New Art in Old Buildings

By Peter Walsh

When a new contemporary art museum gets up on its feet, it typically constructs a slick, fashionable new address for itself and leaves its old, recycled quarters like a student couch at the curb. But is that always a wise decision?

Sometimes it makes sense to put new wine in old bottles. For example, the first art collections open to the public were set up, not in purpose-built museums, but in surplus real estate. The results were not infrequently splendid.

Florence’s famous Uffizi (“offices” in Italian), was built to house the work space of the Duke of Tuscany’s magistrates. It proved to be highly suitable as a museum of the best Italian art. The Louvre, once Louis XVI’s Paris pied à terre, was vacant following the King’s encounter with a guillotine. The former palace became France’s most important and architecturally impressive art gallery.

In the U.S., many museums of modern and contemporary art also started out in improvised homes. New York’s Museum of Modern Art opened in a mid-town office building. San Francisco’s modern art museum lived for years on an upper floor of City Hall. Before Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art moved into its first purpose-built home last December, it jumped from place all over the city. The ground floor of an insurance company, a half-ruined summer theater on the Charles River, and a Richardsonian former police station in the Back Bay were just three of many.

The message? In some cases, the ragged old outshines the tidy new.

Back in 1983, while it built a new museum for downtown LA, the fledgling Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art leased a former police car garage from the city. The building’s sublime, soaring spaces, subtly recycled into the “Temporary Contemporary” by a then-obscure local architect named Frank Gehry, were an instant hit. John Russell, then senior art critic of the New York Times, spoke for his profession and the masses alike when he called it a “prince among spaces.”

Ironically, Gehry had lost the competition to design the Museum of Contemporary Art itself to Japanese architect Arata Isozaki. When Isozaki’s building opened in 1986, the reaction was less enthusiastic. Compared its improvised predecessor, the museum’s permanent home seemed standoffish and sterile, its galleries cramped and dark. So the beloved Temporary, like a summer lover, was invited to stay on beyond its time. It is alive and well today as the Geffen Contemporary.

With some very notable exceptions, like Gehry’s 1997 masterpiece for the Guggenheim franchise in Bilbao, Spain, it was the white box cool of Isozaki’s LA MoCA that set the tone for the modern and contemporary art museum designs of the next two decades. For some reason museum officials seemed to think the aesthetics of the Antarctic— overwhelmingly vast, unrelentingly white, and frigidly monumental— were the best surroundings for the latest in contemporary art and design.

In 1996, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, previously housed in a former bakery that had also been the corporate headquarters of Playboy Enterprises, moved on up to what it calls “one of the nation’s largest facilities devoted to the art of our time.” Designed by German architect Josef Paul Kleihues around a central atrium, entirely suitable for corporate events, and an outdoor sculpture garden, the new MCA had all the intimate charm of a high-end convention hotel. Ironically, back in Germany, Kleihues best works had been refurbished pre-war buildings in Berlin, including the former Nazi Propaganda Ministry.

Then there is New York City, where, back in 2000, PS 1, an exhibition space in a vast Romanesque Revival former public school in gritty Long Island City, merged with the Museum of Modern Art. In 2002-2004, while the increasingly venerable MoMA itself was entirely reconstructed, PS 1 and the nearby MoMA QNS (in a former Swingline stapler factory) served as a kind of “Temporary MoMA” for the museum’s collections and exhibitions.

In November 2004 MoMA reopened in an enormously expanded facility designed by Yoshio Taniguchi. Many old-time fans were dismayed to find that the familiar, intimate galleries, for generations home to the world’s greatest collection of modern art, had entirely been swept away. In their place was the grandest white box of them all, gigantic galleries surrounding an acrophobia-inducing, canyon-sized atrium. It somehow all seemed designed to attract every deranged leaper in the art world.

No longer an upstart in an office suite, MoMA efficiently sucks in millions of visitors each year. The new building handles all comers with professional aplomb. Herded from floor to floor via shiny new escalators, the pilgrims to this iceberg of art look just like the huddling crowds in an airport. But, against all that blizzard of white space, the great art itself seems lost. The solidest pieces on view are the exquisite, monumental views of the cityscape outside, with skyscrapers standing like cubist mountain ranges across the Manhattan sky.

Back in blue collar Long Island City, the crisp corporate utopia of MoMA is nowhere to be seen. The broad corridors, shadowy, well-worn, stairways, and spooky basements of PS1 evoke the shades of generations of shrieking, jostling, working class schoolchildren. But the art looks terrific here. The exhibitions have titles like “Music is a Better Noise,” “Defamation of Character,” and “The Suicidist.” The rambunctious work inside them punches, shoves, curses, sings, giggles, farts, and turns somersaults. It seems very much at home.

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