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American Society of Landscape Architects


May 2005 Issue

Heart Replacement

Torn out for construction of the huge new addition, MoMA's Sculpture Garden is back-not quite the same.

By Allen Freeman

Heart Replacement
Tim Hursley

The Museum of Modern Art has little presence on West 53rd Street in Manhattan. But MoMA needs no marquee. Tucked behind the museum, the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden has been the museum's signature and most memorable space since Philip Johnson created it in the early 1950s. It remains so today, even after the opening last fall of an addition nearly six times the size of the original museum. What you see today, however, is not the outdoor room New Yorkers first experienced 50 years ago. The long marble slabs, the wall along West 54th Street, the beeches and birches, the shrubs, the ivy—everything is new except the art.

In planning the museum's largest and most expensive building program, MoMA administrators and trustees decided that the museum would move to temporary quarters in Queens and that construction for the 630,000-square-foot addition would have to be staged in the space the garden occupied. The Sculpture Garden was torn out and reconstructed in time for the museum's reopening in late 2004.

"The first idea was to construct new rooms beneath the garden," says Donald C. Richardson, FASLA, of landscape architects Zion, Breen, and Richardson Associates, which, first as Zion & Breen, has guided garden modifications through 40 years of growth, as the museum acquired new real estate and enlarged the garden, modifying its edges. "The museum decided not to [build beneath the garden] because it would have been very expensive and wouldn't have provided enough space for the use it envisioned." But then construction staging logistics cinched the argument for removing the garden. "We fought it," Richardson says. "It seemed sacrilegious. We said tear down something else and do the staging there."

Sacrilegious? Perhaps, but not illegal: MoMA is not a New York City landmark, which would have subjected the plan to a review, nor is it listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Today the garden looks much as it did five years ago, but there are subtle differences. And of course, the addition's new facades have significantly altered the space.

MoMA's first permanent home, now dwarfed by surrounding additions, is a sleek, International Style building by Philip Goodwin and Edward Durell Stone. It opened May 5, 1939, just a week after President Roosevelt opened the popular, futuristic New York World's Fair; the timing no doubt stole some of the museum's initial thunder. The trustees had envisioned a small area for outdoor sculpture on a 75-foot-long strip behind the building. But a couple of weeks before the opening, they learned that the plot could also extend over adjacent, unused Rockefeller family land. Designer John McAndrew and curator Alfred Barr lacked training in landscape architecture, but they improvised. They covered the flat area in two colors of pebbles over sand and cement and positioned artworks here and there, some in front of plywood panels and woven wood fencing. Potted plants augmented a few spindly trees, and a latticework fence enclosed the space along West 54th Street, the property's north edge. Period photos taken from above reveal the garden as a hodgepodge of loosely defined spaces, the designers apparently having given little thought to an overall scheme.

The garden's second iteration, a Goodwin design, was more sophisticated. It consisted of a grid of plane trees shading café tables and chairs, a freestanding restaurant pavilion, and works of sculpture positioned around the edges of the tree grid. Completed in 1942, Goodwin's installation would erroneously be remembered by many as MoMA's first garden. It lasted only a decade.

Philip Johnson became MoMA's director of architecture and design in the early 1950s, having had a 20-year association with the museum, beginning with his co-curatorship with Henry-Russell Hitchcock of the museum's 1932 International Style exhibition. In 1953, with landscape architect James Fanning, Johnson designed a new garden as two platforms paved in long, rectangular pieces of gray Vermont marble. The higher platform extended from the level of the museum's ground floor and made a dining terrace along the garden's west end. Depressed two feet, the lower platform continued north to a new gray brick wall, 18 feet tall, along West 54th Street. Narrow banks of ivy separated the two levels.

Johnson divided the sunken court into four unequal areas with a central island of cryptomeria and two long pools—he called them canals—that resemble channels in Persian gardens. Low jets rippled the water's surface. "What I did," the architect recalled in 1975, "was to make a processional, using canals to block circulation and preserve vision, greenery to block circulation and block vision, too, and bridges to establish the route.... Because the ground is paved, as it would not be in a Japanese garden, one is free to find one's own winding path."

Although at that time Johnson's style imitated that of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, 20 years later Johnson was to minimize Mies's influence on the garden, insisting that the German master would have made the garden symmetrical. Instead, Johnson said, he had borrowed ideas from Italian piazzas. He clustered trees in groups of single species around the garden and planted others, interspersed with sculpture, irregularly along the brick wall.

Newspaper and magazine responses to the new garden were generally favorable. An exception was the critic for Art Digest, Otis Gage, who wrote: "Though it was far from being an untended area, the old garden had something of the unruly character of things close to nature." The new garden, he commented, was an over-designed, informal "sop to the natural man."

