This article was originally published on July 22, 2016. To read the stories behind other celebrated architecture projects, visit our AD Classics section.
The New Museum is the product of a daring vision to establish a radical, politicized center for contemporary art in New York City. With the aim of distinguishing itself from the city’s existing art institutions through a focus on emerging artists, the museum’s name embodies its pioneering spirit. Over the two decades following its foundation in 1977, it gained a strong reputation for its bold artistic program, and eventually outgrew its inconspicuous home in a SoHo loft. Keen to establish a visual presence and to reach a wider audience, in 2003 the Japanese architectural firm SANAA was commissioned to design a dedicated home for the museum. The resulting structure, a stack of rectilinear boxes which tower over the Bowery, would be the first and, thus far, the only purpose-built contemporary art museum in New York City.
Based in Tokyo, SANAA (Sejima and Nishizawa and Associates) was established by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa in 1995. These two architects work collaboratively on SANAA projects while concurrently running their own well-established individual practices, all housed within the same building. Staff members overlap across the firms, sharing communal spaces in the largely open-plan office; a borderless working environment which acts as a metaphor for their characteristically transparent architectural style. This style is, in part, a reaction against the opaque buildings found on the streets of Tokyo, and has led to comparisons being drawn with the skeletal structures of Mies van der Rohe.
At the time of being awarded the New Museum commission, SANAA had two other gallery projects underway: the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, Japan, and the Glass Pavilion at the Toledo Museum of Art in Toledo, Ohio. The latter was the firm’s first project in America, and their relative international obscurity was in keeping with New Museum’s mission to promote undiscovered artists. Having received global critical acclaim for these projects and for later works, SANAA would go on to win the Pritzker Prize in 2010.
SANAA’s design for the New Museum comprises seven boxes of varying proportions, vertically stacked around a central core. The architects avoided using the maximum square footage permitted by the zoning envelope, affording themselves the space to shift these boxes off-center and create a dynamic interplay between the volumes. The unique plan of the building was intended to create a distinct architectural identity that would reflect the experimental philosophy of the clients.
The programmatic elements of the museum are spread across its ten stories; housed within the boxes are galleries, offices, events spaces, a café, a theater, an education center, and two mechanical floors. SANAA’s architecture typically generates a dialogue with the program, as Nishizawa summarized: “We use the function to create the building, but also the building creates the function.” This reciprocity is evident at the New Museum, where an unused space in the air shaft between the third and fourth floors was converted into a micro-gallery measuring just five feet by eight feet but with a ceiling height of thirty-five feet.
One of SANAA’s primary goals for the project was to create an approachable and inviting museum. In order to achieve this, they installed a glass wall at street level to physically instill a sense of openness and transparency. The boundary between the street and the museum is dissolved by this membrane, encouraging passers-by to enter. The continuation of the concrete sidewalk to the concrete floor of the museum further adds to this effect. The glass panels of the wall are sunk into the floor and extend into the ceiling, thereby masking their frames and avoiding any sense of division which might be created by these borders.
The art loading bay is exposed by the glass wall, revealing the back-of-house activity of the museum and implying transparency on the part of the institution itself. The interior also features glass walls, such as that which separates the gallery at the back of the first floor from the lobby and café at the front. Thus, the reach of the museum extends beyond the building, with the art on display visible even to those on the street.
The use of glass walls was facilitated by the structure of the building, which relies on steel trusses to bear the load of the boxes. The trusses also allow the galleries to exist column-free, providing an unobstructed and highly adaptable exhibition space. In certain places, the trusses are exposed to become decorative features, with diagonal struts bisecting the windows. Elsewhere, the trusses are carefully positioned to avoid obscuring the skylights.
Since the gallery walls are not load-bearing, the architects were able to create a recess between the walls and the floor which avoids the typically imperfect meeting of the two. This architectural detail had been previously employed by SANAA in their gallery at Kanazawa. At the New Museum, these floating walls echo the weightlessness suggested by the overall structure, which seemingly levitates over its glass storefront.
