Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

Navigating the new MoMA

Photo by Max Touhey of the first-floor gallery at the expanded Museum of Modern Art.

PACE YOURSELF,” I tweeted the first time I saw the new MoMA. Two and a half hours after I arrived, I was exhausted … and I hadn’t even had time to visit the store. As the nice young woman from marketing moonlighting at the Information desk said, the new MoMA is now on the order of the Met or the Louvre. You’d be foolish to try to do it all in a day. You need to think about visiting differently.

Typically when a new museum opens, the architecture critics cover the building and the art critics cover the exhibits. That works for buildings with boundaries. But the new MoMA isn’t a static object or a solid, it’s a hydra, wending its way behind the permanent parade of silver and black curtain walls on West 53rd Street, snaking upward in three strands, west, north, and south, behind surfaces that are grandly and blandly fine.

“Grandly and blandly fine” has been my mental description of MoMA ever since Yoshio Taniguchi’s 2004 expansion created many of the circulation and hierarchy problems that the latest set of architects, Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Gensler, were hired to fix, $450 million and 47,000 square feet ago. (The museum is now 165,000 square feet in total.) Taniguchi decided minimal detailing and maximal spaces were the way to add grandeur to the museum’s collection of buildings, taking his cue from the generosity of Philip Johnson’s 1953 sculpture garden. But his big gestures, especially the four-story white atrium, felt flat after their initial impact. Even if space is the ultimate luxury in Manhattan, that volume managed to feel cheap.

MoMA has doubled down on details and dun-colored materials, but the museum wasn’t so foolish as to ask its new architects for more grand spaces. Instead, they were asked to solve a traffic problem: how to get 2.8 million visitors per year through the galleries without choke points and lines, confusion and disappointment. Hence the hydra, which springs from a lobby that appears power-washed and forks into gallery after gallery of greatest hits and new surprises. The power of the new MoMA – the flex – comes from the art, not the architecture.