Crystalline form and shimmering materiality combine in Farshid Moussavi’s stunning new Museum of Contemporary Art for Cleveland, Ohio
The Bilbao Effect has come and gone, at least for the moment. The Bilbao Effect, that is, as demonstrated by architects less gifted than Frank Gehry attempting statement buildings, with wishful cultural programmes, on marginal or peripheral sites. Yet that doesn’t mean that the post-industrial city has given up on culture and on investigative design. If the signature meta-project is associated with recent excess, emerging cultural phenomena are frequently accommodated by architecture that takes a reciprocal attitude to existing fabric and is comparatively open in terms of solution. Modest size and modest budgets may yet allow for new forms of experimentation.
Cleveland is one of several Rust Belt cities witnessing signs of rebirth or stabilisation. The new pavilion designed by Farshid Moussavi Architecture to house Cleveland’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) is certainly a sign, a propelling urban element that is dramatic yet subtle. Set on an axial boulevard − the appropriately named Euclid Avenue − a few blocks from Gehry’s School of Management for Case Western Reserve University, MOCA’s immediate neighbours include a massive healthcare facility and a mixed-use development designed by Stanley Saitowitz as urbane extrusions to either side of Euclid. To make its presence felt, and to help consolidate the neighbourhood, MOCA exploits its site, budget and programme with economy and skill.
To date, Moussavi is best known for the Yokohama Ferry Terminal (AR January 2003) realised in partnership with Alejandro Zaera-Polo between 1994 and 2002 as Foreign Office Architects. Her architectural projects and her teaching at Harvard are concerned with mathematical exploration, with new forms of landscape, and − as evinced by Moussavi’s presentation at this year’s Venice Biennale − with tectonic ornament and affect. Her building for MOCA Cleveland results from a geometric construct. A hexagon at ground level, it splays and mutates into a square four storeys above. Draped in elongated panels of black stainless steel, MOCA emerges in its context of much larger buildings as a beguiling pavilion, both meteorite and tent, a kind of tailored Dark Star with an internal logic that nevertheless results from local conditions.
The immediate site is at the intersection of Euclid and a side street that cuts through the urban grid on a diagonal. MOCA’s form emerges from a negotiation between these axes. In that sense, Moussavi’s building is analytical and rational. MOCA, however, is also unorthodox and enigmatic. A century ago, such sites were allocated to libraries and banks. By the 1960s, gas stations and other drive-through facilities had typically usurped the old neighbourhood plan. MOCA seems less interested in the drive-by legibility advocated by Robert Venturi (indeed it avoids representation entirely) than some of the symbolic presence associated with previous architectural eras. Moussavi achieves this by fusing contemporary formalism and lean engineering.
The rotation from hexagon to square results in a crystalline, prism-like form with eight facades: two rhomboids and six triangles. Four of the triangles rise from the pavement to a sharp apex against the sky; the other two triangles are equilaterals descending from the parapet to a point at street level. Seven facades are skinned in precisely aligned, stainless-steel panels set in parallel runs that change direction from one facade to the next. The eighth, facing north and containing the principal entrance, is entirely of glass.
Some of these facades tilt with the panel grid at an angle to the vertical axis. The black metal surfaces are not uniformly flat so that light and reflections fall irregularly to further animate the skin. Modular glazing components are inserted into the grid to function as skinny diagonal windows, flush and almost invisible in the building carapace.This combination of geometry and materiality results in a building with a vivid personality. It stands there at the intersection on Euclid constantly changing due to the ambient effects of both natural and electric light. Indeed the stainless steel seems to magnify different colours at different times of day. The structure evokes contemporaneity both in the sense of new design thinking and engaging with fleeting moments of time.
The surrounding plaza, stretching north-east towards one of Saitowitz’s buildings, is planted and paved in geometric patterns by New York-based landscape architects, Field Operations. There is a service entry from the south, from the side street; otherwise the ground surface extends contiguously about the museum. ‘Museum’ is in fact somewhat misleading. MOCA exhibits cutting-edge art but does not collect, therefore the architect did not have to deal with the vexing issues of storage faced by collecting institutions. There is no basement. One of Moussavi’s generating ideas is to mix back-of-house facilities (loading dock, workshop, offices) with publicly accessible galleries, classrooms and foyer spaces on each of the building’s four levels.
Visitors enter from Euclid through the sole glass facade into a narrow chasm of space between these stacked interior volumes and the origami-like outer wall. A complex open staircase with white plate balustrade leads upward, turning back on itself in order to reach the relevant upper rooms and offer unexpected prospects through the entire institution.
MOCA’s industrial aesthetic results from considerations of economy, the demands of changing installations and Moussavi’s design philosophy. At street level, the polished concrete floor flows, in one direction, into a lounge and then a double-height space that can be used for exhibitions or performance and, in the other, into a store whose modular cabinetry can be pushed into a flush inner wall. MOCA charges for admission; however, non-paying visitors can access far into the building, climb the enticing sculptural staircase, and catch glimpses of exhibitions and interior workings of the museum. On the morning of MOCA’s inauguration, Moussavi denied her design had voyeuristic intent, stating that her aim is for engagement between institution and public.
MOCA’s interior walls, and occasional suspended ceilings, are white. The architect has, however, scrambled established notions of the ‘white cube’ gallery by unexpectedly painting the overarching roof and enveloping outer walls a uniform dark blue. The structure, angled like the exterior, is exposed and painted to match the interstitial panels.
On inauguration day, Moussavi noted that inside the white cube art floats, whereas with the dark ceiling at MOCA art appears grounded. Certainly these galleries are seldom neutral; the visitor experiences a sequence of spaces and volumes to provoke artist, curator and visitor alike. Beneath the open staircase, for instance, an enclosed exit stairway is painted a brilliant yellow and intended for sound installations such as that currently on show by Korean artist Haegue Yang.
There is one further, and entirely unexpected, detail. The sloping slots of glass function as windows to admit light when desired and to offer glimpses to the exterior, to the life of the street and to Gehry’s billowing metal structure across Euclid Avenue. The glass is forward of the structure so that floor slabs are mere shadows on the exterior, aiding an enigmatic or scaleless impression of the building.
The reveals are lined in mirror. The mirror reflects curious snippets of street and sky, and dematerialises the thickness of the exterior envelope so that MOCA reads even more as a kind of industrial tent. Through Moussavi’s resolution of form and detail, Cleveland now has a vanguard facility offering spatial and optical surprise.
Architect: Farshid Moussavi Architecture
Photographs: Dean KaufmanS, Duane Prokop, Getty Images and Farshid Moussavi Architecture