New Museum of Contemporary Art

New York, New York
Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa / SANAA

At New York's smart New Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo-based SANAA creates an ambiguous icon for an area in transition.

By Clifford A. Pearson
This is an excerpt of an article from the March 2008 edition of Architectural Record.

Having developed a reputation for precisely detailed, exquisitely refined buildings, the Tokyo-based firm SANAA faced a very different kind of challenge with the New Museum in Lower Manhattan: Design a building for an anti-establishment museum in a scruffy-but-gentrifying part of town. Do it on a tight budget. And be careful, because the critics are weary of museums that are either formal extravagances or dull containers. Against the odds, SANAA, headed by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, has delivered a building that pleases both the critics and the public. Its New Museum, which rises seven stories on the Bowery, points the neighborhood in a new direction—out of a previous era of flophouses and gin mills and toward a time of creative engagement. Whether by design or coincidence, its off-kilter arrangement of stacked boxes alludes to a moment of instability—in New York’s cultural scene, economic future, and demographic mix. Instead of glossing over the city’s reckoning with unsettling forces, the New Museum brings it front and center—an attitude that seems just right for an organization founded in 1977 by a curator, Marcia Tucker, the day after she was fired by the Whitney Museum of American Art. For the next three decades, the New Museum bounced around Lower Manhattan, carrying out its mission to show provocative contemporary artwork.

New Museum of Contemporary Art
Photo © Christian Richters
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SANAA won the commission in an invited competition in 2002 (beating out David Adjaye, Reiser Umemoto, Abalos-Herreros, and Gigon/Guyer) with a scheme that would make any New York City developer blanch—purposefully using less square-footage than allowed by the local zoning ordinance. By pulling back from the zoning envelope in a series of slipped boxes, the design created the opportunity for roof terraces and long skylights along alternating edges. “We could have built another 20,000 square feet,” says Lisa Phillips, the current director, who took over the museum from Tucker in 1999. “But in return, we got a [60,000-square-foot] building that’s open and has light.” While the final building sports only one roof terrace (on the seventh floor), skylights run along at least one side of each of the three gallery floors, bringing filtered daylight into all of the main exhibition spaces.

Best known for buildings with perfectly honed skins—such as the Glass Pavilion at the Toledo Museum of Art, in Ohio [RECORD, January 2007, page 78], and the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, in Kanazawa, Japan [RECORD, February 2005, page 88]—SANAA struggled with the wrapping for the New Museum. Originally, the architects thought they would tightly clad each of the stacked boxes in a different metal with hairline joints in between. But this proved too expensive for the $50 million budget and seemed too elegant for the neighborhood and the client. So they tried an approach at odds with their earlier works, something they called “beautiful rough,” says Toshihiro Oki, a project architect for SANAA.

“We moved away from a flat surface and explored ways of getting a rough, blurry effect,” says Oki. Eventually, they developed a skin made of expanded metal mesh set an inch and a half in front of corrugated aluminum panels. Although the aluminum mesh is an industrial standard, the architects expanded its proportions beyond anything commercially available and gave it an anodized finish. To attach it to the corrugated backing, they customized off-the-shelf clips. The result is a building dressed in a metal-mesh stocking, exuding a slightly hazy sexiness that’s neither too classy nor too trashy for the new Lower East Side.

Formal name of project: New Museum of Contemporary Art

235 Bowery
(between Stanton and Rivington Street at the origin of Prince Street)
New York, NY 10002

Gross square footage: 58,700 sq.ft.

Total construction cost: $50 million

Completion Date: October 2007

Owner: City of New York

Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa / SANAA
7-A, 2-2-35, Higashi-Shinagawa, Shinagawa-ku
Tokyo, 140-0002
Tel: +81.33450.1780

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