New Museum by Sanaa

Sometimes museums are designed with an unabashed intent to dazzle and overwhelm with their form, complexity and/or grandeur. In such cases, they often become more recognized and discussed than the art and sculptures they house. A valid argument is, however, that a museum building is not truly successful in its function if it supplants the fame of its exhibits and installations. The word museum is, after all, defined as a building or place where works of art, scientific specimens, or other objects of permanent value are kept and displayed, according to Such a building, thus, needs to expand, rather than limit, opportunities to display art in its best light. Museum spaces and galleries do not need to overwhelm visitors with their elaborate complexities, but rather take a step back and draw a viewer’s eye to the exhibited art, not away from it.

Staying true to the definition of what a museum should be, the Tokyo-based SANAA designed the New Museum of Contemporary Art, a subdued and stately building on the Bowery in New York City. While the museum’s purpose is to house cutting-edge modern art, the building itself does not try to one-up its exhibits with flashy colors or bold geometries. The structure asserts itself in the neighborhood with its clean edges and angles, without being boring or banal and without detracting visitors’ attention from the artworks to the building itself. The New Museum provides a distinguished presence on the Bowery and certainly holds its own as a powerful example of museum architecture; but it also steps aside and lets the art speak for itself, once a person enters the building.

The New Museum was designed to be seven stories high to create enough space for all of the planned galleries and functions and, thus, was a challenge to be placed amidst low-rise buildings of the Bowery, without seeming monolithic, dark and withdrawn from the rest of the neighborhood. The resolution to this dilemma came in a form of seven boxes, clad in aluminum mesh and stacked atop of one another, providing numerous opportunities to draw in the sunlight from above into the gallery spaces. The windows are partially hidden behind the shimmering mesh, giving the building a unifying effect in its consistency of material, while at the same time, accentuating the protruding and receding box-like shapes.

When approaching the building, a visitor experiences the museum unveiling itself as he or she gets closer and closer, until finally able to touch the glass at the ground level with their fingers. From a distance, the white, towering building excites the on-lookers with its light, ephemeral quality. Getting nearer to the building, however, it is surprising to see the skin of the museum look tougher, more abrasive, and its metal mesh look more rigid and industrial. Up close, the mesh reads as more of a protective feature than just an effective way to evenly filter in the sunlight.

This juxtaposition of lightness and airiness from afar and toughness of materials from up close is a not-so-subtle remark about the neighborhood where the museum is situated. It comments on the gritty past of the street just a few years ago in 2002, when the museum was conceived and when the neighborhood was still in relative disrepair. It remembers the times when there was a lot of controversy and reservations as to what would happen if a fine art museum was placed amidst a cluster of run-down buildings and lower-end restaurants. It also embraces the fact that the once grungy neighborhood is changing and evolving – it now boasts a series of new luxury condos and upscale retail shops and is continuously going through changes, receiving a make-over on many levels. The grittiness is now becoming intertwined and interbred with the newly acquired refinement. The once-clear boundaries are becoming blurred and the differences between the past and the present can often be seen only up close.

The building is responsive to the street with its transparent ground level that stands in direct opposition to the levels above, mostly concealed from the inquiring eye. The entry draws visitors in through its fifteen-foot tall pane of glass and allows observers to take a peak into the the museum and draw parallels between the life of the gallery spaces and the life of the busy street. This clever transition exposes the interior of the museum on the ground level without giving away what goes on in the upper galleries. The openness gives way to concealment and mystery and a visitor is enticed to step inside the building and explore it from the ground up.

A seamless transition from the exterior to the interior is heightened by the choice of flooring materials on the ground level of the New Museum. The gray concrete pavement of the street morphs into more polished gray concrete floors of the museum in the Marcia Tucker Hall. This hall contains all the functions that welcome visitors and encourage them to come inside. All the spaces here, at the street level, are largely transparent to those who are exploring it. The only separation for the Joan and Charles Lazarus Gallery from the rest of the spaces, for example, is a glass wall. The gallery is illuminated by the light shining down from above through the open ceiling, which is a result of the shifted floor above. A screen of metal mesh partially conceals the gallery activities from the above ceiling and filters light from a grid of thin, fluorescent tubes.

The second, third and fourth floors are all large, spacious galleries with tall ceilings. Even here, though, visitors get a gentle reminder of the notion that only when they pay very close attention to their surroundings will they notice the subtle details of the seemingly ordinary spaces. The galleries are austere in their almost-rectangular shapes, making the art accessible to a viewer but still bringing in accents of uniqueness as some of their walls are slightly angled to give the spaces a bit more character. The angles are so subtle, that they are often barely noticeable, unless one is really looking. The seventh floor opens up to the exterior with floor-to-ceiling glass and an outdoor terrace to allows visitors to step outside and take in the panoramic views of the city.

As the visitors ascend up and explore one snow-white gallery after another, they encounter numerous reminders of the architects’ notion of juxtaposing the delicate with the raw, by allowing these elements to coexist, side by side, in a subtle, unobtrusive manner. Exposed structural steel peaks out in several places, its roughness partially subdued by the white coat of paint, but still impressive enough to remind us of the tough massive structure that runs through the entire building. The cracked concrete floors of the building are also a small but a deliberate touch, making the brand new space seem slightly aged and reminding us of the true purpose of a museum to preserve the works of art and make time stand still, at least for the duration of a patron’s visit.

All in all, through many of the design decisions by the architects, the New Museum of Contemporary Art walks a fine line that separates effortless simplicity from the everyday mundane. One less detail, one less wall, one less skylight and the building could easily be called unremarkable, even in a neighborhood such as the Bowery, where this museum is the first of its kind. However, it is the balance of small details in just the right places and the elements that reveal themselves only to those who are looking for such revelations that make this building step outside of the realm of plainness.

The building serves its function as a museum to the fullest extent, and that is to let the art speak for itself and to be viewed without obstructions. The New Museum of Contemporary Art is, figuratively speaking, a white canvas, on which artists can choose to display their talents, without a fear of the canvas outshining its contents. The building becomes memorable simply because it is so unpretentious in its statement. It shows us that a building made of a series of ordinary boxes can become everything but a victim of its simplicity.