I’ve never loved the New Museum Building, in part because I know what SANAA is capable of achieving. The Glass Pavilion at the Toledo Museum of Art, which was completed in 2006 (preceding the New Museum by about a year), is a truly original building, technologically inventive and formally stirring. A one-story structure, it soars–far higher than the New Museum’s teetering tower ever will. And yet I appreciate the New Museum for what it is: an ethereal, sculptural presence, a kind of apparition. It never looks better than it does at night, glowing, hovering, seemingly unconnected to the city grittiness around it. Its facade is gauzy, gossamer, “less like a wall than a scrim,” as Paul Goldberger wrote in the New Yorker. Which is why the decision to place a heavy, kitschy artwork on the façade is so infuriating. When the museum opened in 2007, the artwork–a rainbow hued sign that declares Hell, Yes!–was described as a temporary adornment. Now, according to the museum’s communications director, Gabriel Einsohn, it is a “semi permanent” installation; the museum has no plans to remove it.
The piece is by Ugo Rondinone, whose, work, according to the New Museum website, “explores notions of emotional and psychic profundity found in the most banal elements of everyday life.” Perhaps. The quality of the artwork, which resembles a Hello, Kitty logo, is beyond my ken. I do know something about architecture. And the Rondinone piece directly undermines SANAA’s objective: The architects chose to make the thickness, the weight, even the precise location of the building envelope ambiguous. Hanging a heavy object from that envelope changes everything, for the worse; imagine wearing a campaign button on a wedding veil.
Museums are too often willing to demean their architectural treasures. (How many times has the Whitney proposed working its Marcel Breuer building–to which the New Museum, incidentally, owes a great debt–into some larger composition?)
Frank Gehry’s IAC building is in the same boat as the New Museum. After the West Chelsea structure was complete–and after the architectural photographers had shot it as Gehry designed it–the company added two neon signs, on the north and south facades, that say IAC. As at the New Museum, they take semi-transparent, ambiguous surfaces and render them static and heavy, like turning the lights up when a magician is trying to perform a trick. But at least you can understand why IAC, which is a commercial enterprise, would want its building to say IAC. There, the signs represent a rational, if regrettable, decision.
The New Museum has no excuse. It should have said, “Hell, No!,” instead of ‘Hello, kitschy.”