The original 2 Columbus Circle

If Brad Cloepfil’s new Museum of Arts and Design were simply another white box for art, it would be just plain mean not to give it a decent grade. It’s humanly scaled, nicely detailed, and allows light to flutter into the galleries through strategically placed horizontal and vertical slits. Visitors get intimate bird’s-eye views of Central Park and Columbus Circle, along with congenial spaces to contemplate art. It’s a conscientious if unspectacular effort.

Yet it’s impossible to forget that this decorous little tower was once something flamboyant, fun, and maybe even a little foolish, a swinging ’60s art museum designed by Edward Durell Stone for the eccentric heir to the A&P fortune, Huntington Hartford.

Cloepfil and his team at Allied Works Architecture literally wrapped their new museum around the concrete bones of Stone’s white marble folly. But they failed to exorcise its ghosts, and now they hover in eternal reproach. It feels as if all the idiosyncrasies were focus-grouped out of the place.
As a work of architecture, Stone’s pulled-taffy version of a Venetian palazzo never qualified for great-building status. But its casual destruction, after a bitter, celebrity-studded preservation battle, has secured it a place as a great architectural martyr, along with the likes of New York’s Penn Station and Wright’s Imperial Hotel. Its demise reminds us how little our society tolerates the weird, even in a metropolis like New York.

Americans have never been kind to buildings of the recent past. By the time a structure turns 40, even once-lauded examples can make people cringe. That’s been especially true for the work of the ’50s and ’60s, a fertile time when architects were trying out new materials, forms and styles without knowing what sort of trouble they were getting into.

It’s common now to cite the malfunctions as a demolition excuse, as Philadelphia did recently when it trashed Mitchell/Giurgola’s little midcentury modern bank on Broad Street. But several spectacular rescues, like Kahn’s Yale Art Gallery, prove that functional perfection isn’t the most important criterion for judging a building.

Perhaps if Cloepfil’s Columbus Circle facade had been more assured, more assertive, more edgy – in other words, if it exhibited the positive traits of Stone’s 1964 design – we could rationalize the loss. It’s understandable that museums change and cities evolve. Most great architecture displaced something else. What’s sad is that Cloepfil’s replacement is so much less good than the original.

Stone’s museum, which is now seen as a harbinger of postmodernism, has always divided critics. Because Stone codesigned the Museum of Modern Art, certain critics, most famously Ada Louise Huxtable, were appalled by his breezy betrayal of modernism’s creed. Her nickname for the museum – the Lollipop building – was hurled like a bitter epithet. What detractors tend to forget is that Huxtable lavishly praised its interior, calling it an “expert manipulation of space by an expert hand.”

But it wasn’t until Hartford’s vanity museum collapsed in 1968 that the building became known as the standard for failed architecture. It had the bad luck to be pressed into service as city offices, even though the only windows were its corner portholes and the galleries were unsuitable for cubicles. By the time it was bought by the Museum of Arts and Design – formerly the American Crafts Museum – the conventional wisdom was that it was a functional and aesthetic failure. New York’s Landmarks Commission wouldn’t even hold hearings on historic designation.

The Museum of Arts and Design might have demolished the building but instead decided to retain “the memory” of Stone’s concept. So, while the marble facade was stripped off and the interior gutted, Cloepfil was encouraged to preserve its rhomboid footprint and white color, as well as the derided Venetian arcade and basement auditorium.

It’s fascinating how this approach caused Cloepfil to recapitulate Stone’s mistakes. Take his meandering window incisions, which were intended to redress what was considered the biggest flaw of Stone’s museum, its blank walled midsection. While they succeed in bringing more light and views into the galleries, the museum exterior feels just as inscrutable as ever. We’re seeing similar outcomes at ground zero and Independence Mall, where designers are also unable to escape their original project’s bad logic.

Stone employed an offbeat aesthetic, but it was fully realized, down to the voluptuous brass door handles. Even now the best moments in the new museum are those that preserve vestiges of the past, in this case the cascading gold lamé ceiling in the glam auditorium and the arches.

Cloepfil’s facade, meanwhile, is the opposite: flat and confused. Through a series of last-minute design changes imposed by the museum, an immense, H-shaped window was unintentionally branded into the Columbus Circle facade, similar to the symbol you see on highways directing motorists to the nearest hospital.

The effect is disconcerting. What does the H stand for? The confusion heightens when the building is viewed from the west, where an I-shaped window marks the facade. H? I? Why is the Museum of Arts and Design giving us the ‘Hi’ sign? And are we supposed to wave back?

Cloepfil, who is based in Portland, was a student of Tod Williams, who, along with his wife, Billie Tsien, is designing the new Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. Like Williams and Tsien, he uses hand-crafted materials to humanize and enliven a minimalist aesthetic. But Cloepfil’s elaborate, iridescent ceramic facade tiles can’t match the brooding mystery that Williams and Tsien achieved at the Folk Art Museum and Penn’s Skirkanich Hall.

Cloepfil’s museum will surely function better than Stone’s. And yet its excessively quiet design reminds us that cities are defined by their eccentricities and vanities. It’s possible to dispense selectively and judiciously with the past, but there ought to be a better motivation than embarrassment.

Inga Saffron
Philadelphia Inquirer