh cladding just right, it glints and sparkles. More often, however, the building appears somewhat muted except at the transparent street level, which, with its delicate electronic signage, visible rear gallery, retail space, café, and exposed loading area, promises to be full of activity. This tension between stillness and animation—emphasized so much further by the arrangement of the building’s offset box-like floor-plates, perfectly balanced between the deliberate and the haphazard—creates a fascinating, somewhat off-axis terminus to Prince Street.

Initially the architects had planned to clad the building in galvanized or stainless steel panels, but testing found that New York’s lead-filled air would have quickly left the surface pitted and dirty, exposing its seams. Eventually, they settled on the mesh, an industrial material manufactured in England that was originally used to stabilize roadbeds. The sheets of mesh overlap, creating an almost seamless look from the street. Suspended by simple aluminum clips, the mesh covers a system of extruded aluminum panels. “We wanted it to read as a single surface,” said Florian Idenburg, one of the two people from SANAA’s office who relocated to New York to run the project. Gensler is the executive architect on the job, acting, said Idenburg, “like the big brother firm, showing us how things work,” he said.

The rugged materials are carried inside: poured concrete floors with circular scuffs from the finishing, plain white plaster and sheetrock walls, grids of fluorescent lighting, and polycarbonate panels over the skylights. Aluminum mesh is used on counters and shelving in the bookstore as a subtle marker of identity for the institution. “Initially the concept for the building looked luminescent, like a giant Noguchi lamp, but what they delivered is industrial strength,” said Richard Flood, the New Museum’s chief curator. “Since Dia in Chelsea closed, the city has lacked a museum with industrial strength galleries. These spaces are very virile with a real sense of purpose.”

Using ordinary materials, albeit carefully detailed, is something of a departure for SANAA, whose aesthetic identity has been defined by ultra-refined surfaces: nearly invisible glass walls, such as in the Tokyo Dior headquarters or the Glass Pavilion in Toledo, Ohio, or razor-thin steel partitions, as in the House in a Plum Grove, also in Tokyo. Idenburg admits that the firm’s comfort with commonplace materials called for a learning curve, but thinks it is better suited to their client. “They asked us to design a black box theater and we asked if we could make it white instead, and they said sure, we’ll just paint it black if we don’t like it,” he said with a laugh. The architects may be prominent, but at the New Museum there are few sacred cows. “Sejima calls it beautiful rough,” said Toshihiro Oki, the other member of SANAA’s office in New York, of principal architect Kazuyo Sejima.

If the materials are simple, the sequence of spaces is rich. “When you are designing galleries for contemporary art, you are basically designing spaces for art that doesn’t exist yet,” said Idenburg. SANAA responded by creating three distinctly different galleries with varying levels of natural light. All three are restrained white boxes lit by grids of fluorescent tubes: unpretentious, blank canvases for artists and curators. The fourth floor gallery feels vast with 24-foot ceiling heights. An unadorned staircase edges outside the elevator core, offering a glimpse outside through a side window. This outside stair is also the only point of access for a small art alcove, carved out of the building core, which also serves as an air return. The third floor is more moderately scaled at 21 feet high, while the second, accessed by elevator or through an internal stair in the core, is the lowest, at 18 feet, but has the largest floor-plate. Above the galleries, an event space offers sweeping views of downtown, including from a somewhat vertiginous glass railed terrace. Educational spaces and offices are located on the fifth and sixth foors. The top box holds mechanicals and is open to the sky.

Flood praises the galleries, which at press time where just beginning to be filled with art. “Some people were concerned about the fluorescents, but they’re proving to be wonderful for hanging art,” he said. “There’s something that’s very honest about the lighting. It creates a very direct experience.” This idea of honesty seems well suited for much of the work the museum shows, which, according to Flood, “often isn’t interested in seamlessness. It shows the process of its making.”

SANAA’s work has often been referred to as evanescent, and their early conception of the building may have fit that description, but they have delivered a much firmer and well-defined work of architecture. By initially offering an image that could bewitch the imagination of the public—and perhaps more importantly, the imagination of the press—and then moving away from it to serve the needs of their client, SANAA has satisfied the contemporary lust for spectacle while creating a museum building that is all about the art.

Alan G. Brake is an Associate Editor at AN.

Alan G. Brake