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.
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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.