In 2014, Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art began renovating its east wing. It was just the first phase of a larger expansion project, which promised to increase the size of the cultural institution by a whopping one-third of its former floor plan. The museum has been closed since June of this year as it completes its new west wing, the final step in the overall expansion. On October 21, the new and improved MoMA, now 165,000 square feet and boasting more galleries plus a revamped lobby and bookstore, will open to the public.
The new building also foregrounds forward-thinking design with a free, ground-floor contemporary design gallery and exhibition curated by Paola Antonelli, senior curator and director of research and development for MoMA’s architecture and design department—who noted that the museum’s new vision comes at a time of great transition in the world of design at large.
The much-anticipated renovation and expansion was spearheaded by architecture firms Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Gensler in collaboration with the museum itself; in total, the undertaking cost $450 million dollars. (Another hidden cost was the smaller American Folk Art Museum, which stood next door to MoMA before it was razed for the latter museum’s expansion.) The large-scale renovation project includes the addition of several galleries across the museum’s six stories, intended to provide curators with more space to display new art in increasingly interdisciplinary ways.
Walking through the expanded museum feels disorienting—due to the sheer size of the building—yet calming. The clinical white walls of the main galleries are warmed by washes of light coming in through artfully placed glass. In contrast to the canvases on display, most of the glass panels and wood veneer walls are frameless; the space is boundless, anchored only by a central staircase oriented around a structural spine. Perhaps the most fundamental architectural change is the fact that the museum now runs on an east-west axis, instead of north-south the way it used to.
Sleek new details abound, like Haim Steinbach’s graphic piece Hello. Again. placed at the entry, and the Crown Creativity Lab, a space for creation and digital exploration geared toward younger visitors and those interested in the museum’s educational programming. There’s a new gallery featuring special projects, the first of which is an installation of paintings by Michael Armitage curated by Studio Museum director and chief curator Thelma Golden—a multiyear partnership between both institutions.
The building is made up of a series of sharp angles and steel lines, but the galleries are woven into a series of seemingly infinite loops; the experience of viewing each exhibit felt more like an accidental discovery than something I could have ever intentionally charted. The building feels like a puzzle worth solving.
In an important shift, MoMA’s contemporary design exhibition space is now located on the ground floor, making it both visible and accessible to pedestrians. (The new MoMA’s entire ground floor is open to the public for free; no tickets are necessary since the ticketing counter is on the first floor.)
Antonelli said that the opportunity to design a gallery with a window to the street made a big difference in her approach to readying the space for this month’s reopening.
“First of all, it’s like, ‘What do you put on the street that is designed but that cannot be perceived as a store?’ That was my first thought,” Antonelli tells me during a press preview this week. “And then I also had this big honor of having design represent the museum to passersby, so what could it be? And this idea of the power symbol came together, energy came together, along with that concern of not being commercial.”
The design gallery’s current theme, Energy, speaks to the impact power has had across generations, and how it holds different weight in our current age of climate collapse. “Energy speaks to both the 20th and the 21st centuries, there’s just a different attitude,” Antonelli tells me. “In the 20th century it was about discovering sources of energy, using them, and creating more and more powerful objects that would use more and more energy—it was this idea of infinite energy. In the 21st century, we’re aware of how finite it is, we’re aware of how much we are wasting, we’re aware of how ill-distributed it is. So we are more aware of our responsibility.”
The featured artworks illustrate everything from the power of the sun and wind’s energy to reproductive and human energy as well. The Solar-Sintered Bowl by Markus Kayser is a sand-based object made from the artist’s manually operated, solar 3D-printing machine. Across from it is a wall lined with GROW, a hybrid wind and solar energy delivery device that looks like a plastic mosaic. The device converts sunlight into electricity and mechanical energy into electrical energy.
“[This exhibit] is about more responsibility without sacrificing the elegance and the intelligence that design always seeks, but simply reorienting it toward a more economical [future],” Antonelli says.
In the gallery’s alluring large, street-facing window, sits a bold graphic: The International Electrotechnical Commission’s power symbol, an icon initially designed to represent a “standby setting” formed from the combination of an I and O. Designed in the early 1970s, the mark is now part of the museum’s collection. Facing passersby on the expansion’s ground floor, it operates as a metaphorical power button for the whole museum.
“Every time you start an exhibition there’s a different context, and this context was very particular,” Antonelli says of curating work for the reopening. “This is like a beautiful test, so it really is fascinating to see what will happen.”