Brad Cloepfil’s New Museum of Arts & Design

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Brad Cloepfil, whose firm Allied Works Architecture is designing the new Museum of Arts & Design (MAD) in Manhattan, took me on a tour yesterday of the still unfinished building, which is expected to open its doors next September.

This is the same project that set off a huge preservation battle in New York a few years ago because it required largely demolishing an Edward Durell Stone building from 1965 that was either an icon or an eyesore, depending on who you asked. Actually it was both, and should have been preserved for just that reason — it was an outstanding example of a now mostly despised undertaking, the attempt made in the 1950s and ’60s by Stone, Philip Johnson and a few others, to press Modernism and historicism together into a white marble gift box. As pretty much everyone must know by now, the critic Ada Louise Huxtable once called Stone’s building a “palazzo on lollipops” because of the way its street level columns developed on top into circles. But the styles we dismiss today tend to be the ones we re-examine tomorrow.

As I wrote here a few months ago:

Stone’s building, with its white marble and its references to Venetian Gothic, certainly didn’t play by the standard Modernist rules. But his search for a way to bring the past back into architecture is something that we now understand as a legitimate part of the 20th century story, even if he didn’t always produce results that we can appreciate — yet. His forays into historicism may look kitschy to us now. Beaux Arts, Victorian and Art Deco architecture all once looked disposable, too. Now we cherish them all. Which is why I suspect the day will come when we’ll wish we had that palazzo back, lollipops and all.

That said, the deed is done. Stone’s building no longer survives as an example, good or bad, to the future. Meanwhile there’s the new building to consider. Cloepfil did the subdued but nicely proportioned new galleries for the Seattle Art Museum, which I wrote about briefly a few months ago. And here’s a lengthy and sympathetic reading of his career from Andrew Blum in Metropolis. At this early stage the MAD building is in no state to review, but I’ll provide a description of it’s emerging form:

Cloepfil has gutted the interior floors of Stone’s building to produce full floor galleries — a good idea considering the relatively small footprint the building occupies. On the outside Stone’s marble has been stripped away and replaced with a surface of fritted glass and glazed terra-cotta panels that will respond to daylight with a mild iridescent shimmer. The most prominent visual element of the new design will be the windows, a 30-inch wide switchback path of glass that winds across the exterior like a Pac Man warpath, opening views all around the galleries to the Columbus Circle area and north across Central Park. Inside it will even cut across the floorplate in several places.

The consistent complaint against Stone’s building, which originally held Huntington Hartford’s Gallery of Modern Art, was that it was almost windowless. Cloepfil’s scheme has the obvious advantage of bringing light back into the galleries while providing an ever varying view frame from inside.

Above the galleries will be floors dedicated to art education, an event space and a top floor restaurant with wide views over Central Park. Cloepfil has removed the loggia that Stone had provided to push the restaurant floor out fully to the building facade.

As for those “lollipops”, Cloepfil’s ceramic wall will come down almost to street level, but he has kept the old columns. I guess you can have your lollipops and eat them too.