Maximizing exhibition space was a key consideration in the new design, particularly given the cramped confines of the New Museum’s previous home. Circulation space was reduced to increase the size of the galleries; the staircase which runs between the third and fourth floors is just three feet wide, the minimum allowed by the city’s building regulations. Here, the narrow width of the staircase and the extreme height of the ceiling combine to create a dramatic spatial experience.
The galleries are almost devoid of windows; wall space was prioritized over fenestration. The shifting of the building’s component boxes was a solution devised to allow natural light into the galleries through skylights in the resulting protrusions. At night, the artificial light produced inside the galleries spills out through the skylights, diffused by the scrim coverings and softly up-lighting the building. The ceiling structure of the galleries was left exposed to allow art to be hung from above, again providing greater and more flexible exhibition space.
SANAA’s architectural projects consistently strive to foster a relationship between the building and its surroundings, and the New Museum is no exception. In the original designs, the building was broader and shorter than it stands now. After spending time in New York, however, the architects refined the composition of the building to become slimmer and taller in response to the architectural landscape of the city. Indeed, the steps formed by the shifted structural boxes are reminiscent of the setback skyscrapers which typify the New York skyline. The cityscape is brought into the museum through panoramic windows on the upper floors, which interrupt the visitor experience to knit the city and the museum together.
The building also reflects its immediate built context through the use of industrial materials, mirroring what the architects described as the “roughness” of the Bowery. The exterior is clad in two layers of industrial aluminum mesh, creating a shimmering, textured façade. Though steel mesh is more commonly used in construction, aluminum was chosen as a brighter and more translucent material which would lend a sense of lightness. The mesh softens the edges of the building, allowing it to melt into its surroundings and adding to its transparency.
When the New Museum opened its doors at the end of 2007, it was praised by the architectural press for the striking minimalism of its design. The new building was certainly successful in raising the profile of the New Museum, which welcomed 100,000 visitors through its doors within the first two months of opening. The architects did not completely escape criticism, however, with several commentators noting the negligible amount of natural light provided by the skylights, which is in any case overpowered by the fluorescent strip lighting.
The decision to construct the New Museum on the Bowery was an unconventional one, given the history of the neighborhood. It had been an infamous hotspot for drug use throughout the seventies and was still run-down thirty years later. In recent years, however, the Bowery has enjoyed a period of regeneration for which the museum can take a great deal of credit. The street now boasts a boutique hotel, an organic supermarket, and a diverse collection of galleries and art spaces. The New Museum, both in terms of the building and the institution it houses, stands as a symbol of the transformative power that both art and architecture can have upon society.
 “New Museum: About”. Accessed 20 June, 2016. [access]
 Guzmán, Kristine. “Reinterpreting traditional aesthetic values.” In Houses: Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa, SANAA, ed. Agustín Pérez Rubio. León: MUSAC, 2007. p167.
 Phillips, Lisa. “Past Present Future.” In Shift: SANAA and the New Museum, eds. Joseph Grima and Karen Wong. Baden: Lars Müller, 2008. p7.
 Ibid. p9.
 Grima, Joseph. “Interview with Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa.” In Shift: SANAA and the New Museum, eds. Joseph Grima and Karen Wong. Baden: Lars Müller, 2008. p26.
 Rubio, Augustín Perez. “Feeling at home with SANAA”. Houses: Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa, SANAA, ed. Agustín Pérez Rubio. León: MUSAC, 2007. p15.
 Ibid. Grima. p36.
 Elding, Jonas et al. “Backstage.” In Shift: SANAA and the New Museum, eds. Joseph Grima and Karen Wong. Baden: Lars Müller, 2008. p77.
 Ibid. Grima. p26.
 Ibid. p28.
 Filler, Martin. “Miracle on the Bowery.” New York Times, 17 January, 2008. Accessed 20 June, 2016. [access]
 Ibid. Phillips. p11.