October 2008, ARTnews

From Lollipops to Zigzags

The American Craft Museum completes its transformation into the Museum of Arts and Design with a daring makeover of an eccentric New York landmark

“Second Lives,” the title of the inaugural exhibition at the newly opened Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) in New York, signals the rebirth of both that institution and the dramatically transformed building where the museum is now based.

In its previous incarnation, MAD was known as the American Craft Museum, located across the street from the Museum of Modern Art in midtown Manhattan. The name change and its angry-sounding acronym came in 2002, reflecting a broader focus to include fine art and design and heralding the move to much larger premises at 2 Columbus Circle.

Few New York buildings have been subjected to as much vitriol as MAD’s new home. Originally erected in 1964 as the Gallery of Modern Art, it had been called “the world’s greatest urinal” and derided as “a mausoleum as imagined by Dr. Seuss.” The gallery shut down after only five years.

MAD’s decision to gut the building unleashed a furious battle, with architect Robert A.M. Stern, historian Vincent Scully and author Tom Wolfe leading a crusade for it to be saved, but they failed to persuade the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission to even hold a public hearing on the question. After the original gallery closed in 1969, the building had a short life as a cultural center with rotating exhibitions, and then housed offices for the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs until 1998, after which it stood derelict until MAD acquired it.

“This was a building that turned its face on the city,” said MAD director Holly Hotchner as the museum prepared to open last month. “It was foreboding.” The quirky concave structure was designed by Edward Durrell Stone to showcase the nonabstract art collection of A&P supermarket heir Huntington Hartford. Stone, architect of the Kennedy Center in Washington and the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, drew on Venetian Gothic for inspiration, including lollipop-shaped forms that encircled the ground floor of a nearly windowless structure clad in white marble.

In the redesign — a $90 million project, carried out by a team from Portland-based Allied Works Architecture headed by Brad Cloepfil — the original curved form has been retained, but the exterior is new. Those famous lollipops remain but their candy colored centers — dark discs of marble on the exterior — have been excised and left white, like ghostly reminders of the building-s troubled past. The 150-seat basement theater has been refurbished according to Stone-s design, and by reconfiguring the placement of stairwells and elevators, Cloepfil has vastly opened up and improved the exhibition spaces.

He also cut a series of horizontal and vertical windows into the façade, which previously had only portholes on the edges to admit natural light inside. Linked to the new zigzag pattern of windows are two-foot wide slits across the floor that create what Cloepfil calls “ribbons” of translucent glass that unify the exterior and interior design. The glass insets in the floor also give gallery goers a sense of movement in rooms above and are aimed at enticing them to circulate through the nine-story building.

On the outside, the original marble cladding has been supplanted by 22,000 glazed ceramic tiles with an iridescent finish that Hotchner likes to describe as “nacreous” and considers reflective of the museum’s emphasis on materials, craftsmanship and new technology. Unfortunately the special shimmering quality of the tiles is not always perceptible. “Direct sun overpowers it,” conceded Cloepfil. Further detracting from the harmony of the main façade, the pattern of window slits on the upper half of the building forms an oddly distracting, huge capital “H.”

This is the result of a last-minute design change to create a panoramic view of Central Park for a restaurant that will open next year. “It was against my will,” says the architect who has also designed the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis and additions to the Seattle and University of Michigan art museums.

On display in the newly reopened MAD until February 15 are 250 of the most significant works from the museum’s permanent collection, including textiles by Jack Lenor Larson, ceramics by Peter Voulkos and blown glass by Massimo Vignelli. Chief curator David McFadden decided to install the show by themes rather than chronologically. “The whole idea is to make the collection come alive,” he says, stressing that the museum wants to demonstrate how art, craft and design have morphed unrecognizably in recent years. “A sort of mayonnaise has been made out what were once separate fields. They’re all intermingled in an interesting way.”

The new building, with its four floors of galleries, triples the space for exhibiting the permanent collection, 40 percent of which will now be on display. “We’ll grow into the building,” says curator Lowery Sims, the former director of the Studio Museum in Harlem. “There will be a period of exploration. Once the collection is on view, people will begin to understand why the name was changed.”

In addition to an education department and three artists’ studios, where visitors can watch work being created, there is a jewelry gallery and study center funded by the Tiffany & Co. Foundation. The wall-coverings firm Maya Romanoff has produced a glittering, beaded clear curtain to adorn one end of the gallery, underscoring a spirit of opulence and luxury.

“It’s our one statement of luxe,” says Hotchner. Elsewhere the galleries are neutral spaces, with white oak floors and spare white walls. Several site-specific works were created for the museum opening, including Judith Schaechter’s stained glass window for installation in a fire stair, and outside the building, benches by Swedish sculptor Gustav Kraitz and the innovative blacksmith Tom Joyce.

The basement theater, one of the few areas of the original building that remained largely intact, will be used for films, lectures and concerts. Besides the gold fabric paneling on the theater’s walls and the dark walnut veneer that once filled the building, there are red plush seats and brass doors incised with a pattern of circles within squares — a repeating theme in Huntington Hartford’s museum. Topping off the theater’s ceiling is a dramatic, undulating curtain of some 44,000 brass discs.

“It’s very glam,” Hotchner says approvingly. “This was the right place to do an homage to Durrell Stone. Elsewhere we did not destroy the building. We kept the best parts — the shape, the size, the color. But a windowless, cramped interior space was not worth keeping.” Now that MAD has revamped the premises, the oddball landmark on Columbus Circle seems poised to enter a new era that will render it something other than an architectural battleground.