The fate of a lot more than who will be the next Chief Curator of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art has been hanging in the balance since Terence Riley announced last month that he was going resign from the position he has held for 14 years: That role has been the primary force able to confer star status on architects (or deny it) and to define new directions in architecture, whether they exist or not.
For 75 years, ever since Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock started research for the 1932 exhibition, catalogue, and book that came to be known as The International Style, MoMA has been creating reputations and identifying trends more successfully than any critic, magazine, book, school, or other institution. Though the show was called Modern Architecture, International Exhibition, it described a particular kind of modern architecture which, like the paintings and sculpture the museum was showing at the time, was assertively geometric and came mostly from Europe. The catalogue’s title, Modern Architects, implied a wider reach than it had, since the technologically advanced skyscrapers of the age were not included. And although the exhibition had a section on housing, selected by Lewis Mumford, the overall emphasis was on aesthetics. No wonder the show is usually called The International Style, the title of the book published by Johnson and Hitchcock that same year, minus Mumford’s material. What had begun in Europe as a social movement was presented as a style. Hitchcock and Johnson even redrew Mies van der Rohe’s 1929 Barcelona Pavilion and 1930 Tugendhat House to emphasize the abstract, geometric qualities that they had identified as characteristic of the style.
Four years ago, Riley and Columbia University architectural historian Barry Bergdoll redressed that distortion in MoMA’s Mies in America show by exhibiting original drawings for both buildings along with the ones that had been displayed in 1932, noting the earlier alteration in the exhibition and catalogue. That public institutional admission was only one of a series of decisions Riley made that showed he was his own man. When he was hired, in 1991, after he had organized an exhibition at Columbia University on the history of the International Style show, it was widely assumed that he was Johnson’s personal choice and, as such, Johnson’s influence would continue.
Johnson had been a potent force at MoMA for years. The stars of the International Style show were given exhibitions again and again (ten on Mies, nine each on Le Corbusier and Wright). Johnson’s friends Peter Eisenman, Charles Gwathmey, Michael Graves, John Hejduk, and Richard Meier made their debuts as Five Architects in 1969. When Johnson was flirting with postmodernism, MoMA published Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture as the first and only Museum of Modern Art Papers on Architecture (1966) and held The Architecture of the cole des Beaux-Arts exhibition (1976), when Arthur Drexler was curator. And when Johnson lost interest in the movement, he guest-directed the Deconstructivist Architecture show (1988), an event that not only helped counter the classicizing influence of the postmodern movement but also advanced the careers of all the participantssEisenman, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, Daniel Libeskind, Wolf Prix of Coop Himmelb(l)au, Bernard Tschumiiby suggesting that they were the heirs of Russian constructivism and practitioners of a new style, rooted in history and modernism at the same time. They all denied that there was any such thing as decon,, none louder than Eisenman who touted deconstructivist philosophy as an continued on page 14 position is power continued from page 13 influence on his own work, was close to Johnson, and was the main personal link between the participants.
The Deconstructivist Architecture show did, however, rekindle interest in modern (or modernist) architecture, which was good for the Modern. The museum hadn’t had an architectural blockbuster since Drexler’s 1979 survey, Transformations in Modern Architecture. During the heyday of postmodernism, other institutions, such as the Cooper-Hewitt and the Architectural League of New York, shared the role of tastemaker. And MoMA, which had always undertaken historical exhibitions but mainly of modern masters, showed the work of Gunnar Asplund, Edwin Landseer Lutyens, Ricardo Bofill and Leon Krier as well as of Le Corbusier, Richard Neutra, and Mies as usual. Also during those years, the museum, which had always practiced what it preached, hired Cesar Pelli to design an addition, instead of Johnson who had designed the garden and the earlier new wings. (Philip Goodwin and Edward Durell Stone designed the museum’s main building very much in the International Style, in 1939.)
It was only at the very end of the 1980s that younger modern architects’ work reappeared on MoMA’s walls. While Stuart Wrede was in charge (1986692), there were exhibitions of Emilio Ambasz (a former MoMA curator), Steven Holl, Diller + Scofidio, and Tadao Ando, as well as of Mario Botta and Louis I. Kahn (his sixth at MoMA).
