Carren's Pitch

Life by Design

[continued from previous post]
The New Museum

Written and Photographed by: Carren Jao
Edited by: Judith Torres
Additional images courtesy of:
New Museum: Dean Kaufman
Published: Bluprint December 2009

Seeing the proliferation of alternative spaces in the 1970s, Maria Tucker, a curator without financial resources nor collection, saw the need for a new kind of museum—one unlike institutional museums, that could cultivate “new art” and “new ideas.” To this day, these four words make up New Museum’s mission.

Until its ground breaking at the Bowery, New Museum was never associated with a particular structure. Its previous locations were an office space, a gallery space inside the New School, and storefront loft space on Broadway in SoHo.

After 20 years, the New Museum found itself facing a crucial turning point. To survive, the museum needed a better gallery space, a stronger public profile and a wider audience base. It was time yet again for re-invention. Thus, the decision to invest in a structure came about.

Because the museum valued its grassroots spirit, it wanted to convey flexibility and openness, even as a building would institutionalize it. In response to this delicate balancing act, the New Museum had a two-pronged rejoinder: it would be built in Manhattan’s gritty Bowery neighborhood; and architects who echoed the profile of their featured artists—talented and relatively unknown in the Manhattan arena—would design the building.

During the time of their search, the Bowery was a neighborhood forgotten by progress. In another lifetime, elevated trains that towered above the people darkened its streets. But when the tracks came down in the 1950s, the Bowery also became home to great artists like Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, and Roy Lichtenstein. This history was what drew the museum to the location.

The New Museum board eventually chose a parking lot on Prince Street as their final location. While non-descript, it offered a central location close to SoHo, Nolita, East Village, NoHo, Chinatown, and Little Italy.

Out of 45 firms worldwide, Tokyo-based SANAA won the bid to design the New Museum building. According to the museum, their design best captured the museum’s mission and program objectives.

“The New Museum is not a normal museum—it’s something in between a gallery and an event space. It is experimental, and its architectural identity must also be experimental,” said SANAA architect Kazuyo Sejima.

The New Museum building stands out amid the commercial buildings beside it. Its structure, like large blocks stacked by a child, somehow imparts a sense of dynamism. Wrapped in mesh aluminum, the building gains a luminous porous quality, reflecting the light differently during the course of the day.

“The double skin creates a much richer experience, but in a subtle way. The impression of the building can be very different depending on the time, or depending on how you move. I think this sense of transparency allows us to get away with the large, windowless surfaces, without seeming heavy,” said SANAA architect Ryue Nishizawa.

On its outer ledge is a colorful installation by Ugo Rondinone screaming, “Hell, Yes!” two words that capture the spirit of inquisitive fearlessness the New Museum wishes to cultivate.

At street level, a fifteen-foot tall clear glass pane separating pedestrian and visitor continues with theme of openness. For those inside, the street life seems a part of the contemporary artwork being shown at the gallery. For those outside, the museum seems to invite them in with its brazen exposure of heavy concrete floors contrasted with light industrial mesh installed on the ceiling. “The sidewalk seems so part of the building,” said Nishizawa.

Inside, the stacked boxes created a differentiated space. Skylights appear where the boxes are stacked irregularly on top of each other. No gallery space is the same from floor to floor, prompting the visitor to investigate each space anew. The museum makes use of each nook and cranny and nowhere is this more evident than in “the shaft,” a small leftover space the designers found during development. Only a few feet wide and 30 feet tall, it is now used as a micro-gallery.

Though permanently housed along Bowery, the New Museum continues to embody the audacity that gave it impetus. Its willingness to experiment led them to architects ready to take risks and into a neighborhood that needed a reminder of its greatness.

New Museum
235 Bowery
New York, NY 10002
(212) 219 1222
Museum hours:
Wednesday 12-6 PM
Thursday and Friday 12-9 PM
Saturday and Sunday 12-6 PM
Monday and Tuesday closed


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