Shiny and faceted, the new Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) Cleveland has already been touted as “a cultural gem.” MOCA also has been likened to a massive jewel embedded—albeit at a wonky angle—in the eight-acre development known as Uptown, adjacent to Case Western Reserve University.
It would be tempting to shrug off these nicknames as snap judgments (see also: “the Gherkin” and “the Shard”) if they weren’t so apt. The bold new building not only resembles a dusky diamond on its surface but also shares with the gemstone a remarkable intensity that is the product of a lengthy incubation under high pressure.
The sleek, surprising, and incredibly versatile new home of MOCA Cleveland is the first museum commission and first U.S.-based building for Iranian-born Farshid Moussavi, who since landing the project in 2006 as co-principal of Foreign Office Architects, has started her own London-based firm. Along the way, there was a global economic crisis (the museum’s local bank was seized on the very day the new building was proposed to the board) that put the squeeze on fund-raising efforts, the project budget, and the original design.
The tense environment that resulted made for a fragmented design process. “We had three months of design and then nothing, and then another three months of design and then nothing…six years of it,” Moussavi said earlier this month, on the eve of the museum’s public debut. She described her surprise, at how the on-again, off-again design schedule actually turned out to be a boon to the project. “We had lots of time to mature, to develop our ideas, and even to run into accidents,” she said, pointing to a window’s mirror reveal that cleverly cuts the depth of the building’s shimmering skin. “If we had rushed, we wouldn’t have thought of that.
“The project had a whole series of discoveries along the way that had to do with having that extra time.”
Moussavi the architect turns out to be something of a savant when it comes to the temporal dimension. With a total project budget of $27.2 million, her MOCA is a slow-motion spectacular that unfolds over four stories and approximately 34,000 square feet, anchored by a vertiginous central staircase. Visitors who want to climb to the very top can hover over the main gallery and take in Escher-like vistas afforded by the dramatically canted walls and zigzagging walkways below.
The building envelope, a craggy carapace that is independent of the load-bearing floors, has six faceted sides, one of them a tall triangle of transparent glass that echoes the three-cornered building site. The others are clad in panels of black stainless steel for a unique finish that is part fun house mirror, part mood ring. Moussavi was sold on the dark Rimex paneling when she discovered how its dynamics changed, based on the orientation of the surface, the thickness of the steel, the light, even the weather. “It started playing with time,” she explained. “We eventually understood the significance of that for a contemporary art museum that should play with the idea of the now and the instant.”
Inside the eccentric exterior, which culminates in a square top, is a more conventional orthogonal plan atop a squat hexagonal base. The contrast between inside and outside could have been jarring, but Moussavi proposed the bold move of lining the building shell with color: a matte blue that suggests Yves Klein ultramarine at midnight. “Artists gave us feedback about the intensity of the blue paint,” she explained. “They said that if it was dark enough, it would recede and give this sensation of a boundless space”—an effect that is heightened by the diagonal zips of glass that are the building’s windows.
Allowing the dark shell to infiltrate what would have been a basic white- cube gallery on the top floor is just one of the invasions—and innovations—evidenced at MOCA. Floors deliberately alternate between public and nonpublic museum activities, affording visitors glimpses into the wood workshop or the loading dock.
The enclosed fire stairs, painted bright yellow and locked in a helical embrace with the main staircase, double as a sound gallery. With entrances on all sides, the double-height ground floor can be configured as a gallery, performance venue, or, in the words of MOCA executive director Jill Snyder, an “urban living room” (admission is charged only if visitors wish to ascend to the exhibitions). Even the museum store floats, thanks to collapsible fixtures that can make way for private events.
The sculptural force of the new MOCA, which had long operated out of a second-floor space in a former Sears, demands an equally challenging exhibition program, and chief curator David Noor appears up to the task, with a debut show that engages directly with architecture, including everything from the usual suspects like Rachel Whiteread and Gordon Matta-Clark to an atrium wall spray-painted by Katharina Grosse and Henrique Oliveira’s site-specific Caramboxido, a giant plywood gourd that bursts through a gallery wall.
Future exhibitions dedicated to artists such as Corin Hewitt and the collaborative duo of Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller are sound choices to make Moussavi’s dark gem shine.