The new Museum of Contemporary Art was planned for insertion into a gap in the building row on the east side of the Bowery in the Manhattan district of Soho. The concept for the architecture of the museum is once more to place itself at the service of the art. In the competition brief, the client formulated the requirements for the building as follows: “The building should be so great that you can’t miss it on the outside, and so great that you don’t notice it on the inside.”
The various functional areas of the museum are stacked in a 48-meter tower that is far higher than the neighboring buildings, while the base consists of a generously proportioned multi-story lobby that connects the interior with the exterior. The cloakroom, cash desks, museum shop, and vertical access facilities structure the space as orthogonal, mostly glazed cubes, with a special exhibition hall to the rear. The cafe is situated at the gallery level above the lobby, facing the street, and offset above it is a media lounge and the administration level.
The actual exhibition galleries are on the upper five floors, whose height ranges from 5.5 to 6.7 meters. The eccentric position of the main stairway and elevator shaft produces varying room depths, thus providing for a diverse circuit on each level. Due to a setback, a typical feature dictated by New York’s building code, a terrace is created on level 7 that functions as resting place and lookout point on the way through the exhibition.
The exhibition galleries of the New Museum are basically conceived as “containers” for art. They are designed as clear-cut, mostly rectangular spaces evincing a carefully composed interplay of proportions, materials, and lighting. High side windows of etched glass bathe the galleries in even, diffuse daylight. The floors are made of poured concrete.
The façades reflect the various demands met by the building: the special features of the site, its construction, and the urban context. Various types of glass surface generate fascinating, diffusely flowing transitions between clear, reflective, and etched glass in which the surroundings appear as a mirror image, only to disappear again. The materials used are characteristic for New York, but are deployed here in an unconventional manner. The building’s exterior makes the museum functions within legible, yet simultaneously obscures them; by both working and playing with the light it reveals itself to be a built “instrument of perception.”