Riley’s first show, in 1992, was the small New Furniture Prototypes by Frank Gehry. Then came his Previews series, with the Nara Convention Hall Competition Exhibition by Arata Isozaki, Rafael Viioly’s Tokyo International Forum, Raimund Abraham’s New Austrian Cultural Institute in New York, and the show, Bernard Tschumi: Architecture and Event.
Riley’s OMA at MoMA: Rem Koolhaas and the Place of Public Architecture appeared at the end of 1994, around the same time S,M,L,XL was catapulting the Dutch architect to superstar status. The following September, Light Construction focused on thin-skinned, transparent and translucent buildings by more than 30 architects from ten countries. Works by Herzog & de Meuron, Jean Nouvel, Renzo Piano, Gigon and Guyer, Nicholas Grimshaw, Toyo Ito, Fumihiko Maki, Ben van Berkel, many of whom were little known in this country at the time, were shown along with those by well-known Americans, such as Johnson, Gehry, Holl, Tschumi, and Tod Williams Billie Tsien, newcomers like Joel Sanders, Thanhauser & Esterson, and some visual artists. The premise of the show was rather elusive but Riley proved that he was willing to take risks and promote work different than his own. (Like previous heads of MoMA’s architecture and design departmenttJohnson, Philip Goodwin, Drexler, and WredeeRiley is a practicing architect, in partnership with John Keenen.)
During Riley’s tenure, his department staged, as it always had, historical shows (on the United Nations, Alvar Aalto, Lilly Reich, Wright, Mies) as well as more unconventional presentations like Fabrications (1998), a three-museum event that invited architects to create site-specific installations (at MoMA, contributors were TEN Arquitectos with Guy Nordensen, Office dA, Smith-Miller + Hawkinson, and Munkenbeck + Marshall) and A Paper Arch (2000) by Shigeru Ban, a grand latticed canopy for the museum’s garden. Riley’s ambitious The Un-Private House (1999) introduced a number of new talents (Michael Bell, Thomas Hanrahan and Victoria Meyers, Hariri & Hariri, Winka Dubbeldam) and ways of exhibiting architecture. The gallery was arranged as rooms to sit in, including a living room in front of a large video screen and a dining table with interactive electronic images projected at each place-setting.
Riley also played an advisory role when the museum began planning another addition to almost double its size. Most, but not all, of the architects invited to compete were ones whose work he had shownnHerzog & de Meuron, Holl, Ito, Koolhaas, Tschumi, Viioly, Williams/Tsien. Also invited were Wiel Arets, Dominique Perrault, and Yoshio Taniguchi, who won the commission. The sensibilities Riley had highlighted in his shows were very much in evidence in the museum competition, while Johnson’s friends were not.
Johnson’s early emphasis on aesthetics, however has been dominant at MoMA in recent decades. The architecture shown at the MoMA, like the art, is chosen for artistic merit and originality first. From the museum’s beginning, under its zealous first director, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., the museum’s staff saw their new institution as a populist one whose fundamental mission was to educate the general public about the developing culture of modernism,, former MoMA curator Matilda McQuaid writes in an essay that appeared in the exhibition catalogue Envisioning Architecture: Drawings from the Museum of Modern Art (Museum of Modern Art, 2002). Although it was the first museum devoted to modern art, and the first general fine-arts museum to have a curatorial department devoted to architecture,, writes Riley in his contribution to the same catalogue, the MoMA was chartered as an educational institution, rather than a museum.. The museum has always had extensive lectures, tours, and symposia to accompany its exhibitions.
Before World War II MoMA also actively tried to link architects and potential clients,, McQuaid notes in her essay. And because for a long time it was the only place where architecture was exhibited with art, MoMA’s influence in the world of architecture may have been greater than its impact on painting and sculpture, which were shown in museums and galleries throughout the world. Placing architecture and design in a fine art museum privileges aesthetics, but it also allows a consideration of their personal, private, technological, handmade, and visionary aspects. At least partly because of MoMA’s influence, these dimensions of architecture and design are being celebrated today at the Canadian Center for Architecture, Georges Pompidou Center, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Netherlands Architecture Institute, and a whole host of progeny the world over. But the Museum of Modern Art is still the mother ship, so it matters very much who takes Terence Riley’s job and what he or she does with it.
Jayne Merkel is a New York writer whose most recent book is Eero Saarinen (Phaidon, 2005).