11 February 2007

the museum for african art: an architectural retreat

[image: Neoscape/Robert A.M. Stern Architects, from the New York Times]

I was not at all surprised the other day to see an article in the New York Times about the Museum for African Art (MAA), a New York institution that has been in search of a permanent home for over twenty years and resurfaces perenially with new hopes of finding one. What did come as a surprise, though, was the news that the indefatigable Robert A.M. Stern has completed a design for the museum's new home on a very visible site on Fifth Avenue at the northeast corner of Central Park. The last that I heard of this building and this site was a couple of years ago, when Bernard Tschumi Architects was tied up in its second or third redesign for this same project, while the MAA was attempting to triangulate various corporate and real-estate interests in order to secure its funding and land purchase. Well, it seems that the Museum was successful in this regard, but somewhere along the way Mr. Tschumi & Co. were dropped from the project, and Mr. Stern triumphantly ascended to the task of providing us with yet another of his bland, soulless towers that seem to be replicating along the perimeter of Central Park.

A quick note: Although it may seem from this post that I am unilaterally anti-Stern, those of you who are fond of Stern's work will be happy to hear that I do consider him a highly accomplished intellectual within the architectural profession. Ironically enough, I do enjoy his early, wittier work for Disney (although his cartoonish pomo has aged less well than the more idea-rich Venturi Scott-Brown portfolio), and I recognize that his deanship at Yale has made an academic impact on the profession that goes far beyond that of his built work. The fact that Stern lasted so long at Columbia while Tschumi was dean proves a certain pedagogical compatibility that priveleges openness, at least on an academic level (see this post on Tropolism for more on that).

Anyway - back to the issue at hand. What makes the MAA design even worse than previous Stern misadventures is the Museum's shocking architectural retreat from an incredibly potent design to nothing more than a cookie-cutter developer building that happens to house a museum in its base. Sure, Stern is providing mediocre aesthetic concessions to the museum (see the "dancing mullions"), but there's nothing else to preserve or express the institution's complex identity. It is worth looking at Tschumi's schemes, of which the earliest is the strongest, to really underline what is at stake in these New York architecture battles, and to understand what we lost in this one.

The Tschumi design was very simple, actually: a sinuous wood-clad volume housing gallery space, lifted above the ground to provide public space below, and topped by a roof garden. Tschumi's tongue-in-cheek solution to New York's stringent street-wall requirements along this prominent stretch of Fifth Avenue was to clad the entire volume in glass, thus building out to the site's perimeter, preserving the Fifth Avenue vertical continuity, and creating that classic Tschumi "in-between" space of excitement that bridges exterior and interior, public and private, city and institution. It was in his stubborn refusal to accommodate his form to zoning conventions (and in the brilliantly but deceptively simple solution that he offered in response) that gave the building its bite, that urbanistic edge that can be found in most Tschumi projects. And it became especially relevant when considering the program at play: a museum for African art in New York City, which is to say a museum predicated at the very basic level on notions of difference, and various ways of preserving and exploring such difference. What better way to house an institution that deals with issues of difference and complexity than with a building capable of asking similarly complex questions on an architectural scale?

The Stern building, in this sense, represents a total failure to provide a conceptually rich architectural response to the MAA program. It essentially becomes the opposite of the Tschumi scheme: an innocuous shell into which the Museum is packed along with 115 luxury condominiums, with those "dancing mullions" and a copper "drum" on the backside as Stern's pathetic and, frankly, offensive response to the "African" nature of the Museum's mission.

But wait - there's more. Stern doubly insults Tschumi by not only having the gall to recycle the curvaceous wood wall motif, but also claiming in the Times "to make a building that is glassy and open, but not a knee-jerk glass block." Knee-jerk? There's nothing more knee-jerk in this city than another masonry developer condo building! And shame on Sewell Chan and the Times for including no mention of Tschumi's previous involvement, while printing an image of the project that is so clearly a cheap knock-off of the Tschumi scheme.

[image: Neoscape/Robert A.M. Stern Architects, from the New York Times]

The whole situation is starting to remind me of Jean Nouvel's Musée du Quai Branly (which opened last year and happens to be on the cover of this month's Record) and a deliciously critical article (referenced in an earlier PR post) by Michael Kimmelman, in which he decontructs the many layers of colonialism, spectacle, and pretension that come together to form what he calls "a heart of darkness in the City of Light." Kimmelman's critique should be seen as a warning for what not to do with the MAA:
If the Marx Brothers designed a museum for dark people, they might have come up with the permanent-collection galleries: devised as a spooky jungle, red and black and murky, the objects in it chosen and arranged with hardly any discernible logic, the place is briefly thrilling, as spectacle, but brow-slappingly wrongheaded. Colonialism of a bygone era is replaced by a whole new French brand of condescension.
The evolution from Tschumi to Stern represents at worst a rejection of understanding the city (as Tschumi did in his early and best writings) as a dynamic engine of unpredictability, a place in which differences and conflicts are to be celebrated and tapped - not separated and put on display. At the very least, it represents a loss for New York, and a loss for Architecture (with a capital A) in general. Here's to hoping that I'm wrong, and that the building's completion in 2009 won't generate the kind of critical response seen above.

link: "Museum for African Art Finds its Place" by Sewell Chan, in the New York Times


Michiel said...

Agreed. Stern's design is a big dissapointment, compared to Tschumi's!

Anonymous said...

excellant critique

longtooth said...

Wonderfully written; concise and pointed groundwork. Just added PR to my network. Look forward to this quality intelligence.

Hall said...

This a great thing. African Arts are always mind blowing. I prefer buying those paintings only.

stephs said...

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Alexander said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alexander said...

Just found this having been alerted to the project by The Economist today. Clearly the problem runs deep or the MAA would not have ever considered Stern, the whitest architect (which is perhaps the whitest profession to begin with). The design is too American. While Tschumi's piece is far better and would be a more profound expression, I still have hangover symptoms from the 80's and 90's that prevent me from accepting the wavy wall as a fully developed signature for this subject matter. Cheers to the continued search for ways to express African culture in the spatial realm. Too bad we have to ignore this one.