In the northernmost corner of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, only accessible through the Medieval Art room and wedged in between two museum cafes, is the museum’s Robert Lehman Wing, which in its current state even the most seasoned Met-goers likely won’t recognize.
Built in 1975, the tucked-away Lehman Wing has a double height, skylit atrium and surrounding galleries, and typically houses 14th- to 20th-century western European art. Starting this weekend, however, the wing will host the Met Costume Institute’s blockbuster spring fashion exhibit Manus x Machina. To play the part, the blocky, concrete-and-brick space got a luminous, cathedral-esque redesign courtesy of Shohei Shigematsu, partner at the New York office of international firm OMA, founded by Rem Koolhaas.
The show features elaborate examples of both handmade and high-tech dressmaking techniques, and examines how both have shaped the fashion industry. Creating a cohesive environment for a group show–the techno-craft of Iris Van Herpen and Gareth Plugh are featured next to the hand done work of Alexander McQueen and Karl Lagerfeld–was one of the main challenges that Shigematsu faced when conceptualizing the space. The other was the unusual design of the wing it was to be located in.
“The nature of the Lehman museum is an atrium and a hallway, so basically not an exhibition space,” says Shigematsu. The eclectic decor of the surrounding rooms (i.e. velvet wall coverings and Victorian furniture), the blocky ’70s modernist architecture, and the enormous skylight weren’t ideal for a subtle backdrop to the elaborate pieces that make up the show. “Our immediate thought was we have to create an environment itself. Not a display design per se, but really a spatial design.”
Shigematsu and his team went about completely reshaping the space, creating a structure of soft curves and circular floors inside of the original diamond-shaped wing. They constructed metal infrastructure that made classical arches and frame ways and overlaid it with a semi-translucent white scrim. To transform the atrium into the central room in the show, Shigematsu built a lofted floor so that the space was on level with the surrounding corridor. “It’s the first time in 40 years that MET had to create a new floor space, even if it is temporary,” he says.
To protect the dresses in the show, the skylight is covered over by a solid dome, onto which images are projected, Sistine Chapel-style. The projection on the ceiling shows Karl Lagerfeld’s technique in creating an elaborate couture wedding dress, the dual machine-and-handmade centerpiece of the show, on display below. In the corridor that wraps around the domed center, archways display dresses by technique: the elaborate featherwork of Yves St. Laurent, the pleats of Issey Miyake and Raf Simons for House of Dior, the intricate custom lace of Lazaro Hernandez and Jack McCollough of Proenza Schouler, and so on.
Transforming the space into a fabric cathedral wasn’t meant to imply a worship of fashion, says Shigematsu, but instead to create a soft and contemplative environment that wouldn’t take away from the intricacies of the dresses on display. Yet the religious aspect makes sense when you consider the wing’s placement within the museum. “The next room is a Medieval court which has religious architecture, and if you look around there are so many arches and classical languages,” he says. “We thought that it would be nice to have some resonance with the classical language, but at the same time have a very contemporary and temporary language.”
OMA’s transformed space will only be up for as long as the exhibit, through August, after which the fabric and metal cathedral will be dismantled and the old modernist Lehman Wing will return. The space revels in its temporality–it’s not often that a museum space feels so light and ephemeral. “In the Met, everything looks very permanent and heavy and historic,” Shigematsu agrees. “But this was such a deliberately temporary structure within one that already exists.”