Coinciding with the institution’s 30th anniversary, the new home of New York City’s New Museum of Contemporary Art is set to open on December 1, 2007. The building is the first fine arts museum ever to be constructed from the ground up in Manhattan. And if that alone were not enough to make it special, its exterior cladding combines extruded aluminum wall panels with an expanded metal mesh covering. The system used was developed exclusively for the project, with M.G. McGrath of Maplewood, MN, assisting in the design and handling the installation.
Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of Tokyo-based SANAA designed the shimmering seven-story structure, with Gensler of New York serving as Executive Architect. The project is located at 235 Bowery, between Stanton and Rivington streets, at the origin of Prince Street. The architects admitted to being initially surprised by the building committee’s selection of the site (the old museum was in SoHo), but they admired it too. And as they became more deeply involved in the project, they noticed a kindred connection between the storied New York neighborhood and the colorful museum.
“The Bowery was very gritty when we first visited it. We were a bit shocked, but we were also impressed that a fine art museum wanted to be there,” they said, adding, “In the end, The Bowery and the New Museum have a lot in common. Both have a history of being very accepting and open; embracing of every idiosyncrasy in an unprejudiced manner. When we learned about the history of the New Museum we were flabbergasted by its attitude, which is very political and very focused on new ideas; fearless and very tough. The New Museum is a combination of elegant and urban. We were determined to make a building that felt like that.”
Amidst a cluster of relatively small and mid-sized buildings, the New Museum rises 174’ above the street level. The length of its ground floor façade is glass, but in approaching the building from either direction, or from the west on Prince, the building is seen as a dramatic stack of off-kilter metal boxes. This distinctive form was the architects’ defining solution to the fundamental challenges of a small, narrow site—measuring just 71’ wide x 112’ deep—coupled with the need for open, flexible gallery spaces of differing heights and atmospheres.
As a means to that end, SANAA assigned key programmatic elements to a series of levels—the six boxes—and then stacked those boxes according to the anticipated needs and circulation patterns of building users. They then pulled the various levels away from the building core laterally to the north, south, east and west to create a shifted-box approach that yields a variety of open, fluid internal spaces that are different height at every level, with different characters—and all column free.
“It was complicated to organize the architecture around all these desires,” Sejima and Nishizawa said of the project. “We knew we could not maximize the entire site with solid architecture; we had to reduce the building’s mass somehow to create space between it and the perimeter. The solution of the shifted boxes arrived quickly and intuitively. Then through trial and error we arrived at the final configuration. Now we have a building that meets the city, allows natural light inside, gives the museum column-free galleries and programmatic flexibility, and expresses the program and people inside to the world of New York outside.”
Helping to express what’s inside is what’s on the New Museum’s outside—its exterior skin. It was created by covering the building with extruded aluminum panels and then covering those panels with large-pattern expanded aluminum mesh. With windows just visible behind the porous scrim-like surface, the building appears as a single, coherent form that is both mutable and dynamic. The animation of the exterior, caused by the changing light of day, was deemed an appropriate visual metaphor for the openness of the New Museum and the ever-changing nature of contemporary art.
Contracted to help develop and install the 34,000 sq. ft. metal cladding system on the New Museum was M.G. McGrath of Maplewood, MN. The firm is known nationally for its capabilities as a fabricator and installer of custom metal systems and had experience with a project of similar size and scope in Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center addition. Designed by Herzog & de Meuron of Basel Switzerland, and completed late in 2005, the addition features a crumpled expanded aluminum skin that was also installed over metal wall panels. McGrath was the fabricator and installer on that job as well.
For the New Museum, the extruded aluminum backup panels were designed with a corduroy texture that allowed discrete vertical lines to show through the expanded aluminum’s 3-1/2” x -8” diamond-pattern openings. The panels are 10-3/4” wide by up to 28’-4” long and weigh 3 lbs. per lineal foot. They were designed with a gutter system for drainage and an extruded clip attachment that allows the building and panel system to move independently of one another as expansion and contraction demands. The panels were also designed to be sufficiently strong enough to withstand typical wind loads, and to support ice and the dead loads of the polished anodized mesh, which is mounted 1-1/2” away from the surface of the underlying wall panels.
The Expanded Metal Company Ltd. of Hartlepool, England, produced the expanded aluminum mesh while James and Taylor LTD. of Surrey, England, consulted on the design of the aluminum mesh panels. It was also responsible for quality control of raw materials, metal polishing, anodizing, expanding and shipping. Alcoa Extrusions Inc. extruded the aluminum wall panels in accordance with M.G. McGrath’s design drawings and engineering, and Spectrum Painting provided the panels’ light gray Kynar 500-based PVDF paint finish.
Among the dozens of other firms who played a role in making the New Museum ready for its upcoming grand opening were F.J. Sciame, providing construction management, and Simpson Gumperts & Heger Inc., façade consultants. Both firms are located in New York City.