Renzo Piano completes his first New York commissionn the three-year, $106 million renovation and expansion of the Pierpont Morgan Library. Julie V. Iovine observes how Piano preserves the intimacy of the original but risks losing some of its immediacy by making it a crowd-pleaser. Photography by Dan Bibb.
On April 29, a transformed Pierpont Morgan Library rejoins the Manhattan museum scene, a landscape much-altered itself, both physically and psychically, since the Morgan closed for renovation three years ago. In that time, the beloved, ebulliently gaudy house-museum has undergone a vast makeover by Italian architect Renzo Piano who, when commissioned for the job in 2000, had an avid insider following and has since become a bona fide international superstar. Meanwhile, the newly gargantuan Museum of Modern Art has shown that critical skepticism has no bearing at all on popularity. Culture in general has taken a drubbing at Ground Zero (Drawing Center evicted; Frank Gehry’s performance hall aborted; Snnhetta’s Freedom Center nullified), underscoring the reality that no one puts particular stock any more in the power of art to uplift. J. P. Morgan would have been mortified.
After all, the Morgan Library was the rich man’s sanctum and treasure horde turned tenderly over to New Yorkers so that they might be bettered through contact. And people have been passionate and personal about the place ever since. In the early 1990s, Paul Goldberger, then architecture critic at the The New York Times, described the experience of visiting as both tranquil and intense. Who wouldn’t be entranced by the McKim, Mead & White portico and rotunda, the lavish H. Siddons Mowbray murals, the brocaded walls and gilded swags? John Russell, former art critic of The New York Times, dreamed of being locked overnight inside its walls. It’s no surprise considering what it contains: drawings by Rembrandt, da Vinci, DDrer, and Degas; three Gutenburg bibles; one of only two extant copies of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur; Mary Shelley’s own annotated copy of Frankenstein; architectural plans by Inigo Jones; etchings by Piranesi; JRR Tolkien kvetching in letters about the Hobbit; jeweled bindings; illuminated manuscripts galore; and on and on.
Piano was charged not with enlarging but rather, as he put it, rebalancing and rethinking the institution which had grown somewhat haphazardly over the years into a three-plus-building sprawl. He called his method micro-surgery.. Adding 75,000 square feet, even with more than half of it underground and the rest in the shape of a glazed- shed-covered piazza plus pavilions jimmied around the extant buildings, is hardly micro. The medical analogy is, however, apt because like cosmetic surgery, Piano has masterfully preserved the original while partially smoothing, even immobilizing, its vital lifelines.
The grand covered piazzaa or atrium is the centerpiece of Renzo Piano’s design for the expanded library
Two balconies extend into the space, and some staff offices overlook it, but are glazed for acoustic privacy.
The Morgan Library is new and improved all right; in fact, Piano (with the local collaboration of Beyer Blinder Belle) has rendered it perfectly into one of the most au courant of building types: the destination museum. Whether Piano’s Morgan has the power to incite passionate allegiance, much less a desire to be locked inside overnight, is more doubtful.
It could not have been an easy job. Bartholomew Voorsanger tried in 1991 with a $40 million expansion and courtyard. And let’s not forget the ill-fated invitational competition of the late 1990s with Steven Holl Architects, Tod Williams Billie Tsien & Associates, and Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates, which was abruptly cancelled. Piano had declined to participate but offered his services in case perfect solutions didn’t materialize. Now, 15 years and $106 million laterrVoorsanger’s and a few other minor additions razed without a traceethe library has been transformed again. Voorsanger’s glass court might have been unloved, but it could not be considered a total failure; it did brisk business in party rentals, netting as much as $15,000 for evening events. Piano’s renovation is not about adding square footage but, as director Charles E. Pierce, Jr., said in 2002, about providing greater public access.. The Morgan’s new high-impact spaces are bound to be in great demand (and the fee for rentals sure to be higher))a goal that many institutions have come to share.
Piano’s scheme is sublimely serene. He has treated the Morgan’s three main buildingssan 1852 Renaissance Revival brownstone, the 1906 McKim mini-Met and its pared down twin, the annex of 19288as the corner anchors to his central focus, a glass-enclosed, light-filled piazza.
