Architect Breaks Down the Design Of Four Iconic New York City Museums: the Met, MoMA, Guggenheim & Frick

Con­text may not count for every­thing in art. But as under­scored by every­one from Mar­cel Duchamp (or Elsa von Frey­tag-Lor­ing­hoven) to the jour­nal­ists who occa­sion­al­ly con­vince vir­tu­oso musi­cians to busk in dingy pub­lic spaces, it cer­tain­ly counts for some­thing. Whether or not you believe that works of art retain the same essen­tial val­ue no mat­ter where they’re beheld, some envi­ron­ments are sure­ly more con­ducive to appre­ci­a­tion than oth­ers. The ques­tion of just which design ele­ments make the dif­fer­ence has occu­pied muse­um archi­tects for cen­turies, and in New York City alone, you can direct­ly expe­ri­ence more than 200 years of bold exer­cis­es and exper­i­ments in the form.

In the Archi­tec­tur­al Digest video above, archi­tect Michael Wyet­zn­er (pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture for his exege­ses of New York’s apart­ments, bridges, and sub­way sta­tions, as well as Cen­tral Park and the Chrysler Build­ing) uses his expert knowl­edge to reveal the design choic­es that have gone into the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art, the Muse­um of Mod­ern Art, the Solomon R. Guggen­heim Muse­um, and the Frick Col­lec­tion. No two of these famous art insti­tu­tions were con­ceived in quite the same peri­od, none look or feel quite the same as the oth­ers, and we can be rea­son­ably sure that no sin­gle piece of art would look quite the same if it were moved between any of them.

Occu­py­ing five blocks of Cen­tral Park, MoMA is less a build­ing than a col­lec­tion of build­ings — each added at a dif­fer­ent time, in a style of that time — and indeed, less a col­lec­tion of build­ings than “a city unto itself,” as Wyet­zn­er puts it.  (No won­der Clau­dia and Jamie Kin­caid could run away from home and go unno­ticed liv­ing in it.) The com­par­a­tive­ly mod­est MoMA has also grown addi­tion-by-addi­tion, begin­ning with a “stripped-down form of mod­ernism” that stood well out on the West 53rd street of the late thir­ties. It opened as the first of the many “clean white box­es” that would appear across the coun­try — and lat­er the world — to show the art of the twen­ti­eth and twen­ty-first cen­turies.

The orig­i­nal MoMA build­ing remains strik­ing today, but it’s now flanked by expan­sions from the hands of Philip John­son, Cesar Pel­li, Yoshio Taniguchi, and Jean Nou­v­el. Much less like­ly to have any­thing attached to it is the Guggen­heim, with its instant­ly rec­og­niz­able spi­ral design by Frank Lloyd Wright. Based on an idea by Le Cor­busier, its nar­row atri­um-wrap­ping gal­leries do present cer­tain dif­fi­cul­ties for the prop­er dis­play of large-scale art­works. Wyet­zn­er also men­tions the oft-heard crit­i­cism of Wright’s hav­ing “cre­at­ed a mon­u­ment to him­self — but it’s one hell of a mon­u­ment.”

Last comes “the orig­i­nal build­ing for the Whit­ney Muse­um of Amer­i­can Art, which lat­er became the Met Breuer, which now has become the Frick. Who knows what it’ll become next.” The sec­ond of its names refers to its archi­tect, the Bauhaus-trained Mar­cel Breuer (he of the Wass­i­ly chair), whose mus­cu­lar design “slices off” the muse­um from the brown­stone neigh­bor­hood that sur­rounds it. With its “open, loft-like spaces,” it pro­vides a con­text meant for the art of its time, much as the Met, MoMA, and the Guggen­heim do for the art of theirs. But all these insti­tu­tions have suc­ceed­ed just as much by carv­ing out con­texts of their own in the open-air muse­um of archi­tec­ture and urban­ism that is New York City.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Archi­tect Breaks Down Five of the Most Icon­ic New York City Apart­ments

The 5 Inno­v­a­tive Bridges That Make New York City, New York City

How Cen­tral Park Was Cre­at­ed Entire­ly By Design & Not By Nature: An Archi­tect Breaks Down America’s Great­est Urban Park

An Archi­tect Breaks Down the Design of New York City Sub­way Sta­tions, from the Old­est to Newest

A Whirl­wind Archi­tec­tur­al Tour of the New York Pub­lic Library — “Hid­den Details” and All

A 3D Ani­ma­tion Shows the Evo­lu­tion of New York City (1524 — 2023)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (4) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (4)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • doug says:

    “Occu­py­ing five blocks of Cen­tral Park, MoMA is less a build­ing”

    The Met is in the park, MoMA is on w 53rd.

  • Ian Alterman says:

    In addi­tion to con­flat­ing the Met and MOMA is his first descrip­tion (it is the Met in Cen­tral Park, not MOMA), I have to won­der why he would choose to write this arti­cle at this moment, giv­en that the Frick is lit­er­al­ly clos­ing shop at the Breuer in a few weeks, and mov­ing the Col­lec­tion back to the mansion/museum. In fact, I had thought that his archi­tec­tur­al com­ments about the Frick in this arti­cle would be about the man­sion, and not the Breuer, which is basi­cal­ly already “old news.” And giv­en the changes to the man­sion while the Col­lec­tion was at the Breuer, Mr. Wyet­zn­er would have quite a bit to talk about.

  • John Hooper says:

    I feel like this arti­cle is out­dat­ed dat­ed and the author con­fused about his facts

  • Woland says:

    How embar­rass­ing that you still haven’t cor­rect­ed this…

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.