One of the most anticipated projects of 2008, the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) in New York earned the distinction, upon its opening in late September, of being one of the most negatively reviewed projects of the year. While the museum is not the most compelling new piece of architecture, it offers a complicated backstory unlike any other, and the fact that the museum was built at all is a testament to perseverance in the face of finicky New York politics. Fan or not of the new building, you have to give Brad Cloepfil, of Portland, Ore.–based Allied Works Architecture, a lot of credit for working within such a set of restrictive guidelines.
The original Two Columbus Circle was the work of architect Edward Durrell Stone. Completed in 1964, its most distinctive feature—its white marble façade with ground-floor colonnade—was mocked as decorative. The architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable, then of The New York Times, dubbed the façade “a die-cut Venetian palazzo on lollipops.”
Designed to house A&P supermarket heir Huntington Hartford's figurative modern art collection, the museum never really excelled in any way. The irregular-shaped site—a trapezoid lot between Broadway, Eighth Avenue, Columbus Circle, and West 57th Street—further complicated by a floor plan that accommodated more square footage for the building core than usable space, made for a poor circulation layout and floor plates that were too small to view the collection. Completely self-contained, the galleries were unevenly illuminated with linear washes of light and offered no connection to the city beyond. Only five years after it opened, the Gallery of Modern Art closed.
Multiple organizations subsequently occupied the space, including the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs for almost 18 years, but the building never offered a comfortable home to any of its tenants. Then, in 2002, MAD—formerly the American Craft Museum—purchased the building. It was the right move for the museum, then located on West 53rd Street, to move out of the shadow of the neighboring Museum of Modern Art and emerge as a cultural institution in its own right.
When the first proposals for Cloepfil's transformed Stone building were made public, the design caused an uproar and garnered an outcry of unfavorable responses from prominent architects such as Tod Williams, Billie Tsien, and Robert A.M. Stern. They, along with preservationists, lobbied for the building to be granted landmark status, arguing that Stone's building represented an important work of 1960s modern architecture in addition to having a distinctive presence in New York's streetscape. One cannot help but wonder if the efforts to designate the building were because it actually merited saving or because every time a notable edifice in New York faces the threat of demolition, the ghost of Penn Station rears its preservation head.
MAD, coming in at a final cost of $90 million, attempts to make something new out of Stone's quirky 54,000-square-foot building, but client constraints and construction execution restricted the design intent. Zoning regulations prevented Cloepfil from altering the height of the building and changing its footprint. What he could and did do was strip the existing structure back to the concrete frame and reclad the entire building with grayish-white rectangular terra cotta tiles and sections of fritted glass. In the right light the tiles have an iridescent quality, but in overcast skies the façade turns a dull gray. Traces of the “lollipop” colonnade can be seen from inside the ground floor lobby, a conscious decision by Cloepfil, but that is the only visible remnant of the original façade. If you are unfamiliar with the previous building, you would be hard-pressed to know it even existed.
To give MAD a workable new home, Cloepfil smartly repositions the building's core along the West 57th Street side of the site away from Columbus Circle. In addition to four floors of gallery space, the 10-story museum now houses an education center, a renovated 155-seat below-grade auditorium, an upper-level events space, and a top floor restaurant that will open in spring 2009. All in all, it is more than three times the space the museum had in its previous location on West 53rd Street.
But, lighting's role in the new museum has a confused and lack-luster presence. Gallery recessed tracklighting, with adjustable spotlights, competes with the artwork, and calls attention to itself because of the low ceiling heights. The track is not laid out in a way that appears to be coordinated with Cloepfil's attempt to bring natural light into the galleries through a series of horizontal and vertical cuts on the façade, which he refers to as “ribbons of light,” and offers a view of the city and Central Park. Unfortunately these light slices, which also trace through the wood floor via opaque glass panels, do not have the staying power to create the sought-after quality of natural light in the galleries and are not articulated cleanly enough to deliver the intended impact: Looking out one of the narrow glass openings, what catches your eye is a fine horizontal cable—a bird deterrent wire. It is a greatly missed opportunity for MAD, which promotes the importance of craft, that it has built itself a new home where the quality of construction does not measure up to the level necessary to successfully carry out Cloepfil's minimalist intentions.
Similar to the New Museum of Contemporary Art on the Bowery, MAD offers a different kind of museum-going experience—a series of short disjointed vignettes separated by vertical movement via an elevator. Stairs, fire stairs to be exact, offer secondary vertical access between floors, but the starkness of these spaces with their concrete stairs and back-of-house fluorescent lighting counters the celebratory nature of a museum visit.
Another missed opportunity occurs on the building's façade, where a band of windows for the ninth-floor restaurant were required by museum director Holly Hotchner and the museum's board of directors. It is unfortunate that the museum did not trust the architect to create a solution that would provide views from the restaurant out to Central Park while keeping with the new architectural language of the façade.
With challenges at every turn, the southern site along Columbus Circle long has been riddled with complexity. The real issue facing any tenant is not about reworking a building but about how to transform an urban space. In that sense, the new design of Columbus Circle itself, by noted American landscape architect Laurie Olin and his Philadelphia-based firm, Olin, is a great success. Now pedestrian-friendly with a fountain, benches, and hard- and greenscapes circling the statue of Christopher Columbus from which the circle derives its name, it is one of the more successful public spaces the city has seen in some time. In that sense the nondescript façade of MAD offers the right foil for this urban crossroads, helping to convert it into a place that is a far cry from the uninhabitable traffic circle it once was. MAD would be well served to take advantage of this “front lawn.” Opening weekend brought 8,000 visitors to the museum, but only time will tell if it can sustain that kind of attendance. Will it be a one-visit museum or a return destination?