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Critical Meltdown: Ouroussoff Recommends Demolition for Cloepfil’s Just-Completed Museum of Arts and Design

Nicolai Ouroussoff

NY Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff, in his review for tomorrow’s NY Times “Arts & Leisure” section (online today), demonstrates astoundingly meanspirited wrongheadedness: He puts the brand new Museum of Arts and Design at the end of his top-seven list of New York City buildings that he believes ought to be “candidates for demolition.”

It’s time to demolish Ouroussoff.

A previous Nicolai review bordered on critical malpractice: In May, he presumptuously instructed Renzo Piano to clad his new Whitney Downtown building in a stone compound, rather than the “steel
frame structure covered in welded steel plates” that the architect “said he was leaning toward.” An architecture critic is supposed to evaluate and analyze buildings, not preemptively design them.

But Ouroussoff’s published desire for the obliteration of the reclad and reconfigured museum facility on Columbus Circle unequivocally IS critical malpractice. No matter how strong his opinions, a critic must have the humility to acknowledge that time and reflection may prove him wrong, as has happened with so many great works of art and architecture initially derided by the critics. Such revisionism, in fact, occurred to some degree in relation to Edward Durell Stone‘s “Lollipop Building,” radically altered by Brad Cloepfil, which Ouroussoff now seems to mourn. Disliking a building at first sight does not warrant blowing it up, even in print.

Granted, the new MAD (as the museum likes to call itself) is not going to make anyone’s top-seven list of great architecture in New York. How can it, when the architect’s imagination and options were constricted by the envelope and infrastructure of the preexisting building? In an worthy effort to preserve (through its shape and whiteness) the memory of the old building, beloved by some, Cloepfil made compromises that won’t please everyone (certainly not Ouroussoff). But this is no hulking eyesore, as I would describe MAD’s neighbor on Columbus Circle, the Time Warner Center, nothwithstanding Ouroussoff’s claim (in his Friday MAD review) that its towers “look great in the skyline.”

MAD does not even meet Ouroussoff’s own stated criteria for the buildings chosen for inclusion on his tear-down list: He never demonstrates that the museum “exhibit[s] a total disregard for [its] surrounding context” (because it doesn’t) and he certainly doesn’t believe that it “destroy[s] a beloved vista,” since it essentially occupies the same space as what was there for the last four decades.

Its chief sin seems to be that it is “overly polite” (which I would prefer to call “subtle and understated”) and “poorly detailed,” as he called it in his Friday review. Much later in that piece, we finally discover the one detail of detailing that most irks Ouroussoff:

At the point where the incision turns from the wall and cuts across
the ceiling,… a section of drywall is left at the corner;
the result reads as two separate slots of glass instead of a continuous
cut through the building. Similarly, narrow strips of wood
separate the glass channels that run across the gallery floors from the
window frames, which makes the incisions feel decorative rather than
like a clean surgical cut.

These are not minor details.

Oh yes they are. You be the judge. Here’s one spot where window meets floor glass:


I was not bothered by breaks in the transition from window to floor, other than to notice that the channel in the floor, of necessity, was composed of an entirely different type of glass: It’s opaque enough to prevent the people below from looking up your skirt, but translucent enough to allow this view through the ceiling, on the level below, of Cornelia Parker‘s “Rorschach”:


Enough has not yet been said about the savvy installation of objects to take advantage of the glass channels and larger windows cut through the walls. Dorothy Globus, curator of exhibitions, was particularly pleased with her own installation of Jack Lenor Larsen‘s Saran and polyethylene “Cumulus” as a light-catching window treatment:


I liked this positioning of Viola Frey‘s “Questioning Woman 1″…


…which can also be spied through the window, from Columbus Circle below (above the street lights):


Nothing’s perfect. I’ll be debunking some aspects of the new building and its displays in the still-to-come irreverent photo essay that I’ve promised you. But I also promise you a much lighter touch than Ouroussoff’s wrecking ball.

In the meantime, for a necessary antidote to Ouroussoff’s poison pen, see the indispensable James Russell‘s highly favorable review of the same building for Bloomberg.

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