An extraordinary transformation of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art could happen now that the museum has selected the London architect David Chipperfield to redesign its massive Modern art wing.
It’s a dramatic new direction for the museum, which I wrote about in The Economist. The Met has worked with a single architecture firm over 40 years: Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates. That in itself is extraordinary. It built out the firm’s 1970 master plan over 20 years in beefy ranges of galleries clad in granite, interrupted by three enormous courtyards clad in sloping glass that bring Central Park into the museum. The north one puts the Temple of Dendur under a greenhouse. The south one less successfully houses art of Oceania in herds of vitrines. The west one swathes the overwrought romanticism of Beaux Arts era American art in fussy greenery.
That growth swallowed, but never rationalized, earlier wings. Over time, Roche Dinkeloo squeezed in additional display space, allowing the Masterplan’s loose arrangement to become even more confusing. There was a method in this. To get to far flung galleries, you passed through half a dozen collections you might never have chosen to visit—European decorative arts, say, where some extraordinary clock or chair could stop you in your tracks.
It made the Met a kind of department store for art, but few people seemed to mind. Over time, Roche Dinkeloo did little more than draft whatever curators wanted, which has resulted in highly variable displays: Impressionist paintings hung in tiny fussy rooms against lugubrious colors, while European Old Masters got a clean, new installation under handsome roof light.
The Met’s tortured wayfinding and sometimes dry and daunting displays do not evoke the rage that the crowded galleries of MoMA do. I suspect that’s because the aficionados are happy that few of the phone-clicking hordes get beyond the Fifth Avenue side of the museum and the blockbuster show du jour. It’s absolutely sublime to find yourself almost alone in gallery suites devoted to Africa or Asia, surrounded by works of incomparable quality. No doubt it has become embarrassing to curators, specialist collectors, and donors that the increasingly impenetrable nature of the museum creates a lovely experience mainly for an intrepid few. The problem seems to have come to a head because Modern and contemporary art, which the museum is committed to expanding, occupies real estate that could be deemed akin to sheets and towels in a department store.
Bold yet respectful
In Chipperfield, the Met has found an architect with a strong but respectful esthetic—a rare combination these days. He is best known for his painstaking 2009 $255-million restoration of the 1859 Neues Museum, on Berlin’s Museum Island. It had been bombed almost into oblivion during World War II, then left a ruin. Rather than a historical reconstruction, Chipperfield selectively retained damaged elements of the building. His team examined and debated every square inch, both to be true to history and to avoid the aesthetic dishonesty of an archaeologically “correct” reconstruction.
The result is a building of haunting beauty, where the patina of age and destruction resonates evocatively with the objects displayed, many of them ancient and incomplete themselves.
Chipperfield has designed other admired museums, but the Met was no doubt impressed with his work underway at London’s Royal Academy, where a grouping of grand, highly assertive and much admired 19th-century buildings must somehow be knitted together. He’s also rethinking Berlin’s iconic 1968 museum by Mies van der Rohe, the Neue Nationalgalerie. A pavilion of high glass walls under a broad overhanging roof, it has always challenged curators because the strong light coming in from the sides silhouettes work hung in front of it, so that they cannot be seen. Yet that very transparency is part of its appeal. The surrounding city, seminal in the creation of the Modern world interpreted by the art within, needs to be present within the museum, as Mies intended. Likewise, the glass walls show off what’s inside, making the museum part of the city and luring passersby in.
Chipperfield has worked in America, but no commission until the Met has allowed him to display his full capacity. A public library in Des Moines, Iowa, is an essay in poetic economy, with the copper fabric hung between exterior glass panes creating an ever-changing presence for the building, a subtle monitor of sun and the seasons. Inside, it’s no-nonsense openness is welcoming. Industrial touches harken to the remnants of the Midwest’s manufacturing past that can be found abandoned everywhere. (He’s also done museum projects in Iowa City, Anchorage, Alaska, and a quietly authoritative wing of the Beaux Arts St. Louis Museum of Art.)
Revealing hidden treasures
Though Chipperfield’s assignment is ostensibly to overhaul the Modern and contemporary wing, since the museum hopes to enrich and expand the collection (urged on by a phalanx of donors with cash and major art to give). It is particularly hard to find (you will notice the Sol LeWitt wall painting, below on left, used as a way finding device), which is why the Met has broached the possibility of extending Chipperfield’s assignment to include adjacent, equally hidden departments devoted to Africa, Oceana, and the Americas.
The Modern and contemporary galleries extend no welcome. Only one of the three entrances spread over three levels draws you through the suite in a curatorial coherent way. The largest first floor is low ceilinged and unrelievedly generic, depriving even superb works of life. The slanting glass that tops a mezzanine reminds the viewer of an artists’ garret, but it faces afternoon sun, and so requires extensive shading. Only the top level, where a small number of major, large-scale works are displayed, feels generous, with controlled daylight though skylights. A statement says the new design “will open a new dialogue with Central Park,” whatever that means.
Chipperfield has offered conceptual ideas, but will now develop a full design. The museum is just taking possession of the former home of the Whitney Museum, the brooding 1966 stone-faced Marcel Breuer building long occupied by they Whitney Museum. (The Whitney has moved to a much larger new home by Renzo Piano in the Meatpacking district, opening May 1.) The Met will display Modern and contemporary art in the leased Breuer building while the wing is closed for construction.