The Once and Future MOMA

When the architect Elizabeth Diller talks about glass, she evokes the progressive, quixotic European doctrines of a century ago. Bruno Taut’s Glass Pavilion, which was built in 1914 for an exhibition, inspired Paul Scheerbart, a poet and author of fantasy novels, to write “Glass Architecture,” an essay describing an imaginary transparent city of the future. “If we want our culture to rise to a higher level,” Scheerbart said, “we are obliged, for better or for worse, to change our architecture. . . . We can only do that by introducing glass architecture, which lets in the lights of the sun, the moon, and the stars, nor merely through a few windows but through every possible wall.” Diller describes her firm’s expansion and renovation of New York’s Museum of Modern Art as guided by “the modernist aspirations of glass, the utopian ones about democratizing space and about the extension between the outside and the inside.”

Diller, whose practice emerged from collaborations with her husband, Ricardo Scofidio, is a co-founder of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, an architectural partnership whose work crosses over into the visual and performing arts. DS+R’s dictum of “adaptive re-use” is best demonstrated in its most famous (and most globally mimicked) project, the High Line, an abandoned elevated railway on Manhattan’s West Side, once slated for demolition by Mayor Rudy Giuliani and now repurposed as a public park. The High Line snakes northward from the meatpacking district, terminating at the new and controversial Hudson Yards development, where DS+R has again altered the city’s cultural fabric by creating the Shed, a multipurpose arts complex with a sliding outer shell, which opened last year. These projects, expressing the firm’s commitment to democratizing public spaces, anticipated the challenges of reinventing MOMA, which, for ninety years, has stood as a monument to the paradoxical alignment of capital and counterculture.

When Tom Wolfe wrote that “Modern Art arrived in the United States in the 1920s not like a rebel commando force but like Standard Oil,” he meant it literally: the museum, New York’s “cathedral of culture”—the first institution of its kind in the world—“was not exactly the brain child of visionary bohemians. It was founded in John D. Rockefeller, Jr.’s living room, to be exact, with Goodyears, Blisses, and Crowninshields in attendance.” The original seeds of this upper-class defiance can be traced to the infamous Armory Show of 1913, which introduced America to Cubism, Fauvism, and Futurism. The crowds were astonished by works by Paul Cézanne, Mary Cassatt, Gustave Courbet, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Édouard Manet, Pablo Picasso—who had declared that “museums are just a lot of lies”—and Marcel Duchamp, whose shimmering masterwork “Nude Descending a Staircase” was the outstanding hit of the show. (“That’s not art,” Theodore Roosevelt announced.)

In 1928, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and the Boston textile heir Lillie P. Bliss seized on the idea of a permanent establishment for the kind of European art that they liked but could not find in museums like the Metropolitan, in New York. The two women recruited the lumber heir A. Conger Goodyear, who had been ejected from a gallery board in Buffalo for buying a Picasso, to be their administrator. Goodyear brought in Paul J. Sachs, an investor, and Sachs in turn recruited Alfred Barr, an academic who defended modern painting, to be the project’s director. Their museum opened on November 8, 1929—ten days after Black Tuesday—in a rented office space on Fifty-seventh Street and Fifth Avenue. The first exhibition, a small collection of paintings by Cézanne, Gauguin, Seurat, and van Gogh, drew curious crowds that overflowed in a line down the block. “It was a fantastic atmosphere,” Margaret Fitzmaurice-Scolari, the art historian, said. “You felt an unbelievable vibration. . . . It was absolutely electric.”

One of MOMA’s early homes was a five-story townhouse on Fifty-third Street.Photograph from Bettmann / Getty

In 1932, when the newborn institution moved into a five-story townhouse on Fifty-third Street that was owned by the Rockefellers, its radical zeal was as undiminished as its breathless patronage by the one per cent, who, like their European counterparts, paid for the privilege of being disrespected, or even outright attacked. The first exhibit there included a mural by the Hungarian immigrant Hugo Gellert, a member of the Communist Party of America, which depicted Henry Ford, President Herbert Hoover, J. P. Morgan, and John D. Rockefeller, Sr., flanked by gunmen and bags of cash and accompanied by America’s most famous gangster. It was called “ ‘Us Fellas Gotta Stick Together’—Al Capone.”