At the edges of the atrium space, he has inserted several elements, varied in scale, homogenous in material, and visible as connective tissue between old and new. The inserts are made of rolled steel panels painted off-white (press materials say they are rose-hued but on a sunny afternoon it looked powdery white to me). The largest piece encompasses the new entrance on Madison Avenue, which leads through a spacious cherry-wood clad tunnel directly to the piazza. A new gallery and reading room are located on the floors above this entrance volume. The smallest addition is a 20-foot cube, containing a gallery, tucked between the original McKim library and the annex. Though it’s been cited in earlier articles as a climactic moment in Piano’s design, it does not have the inscrutable impact promised by its perfect dimensions, at least not for this visitor. And curators may be hard pressed to take full advantage of its modest space in any way other than as a showcase for one singular item at a time, albeit, displayed to shine in all its glory.
Before making a beeline for an unoccupied caff table in the piazza, visitors will be tempted to descend a wide stair gaping downward at the lip of the entrance passage. Those who give into the urge will view a steel-encased treasure-holding vault sunk three stories into Manhattan’s bedrock schist. Neat. Sunk below, too, is a new 280-seat performance hall. One enters at the top row of a steeply inclined auditorium baffled in slightly curled chips of cherry wood. The space is more elegant than expressionistic, a wonderfully intimate spoken-word stage.
J. P. Morgan’s wood-paneled music room (below, right) will now hold the bookstore.
So what’s missing then? Crowd-pleasing (event-friendly) piazza and caffécheck. Sculptural object cubeecheck. Cool performance space, naturally. A fancy restaurant and much-expanded shop are a quick detour right off the entrancee good plan. Oh, yes, the collection. Barely encountered. To actually find the prizes for which the library is so well known, one must wander a bit. A narrow vaulted passage to the right and set back from the entrance leads past an old elevator bank to two spacious galleries (and a gallery hall, once the museum entrance) in the old annex. In the far corner off the piazza, J. P.’s original library and study have been restored to full robber-baron Rococo style. And then there’s the new gallery on the second floor of the entrance pavilion. For the inaugural greatest hits exhibition, some 300 objects will be on display through out the museummthat’s less than 0.09 percent of the 350,000-piece-strong collection. So much for increased public access.
The vast majority of the new 75,000 square feet of space is underground, and accessible via a staircase located just past the entrance.
The new Morgan oozes the calm elegance of masstige modernism. On a smaller scale, it employs many of the same moves as Yoshio Taniguchi’s MoMA, such as a vertically compressed, horizontally expansive entrance giving way to breathtaking volume. Instead of procession, the experience is more like scaling levels and discovering views of where you were a moment ago. Whereas Taniguchi used bridges, Piano has two balconies alongside a Hyatt-esque glass elevator peering over the piazza. Both capture unexpected and refreshing views of the buildings beyond (though the balcony off the reading room is accessible only to those with reading room passes).
And like the Museum Tower coming down to ground undisguised in the main lobby of MoMA (as if to holler, Don’t forget me!!), so too do the three old Morgan buildings reveal themselves in the new atrium space. It’s a little bit like catching a glimpse, from the knee down, of a giant whose head is in the clouds. While MoMA is all about pumping visiting hordes out of the central chamber into the building’s arteries and galleries, Piano, despite having been called a poet of circulation,, seems content for people to stay put in the voluminous piazza. Unquestionably, the Morgan will become a cool place to meet and hang out (although at the moment, the only seating seems to be at the caff’s tables). The light filtering in through complex but not particularly high-tech skylights (another Piano trademark) will be delicious. Staff offices have been allocated generous spaces in the 1852 Italianate brownstone with some walls sheered off and glassed over in order to give some lucky employees vistas of their own; a conservation studio is tucked up and out of the way at roof-top level.
The new Morgan is purre-perfect, blemish-free. People will flock to get in. And yet on a recent sunny afternoon, the piazzaasurrounded by limestone, electronically shaded glass, powder-coated steelllooked deadly calm. The Morgan has acquired a seamless, beautiful new mask. What may be lost is the quickening, possibly even vulgar, feeling of excitement that one man wanted to impart to others by sharing his precious treasures with the world.
Julie V. Iovine writes frequently for The New York Times and other publications. She is the features director at Elle DDcor and architecture critic for AN.
6 Original Library
7 Staff Offices
8 Reading Rooms
9 Performance Hall
The Pierpont Morgan Library
Renzo Piano Building Workshop
Beyer Blinder Belle Architects
F. J. Sciame Construction Co.
Robert Silman Associates
Curtain Wall: Front, Inc., Gartner
Acoustics: Harvey Marshall Berling Associates, Kahle Acoustics
H. M. White Site Architects
Lighting Designer: Arup