Art: Wednesday, November 21, 2002
Miesian Dream

Go figure. The Modern Art Museum gets a beautiful modern home.


I like big boxes and I cannot lie. A thoughtfully designed, Miesian concert hall or factory is the acme of coolness, the way the structure just kinda squats there, naked, indifferent to its surroundings, aloof like a gentlemanly professor in a police line-up. The new Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth is not exactly a big box — it’s actually a few big boxes, made of concrete and glass, neatly sliced up and neatly reassembled into a boxy whole whose subtlety could be mistaken for failing to make a statement. Like a Pollock, the Modern is about process; in this case, the act of building a modern art museum. There’s nothing particularly “exciting” going on here — unless walls of glass and enormous columns of concrete that are smoother than Sade’s voice get your blood pumping, as they do mine. Then, it’s blissful.

Making a landmark in Fort Worth, home of the ugly skyscraper and prefab duplex, doesn’t take much. Still, if this $60 million building were erected in, say, Boston, its formal beauty would nonetheless retain all of its potency. Performing a dialectical coup, the Modern is a plainspoken essay on modern design and modern art, and, while it is at times brutish and cold, it is simply the least sentimental and most functional-looking place to worship visual art in the Cultural District trifecta of museums that includes Louis I. Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum and Philip Johnson’s Amon Carter Museum. Put simply, the new Modern looks like an old-fashioned modern art museum. It’s serious rather than fanciful, snobby instead of humble. Retro? No way (even though, to many architects, critics, and preservationists, modern architecture is as comfy as a warm polyester suit or a fun, shiny disco ball).

There probably wasn’t an architect in the world better suited for this project than Japanese Pritzker Prize-winner Tadao Ando. (Santiago Calatrava and Frank O. Gehry probably would have been too whimsical for staid Fort Worth.) Ando speaks “modernese.” His favorite materials are glass, steel, concrete, and natural light. His favorite angle is 90 degrees — the corners of the Modern are sharp enough to draw blood. You want smart and sublime? Tadao Ando is a robot in a Beatles haircut.

What you have with this two-story, 153,000-square-foot building is a neat assemblage of five pavilions, arranged in a backward “L.” Two long pavilions, side by side, form the vertical stroke, and a stack of three short ones, the horizontal. Cupped in the letter’s interior angle is a reflecting pool. The best view of the slight body of water is from the café, which is near the entrance. Across the pool is a good shot of three of the five 40-foot Y-shaped concrete braces that support the ends of the pavilions. Now, nearly every public place that depends on generating some foot traffic requires visual stimuli to stir conversation in the community (e.g. Calatrava’s brise-soleil wings; Gehry’s tubular steel roofs). The Chromosomes on the new Modern will become the museum’s calling card. In addition to providing sound structural support, The Chromosomes, according to architect Ando, also function as “peace signs.” Whatever you want to call them, these braces are unlike anything you’ve ever seen before on a modern building. (X’s are popular — like those on “Big John,” the John Hancock Center, in Chicago — but Y’s? That’s original.)

The top of the “L,” on Darnell Street, is where you’ll find the front entrance, a 40-foot wall of glass diced by white paneling into a few dozen rectangular windows. The immediate interior view is of the pool through another precisely diced 40-foot glass wall. A simple bridge, way above eye level, divides the vista horizontally into two uneven portions, and thin concrete columns carve the space vertically without obstructing the view. The overriding sensation on entering is that of, “If I don’t move, no one will really mind.” Deep sigh of relief — peace at last. To the right are the café and a conference room. To the left, the information desk, bookstore, the galleries on the first floor, and a staircase leading to the rest of the galleries.

As with any museum, a patron will probably want to start at the top of the building and finish at the bottom. Along the way, carefully arranged pieces of art will provide for much visual intrigue; sometimes, like plot devices, these works won’t make sense until you’ve reached a particular angle in the viewing space. For example, it’s nearly impossible to tell, until you’ve fully entered a gallery, that a stack of glowing pink Plexiglas and steel shapes is a work of art (Donald Judd’s “Untitled, 1967”). Credit curator Michael Auping for this and other small victories in a universe of brilliant achievements throughout the 53,000 square feet of exhibition space. (Only the Museum of Modern Art in New York City is bigger.)

Fort Worth has been waiting a long time for an architect with some vision to spruce up the landscape. What you’ll learn about living with this gem is that there is a division between the initiated and the unwashed and that this separation won’t be going away any time soon.

The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth will open to those brave enough to take the plunge December 14.

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