The New Museum was a daring attempt to create a radical center for contemporary art in New York City, that would distinguishing itself from existing galleries with a focus on new and emerging artists.
It succeeded. And, over the decades following its foundation in 1977, that success, along with its reputation for brave artistic programs, caused it to eventually outgrow its initial SoHo location. So, in 2003 the Museum commissioned Japanese firm SANAA to design a new home that would reflect the modern art ideals that led to the Museum’s inception.
The end result, opened in the Bowery neighbourhood back in 2007, arrived as an innovative, cubist stack of rectilinear boxes that would be the first and, still to this day, the only purpose-built contemporary art museum in New York City.
The design for the New Museum featured seven boxes of differing dimensions, stacked straight up on a central core. Deliberately avoiding using the maximum square footage permitted by zoning, the architects allowed themselves to shift these boxes off-center, creating a dynamic visual relationship between levels.
Within the building’s ten storeys are galleries, offices, events spaces, a café, a theater, and an education center. Maximizing exhibition space was highlighted as key in the new design, given the limited space of the New Museum’s original home. Circulation space was kept to a minimum in favour of gallery size, indicated by the third-floor staircase being just three feet wide, as narrow as city’s building regulations allow. The minimal staircase and the extreme height of the ceiling combine to create a distinctive spatial experience.
All the galleries are nearly windowless, wall space being a priority, but the careful alignment of the building’s component boxes was calculated to allow natural light in through skylights in the resulting overhangs. The ceiling structures were left exposed so art could be hung from above, providing an even more adaptable exhibition space. There’s also unused space in the air shaft between the third and fourth floors that was converted into a micro-gallery. It measures only five feet by eight feet, but with a thirty-five-foot ceiling height.
Another goal for the architects was to make the New Museum approachable and inviting. A glass wall was fitted at street level to instill a sense of openness and transparency. The glass panels of the wall are sunk into the floor and extend into the ceiling, masking their frames and avoiding any sense border between the outside and inside.
The structure of the building, which uses steel trusses to take the load of its boxes, enabled the extensive use of glass walls. These trusses also allowed the galleries to be column-free, providing an unobstructed and very flexible exhibition space. Also, since the gallery walls are not load-bearing, recesses were able to be inserted between them and the floor. The floating walls echo the weightless feel of the overall structure, which seems to levitate over its glass storefront, and are a feature previously used by SANAA at their gallery at Kanazawa.
Tokyo firm SANAA – Sejima and Nishizawa and Associates – was established by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa in 1995. These two architects work collaboratively on SANAA projects while running their own individual practices, all within the same building. Staff members mix between firms and share communal spaces in their open-plan office.
When awarded the New Museum commission, SANAA was working on two further gallery projects: the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, and the Glass Pavilion at the Toledo Museum of Art in Toledo, Ohio, which was the firm’s first project in the US. Being fairly unknown internationally seemed to fit well with New Museum’s mission to promote undiscovered artists.
As the New Museum nears a decade in its iconic building, it’s unique design can still be celebrated, as should the facts that it received more than 100,000 visitors during its first two months open, and has been credited with being a large factor in the regeneation of the once run-down Bowery neighbourhood.