Amy and I were up in New York for a few days at New Years. We saw friends and colleagues, went to a million exhibitions, walked and walked, and had a pretty nice time in the big city. One of the things that we saw was the building below, at Spring Street and the Bowery. It’s the brand new New Museum of Contemporary Art (you might want to take a moment and reflect on the title of the institution), designed by the young Japanese firm SANAA.
New Museum of Contemporary Art, photo from Flickr
A pile of boxes stacked on top of one another, covered with mesh. Okay.
I thought it might be interesting to find out with the critics have to say about the building. Here is the New York Times guy, Nicolai Ouroussoff:
“The architects, Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, conceived the building as a series of mismatched galleries precariously stacked one atop the other. It succeeds on a spectacular range of levels: as a hypnotic urban object, as a subtle critique of the art world and as a refreshingly unpretentious place to view art.
But what elevates the building itself to art is the way it captures an unnerving moment in the city’s cultural history with near-perfect pitch. Its ethereal forms hover somewhere between the legacy of a fading bohemian downtown and the ravenous appetites of a society awash in new money. That the building is so artfully rooted in the present means that its haunting quality will probably deepen as the city ages around it.”
I’m not trying to pick on anybody, so next, here is what the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s architecture critic, Steven Litt, had to say about the building:
“Sandwiched along the Bowery between a cheap hotel the locals call “the flophouse” and the Bowery Mission, which serves the homeless and the needy, the new museum is a glamorous newcomer in a gritty neighborhood on the cusp of change.
It’s also a thrilling piece of architecture that achieves enormous impact through the elaboration of simple, strong ideas, without the overwhelming heroics of Frank Gehry’s great Guggenheim Museum branch in Bilbao, Spain.”
Let’s see what we have here. “Spectacular, hypnotic, subtle, refreshingly unpretentious, near perfect pitch, ethereal, artfully rooted, haunting, glamorous, thrilling, achieves enormous impact, simple, strong ideas.”
Enough already! I think we are significantly past the moment when architecture and urban design critics can hyperventilate about the latest new objects in our landscapes, in lieu of placing the new in the context of what counts in making cities. This building is a one-liner. When we walked by it, I thought it looked like a bad citizen in the Bowery’s community of buildings – blank, cold, and, frankly, silly, and Amy said she thought it was clumsy. “It doesn’t give me the tingles,” says she.
Our friend Rebecca, a New Yorker, says that the highlight of the building is the bathrooms, where the wall and floor tile pattern looks like this:
NMCA bathroom, photo from Flickr
The people who bear some responsibility for the national discourse on architecture and cities should be ashamed of themselves. Do we need imaginative, powerful ideas about making the next city? Of course. Ideas about how we will be able to thrive and sustain ourselves in our urban communities have never been more important. But this kind of breathless, hyperbolic journalism that seeks the new for its own sake is precisely what we don’t need. Basta!
Nero fiddles, Rome burns.