MOMA, McKim and Mies

April 2, 2010

The Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art is experiencing a resurgence. Long the center of scholarship and barometer of trends in the design professions, MOMA’s architecture galleries have produced some of the most influential exhibitions in history: the 1932 International Style show, the first retrospective of the work of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe during the 1960s, the astounding Beaux Arts architecture show in the 1970s, and the infamous Deconstruction exhibit. All of these events were produced under the watchful eye of Phillip Johnson, who briefly served as head of the department as a young man.

It is said that Johnson “appointed” every curator in the department during his long career. If so, the first department head not chosen by PJ is Barry Bergdoll, the man at the helm today. Though quite different than the typical curator of the Barr/Johnson years, Bergdoll is doing what MOMA was set up to do: interpret the history, theory, and current trajectory of “modern” architecture.

He is uniquely qualified for the job. An expert on 19th and 20th century European architecture, he has also served as a researcher for the New York City Landmarks Commission, a professor at Columbia University, and a historian of the Columbia campus designed by McKim, Mead and White. His life partner is a distinguished New York architect.

Bergdoll has only been on the job for a short time. All of his exhibitions have been popular with the public–a show on pre-fab housing, the Bauhaus, and the current look at New York’s shoreline in the future. Most important, they have been pluralistic, surprising, and on target with MOMA’s mission of education and scholarship. That cannot be said of the haphazard record of his predecessor, Terry Riley.

Though it is too soon to predict a legacy for Bergdoll’s MOMA, he has so far proven to be just what the city and nation needs in a “keeper of the flame” for great design. Amidst uncertainty and confusion in the profession at large, MOMA can stand for intelligence, good taste, and innovation. It should also be a place where “the modern” is interpreted in the broadest sense possible. In Bergdoll’s pantheon, there is ample room for Charles McKim alongside Frank Gehry, for Charlotte Perriand and Julia Morgan alongside Le Corbusier and Eric Owen Moss, and for Ricardo Porro alongside Eduardo Legoretta. He proved this last week when he went to the Institute of Classical Architecture and Classical America (a bastion of supposed conservatism) to lecture on McKim’s Columbia campus. As a former president of the Society of Architectural Historians, Barry Bergdoll has seen the built environment through a wide lense. He won’t narrow his point of view to please a few avant garde pundits. Bravo for that.

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