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Monday, December 03, 2007

New Museum of Contemporary Art

New Museum of Contemporary Art in Manhattan, New York by SANAA

The first day of December saw the much anticipated opening of the New Museum of Contemporary Art's new home on the Bowery by the Japanese duo Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, aka SANAA. Featured previously on this blog in project form in early 2004, the final product looks almost exactly like the renderings. This is less a testament to the realism of computer-based renderings than it is to the architects' ability to to cull abstract effects from the physical construction of architecture.

Approaching the building, the ethereal effects of light reflecting off the outer skin of aluminum mesh gives way to a subtle reading of the skin's structure and paneling, giving the building an industrial aesthetic that strikes a chord with its context on this mythically, yet slowly gentrifying, gritty street. Like the layer of mesh over metal panel that creates a third, visible layer of shadows (outside and inside), as one moves closer to and within the building one discovers these and other layers of the design. The seventh floor observation terrace could be described as the apex of this, where one is up close and personal with the mesh, seeing how it is constructed from sheets of aluminum cut, pulled apart and twisted to create a veil for the boxes, much like fashion designers create veils for the human body.

SANAA's design can be interpreted as taking the "white boxes" preferred by many artists to its extreme: making the interior such but also expressing this result on the outside via the stacking and offset of the floors. Certainly this concept relates to New York's well-known zoning envelope, and some push the concept to the bento boxes of the duo's home country, but the expression of a relationship to art is perhaps the most appropriate conclusion to draw. This isn't to say that surprises don't exist outside the minimal, skylit galleries. A slender, two-story stair on the north side makes the strongest impact, giving visitors a glimpse of the city via a small window at the halfway point (opposite a niche that will most likely become a prized space for site-specific art).

Another testament to the skill of the architects is the ground floor lobby, a large space deepened by a full-height, mullionless glass wall enclosing a gallery at the rear. This space allows one to see the art on display in the distance, as if it's calling one into the building. This glass wall reflects the ceiling grid of mesh and fluorescent lights to further give a sense of deep space, while also reflecting the Bowery streetscape in a visual synthesis of art and city. Granted that the same minimal construction and expression is present in the gallery spaces upstairs, here the meaning is rich and layered, rather than neutral or background. In a sense the building is a mix of these characteristics, giving artists numerous white boxes for the display of their art, and providing visitors a rich experience as they move through the building's subtle layers.

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