Even before the museum erected its permanent home, on West Fifty-third Street, in 1939, it had fundamentally altered the trajectory of architecture and urban planning with a landmark 1932 exhibit grandly titled “Modern Architecture: International Exhibition.” The curator was Philip Johnson, a wealthy young aesthete whom Barr had invited to broaden the museum’s scope to include photography, graphic arts, and industrial fabrication. Johnson’s “Machine Art” exhibit, in 1934, was, according to his biographer, the critic Mark Lamster, “a sensation from the moment it opened . . . Here were things nobody had considered putting in an art museum before: beakers, a cash register, a circular saw, a Dictaphone, perfume bottles, pans, springs of all sizes, a toaster oven, a waffle maker, a telescope, a vacuum, and even a dentist’s X-ray machine.”

For the architecture showcase, Johnson collected models and drawings of buildings by Europeans like Walter Gropius—who had founded the Bauhaus, a neo-socialist collective of craftsmen, engineers, artists, and architects—and by the Swiss-French painter and architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, known as Le Corbusier, whose utopian urban-planning concept, “The Radiant City,” was expressed in a 1925 sponsored study, called “The Voisin Plan City,” which proposed demolishing broad sections of Paris and replacing them with rows of identical cruciform residential towers interspersed with elevated freeways, concrete walkways, and courtyards of featureless grass. Wolfe wrote that Johnson’s accompanying book, co-authored with Henry-Russell Hitchcock, a Wesleyan lecturer who wrote influential articles on design, “gave no indication that the International Style—and their label caught on immediately—had originated in any social setting, any terra firma, whatsoever.” Frank Lloyd Wright, declining an invitation to participate, condemned the style as “communistic,” disdaining the curators as a “self-selected group of formalizers . . . superficial and ignorant.”

The museum’s flagship structure—the 1939 faux-Bauhaus imposture done by Philip L. Goodwin, a society architect, and Edward Durell Stone, whom Rockefeller admired for the elegant deco execution of his Radio City Music Hall—was disdained by Johnson, who, in the process of remaking himself as a stratospherically prestigious architect, was invited to counteract the building’s shortcomings. MOMA’s first westward addition, the taut and elegant Grace Rainey Rogers Memorial Wing, done by Johnson in 1951, and since demolished, was, according to Lamster, “a masterpiece . . . the first glass-walled modern building to rise in New York, but that’s the story of MoMA, the constant tearing itself down to remake itself, often for the worse.” There is no visible trace of Johnson’s next, larger addition, the 1964 East Wing, but his eternally serene Sculpture Garden, from 1953, remains essentially intact.

The Japanese Exhibition House stood in the museum garden and opened to the public in June, 1954.Photograph by Michael Rougier / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty

In the postwar decades, modern art, modern architecture, and the museum all faltered and languished. The once brazen International Style could now be found everywhere, its Platonic forms duly copied out in diluted, increasingly mundane degrees of fidelity to the thrilling European originals. In the late nineteen-fifties, Johnson collaborated with Pietro Belluschi, Gordon Bunshaft, Wallace Harrison, and Eero Saarinen on another Rockefeller project, planned with Robert Moses: the demolition of the San Juan Hill neighborhood to make way for the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, a set of ersatz-Italian piazzas flanked by white limestone brutalist auditoriums that present the surrounding streets with impenetrable stone walls. Lamster wrote, “If you look at the new formalism of the sixties, Lincoln Center with its monumentality and its stark whiteness and its classicism and its insistence on authority—there’s something fascistic about that.” (Johnson’s defiant insistence on the amoral purity of his aesthetics reached its apotheosis in the kitschy towers he was happy to build, much later, for Donald Trump.)

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