Zion & Breen first entered the MoMA picture in the early 1960s when Johnson expanded the garden to the east in two levels—one at the height of the existing upper platform and a second, a terrace or roof garden, about 18 feet higher atop a new, one-story museum wing. A grand staircase led to the upper terrace. Zion & Breen simplified the planting scheme and more closely related all the areas through repetition of species. Notably, Robert Zion replaced the cryptomerias between the canals with weeping beech interspersed with lower-rising Japanese andromedas and a ground cover of English ivy, and he repeated that combination in two new areas on the east end: one at the foot of the new staircase and another on the roof terrace. A new clump of weeping birch in the garden's expansion repeated an established birch clump at the garden's west end. And Zion kept a line of eight well-established hornbeams that provided a canopy over the dining terrace.

In 1984, MoMA expanded to the west, with architect Cesar Pelli adding new galleries and building an air-rights, high-rise apartment tower. The new tower encroached a few feet into the sculpture garden at its southwest edge. More important, its oppressive dark glass seemed to suck some of the air out of the garden.

Snow blanketed the garden this February when Donald Richardson met me at the museum and talked about tearing out and re-creating this American icon of landscape architecture. The garden, by necessity, was the last piece of construction, and it was reinstalled on a tight schedule just prior to the museum's reopening in November of last year. In February, the construction "punch list," or the final details, had not been completed, and the jets that would make the water ripple in the long channels remained untested because of cold weather.

When Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi was selected to design the huge new addition and MoMA decided to tear out the garden and rebuild it, neighbors in apartments on the north side of West 54th Street that have a view into the garden insisted that the museum try to salvage the mature trees. "We had to dig them out in the middle of August," Richardson said. "The Central Park Conservancy agreed to take three beeches, and we had it all worked out to move them up Fifth Avenue on a Sunday morning. But the [New York City] Parks Department said, 'forget it,' so we gave the beeches to the New York Botanic Garden in the Bronx. Only one has survived."

On the other hand, none of the gray marble survived, Richardson said. "We tried to save it but couldn't." Then they learned that the original quarry in Vermont couldn't supply enough new stone to remake the garden. Richardson and his team tried to persuade the museum to substitute granite. "We had been against marble all along because it can't take a thermal finish, as granite can, and it gets slippery when wet. The museum has had to close garden access when it rains. But the museum said it had to be marble, and to get it we had to go to a quarry in Georgia." The Georgia marble is a lighter shade than the Vermont stone it replaced—not a bad thing for a garden that gets less direct sunlight today than it did 50 years ago when there were fewer tall buildings to block the sun.

Perhaps more important to the way you now perceive the garden is a pair of new hoods that project over the ends of the garden from the museum facades at the east and west ends. Gone is asymmetry; the dissimilarity of the opposing ends suggested the garden's change and growth over time. The new end pieces are balanced bookends, and they hem in the outdoor space, making it seem smaller and more incidental than before. Also unwelcome is a metal screen in the place of Johnson's wall along West 54th Street. It is hard to imagine ivy creeping up this icy construction, which substitutes scaleless extruded aluminum for a brick wall that implied the involvement of a human hand in its construction. The bricks also echoed the rectangular marble pavers. Overall, the plantings seem sparser, but that's because the new specimens are young.

The other major modification is a switch in the direction from which most visitors enter the garden. Formerly you approached from the south, but now you enter from the west, a change that for the first time allows you to observe the full extent of the space, along its longer axis, before you step into it. Missing is the sense of discovery that you once experienced when you entered the garden for the first time.

The essence of the space, however, remains. Picasso's She-Goat and Gaston Lachaise's Standing Woman, among other much-loved pieces, are at home again in a familiar environment, and Philip Johnson's garden is still a room that can hold several hundred people and not feel crowded, or contain a solitary visitor and not seem empty. MoMA's Sculpture Garden remains a cool museum's warm heart.

Project Credits:
Client: Museum of Modern Art (Glen Lowry, executive director; Karen Davidson,
coordinator of construction). Landscape architect: Zion, Breen, and Richardson
Associates. Design architect: Taniguchi and Associates. Executive architect: Kohn
Pedersen Fox Associates. Landscape contractor: Kelco Landscaping. Plant suppliers: Halka Nursery (European weeping beech, pears); Schichtel's Nursery (Whitespire birch).
Fountain consultants: Gerald Palevsky (design); Kohler Ronan. Construction
management: AMEC (Morse Diesel International).

Allen Freeman, a former senior editor of Landscape Architecture, is advisory editor of The American Scholar.

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