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Defending the MoMA Monster at City Planning: No Crowds, No Shadows

Even in the dog days of summer, the Museum of Modern Art and Hines, the real estate developer, managed to assemble their heavy hitters for the City Planning Commission’s public hearing on July
22 regarding architect Jean Nouvel‘s proposed mixed-use glass tower, which would include space for MoMA’s expansion.


to right: Glenn Lowry, MoMA’s director; Michael Sillerman, attorney for
the project; David Penick,
Hinesmanaging partner for the project (who didn’t speak at the hearing); architect Jean Nouvel

The lead-off hitter was Lowry, a usually fluent off-the-cuff speaker. This time, he never looked up from his script.


The prepared statement wasn’t prepared quite well enough, however: Like the other two lead-off speakers, Lowry ran afoul of the hearing’s three-minute rule and got the hook.
During his allotted time, Glenn mentioned that the 658,000-square-foot
project would add 39,500 square feet of  gallery space for the
museum—an increase of 30%. (Non-gallery areas for the museum bring
its total to 52,000 square feet.)

Despite this increased space, and despite the fact that the last expansion (as predicted) had boosted annual visitation from 1.6 million to 2.5 million, Lowry stated, without explanation, that the museum did not expect its number of visitors to increase at all due to the new expansion. That improbable prediction predictably elicited incredulity from project’s opponents. (The developer’s written submission to the commission euphemistically notes that the tower would “enliven those streets [53rd and 54th] with additional pedestrian activity.”)

Responding to commission chairperson Amanda Burden‘s question about the lines of visitors thronging the sidewalk (particularly on free-admission Friday evenings), Lowry assured her that the museum was investigating ways to herd visitors into the bullding more rapidly.


Next came Michael Sillerman
(above), the project’s lawyer, who pointed out that the proposed building was “only 161 feet taller” than an “as-of-right” building (one that could be built without modifications by special permits).

Commissioner Nathan Leventhal, a former president of Lincoln Center, directly asked the attorney:

Would this be the tallest building in the city?

Sillerman expressed uncertainty, conceding that it was “certainly in the range of the Empire State Building.” [For more details on its lofty place in the skyline, see my previous post on the hearing.]

The 1,250-foot, 85-story height didn’t seem to faze chairperson Burden: In one interchange with Sillerman, she indicated enthusiastic support for the tower, which the commission will not actually vote on until Sept. 9. Her only concern seemed to be that its design not be compromised:

You have an extraordinarily talented architect and a very dynamic and thrilling design. However, what is to assure me and the commissioners of the city that this glorious design isn’t going to turn into the as-of-right massing, which would be a calamity?…How this building meets the sky is not only in the tradition of great New York City architecture, but it’s absolutely essential that it culminate in a very sophisticated and distinguished apex.

Sillerman helpfully assured her:

You are granting waivers based on a very particular design, so I think there are the tools to address the kind of specificity and concerns that you have in the text as it is.

Kenneth Knuckles, the commission’s vice chairman, questioned Sillerman about Community Board 5’s negative vote on the project. The board, in its advisory capacity, had deemed the building to be too tall for its site.

Below is the proposed site for Nouvel’s tower, being put to more modest but creative use last summer, with an installation of cutting-edge prefab housing that was part of MoMA’s Home Delivery exhibition:


You can see how tightly this parcel of land is hemmed in by existing buildings.
MoMA is the black building to the left. KieranTimberlake Associates’
“Cellophane House,” from the temporary exhibition, is at the center.

 Responding to Commissioner Knuckles’ question, Sillerman asserted:

It’s not a bulky building. It doesn’t have a shadow impact [a claim somewhat contradicted by the developer’s own written submission, and also questioned by later speakers]. It has less impact than a broad, Soviet-slab, chunky building.


it was architect Jean Nouvel, above, who really tried to minimize the physicality of the MoMA
Monster, while maximizing his professional stature:

I have the ambition to create a new landmark in the city—a landmark of our epoch.

More from Nouvel (and more about his other work in New York City), as well as a cameo near-appearance by Whitney Museum director Adam Weinberg, COMING SOON.

an ArtsJournal blog