Remembering César Pelli, 1926–2019
MoMA reflects on the legacy of the architect who designed the Museum Tower.
Peter Reed, Martino Stierli, Glenn D. Lowry
Jul 30, 2019
MoMA has grown over the decades in a series of architectural expansions by well-known architects. César Pelli left his mark on MoMA’s architectural form in his designs for the Museum Tower, with its distinctive glass facade of warm-gray toned panels that stands above new galleries that opened in 1984. His work is situated among buildings by his predecessors and successors—Philip Goodwin and Edward Durell Stone, Philip Johnson, Yoshio Taniguchi, and, most recently, Diller Scofidio + Renfro (whose project will debut in October). The 1984 project came at a pivotal time for Pelli, as he moved to the East Coast from Los Angeles, started his own firm, and became dean at Yale.
Architecture is a very public art.
MoMA director Richard Oldenburg (left) and architect César Pelli with a model of the new building in the background, summer 1983
With news of Pelli’s recent death, I was moved to reread a transcript of an oral history he recorded for the Museum in 1994, in which he reflected on his work for the Museum. What stands out for me, as he recollected the challenges of designing a new building for MoMA, was the way Pelli thought about MoMA’s campus, how to add to the existing buildings, and in particular the critical role of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden. He recalled, “The Garden, I must say, was one of the key elements, and for me it was very important to preserve its vitality and its character as much as possible. The Garden is one of the jewels of the Museum, as important in some ways as the Demoiselles d’Avignon, not in terms of art history but in terms of what it means to a visitor of the Museum. Therefore, putting the Tower where it would impact the Garden the least was essential.” For this reason, Pelli advocated for placing the tower off the southwest corner of the Sculpture Garden, to minimize its impact on the outdoor space.
Like other architects who have designed buildings for MoMA, Pelli also recognized the role the Sculpture Garden plays in a visitor’s journey. This led him to design the Garden Hall as an intermediary space between the galleries and the garden, a circulation space in which to pause and refresh by simply offering views of the sky and the trees. He described his intention: “The size of the Museum is now such that it is impossible to see it all in one nonstop visit…. So at least five minutes of sitting and looking out to the trees—at the snow, at the sky—that recharges me, allows my whole nervous system to come back in balance, and I can walk refreshed into another gallery.”
Although the Garden Hall was removed to make way for a subsequent expansion, Pelli’s successors have similarly recognized the special relationship between building and garden, and the pleasure to be gained by bringing the experience of the Sculpture Garden into the Museum.
Peter Reed is the senior deputy director for Curatorial Affairs and was previously a curator in the Department of Architecture and Design.
The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden, with a view of the Garden Hall, c. 1990
As the Museum expanded and the popularity of modern art permeated through the culture, it is clear that the institution had to change.
The selection of César Pelli as the architect for MoMA’s third expansion project, in 1977, was not necessarily a logical one. While the Argentine-born architect had worked with eminent American architects such as Eero Saarinen and Victor Gruen, and in this capacity had been involved in the design of signature buildings such as the iconic TWA Terminal at JFK airport or the conspicuously polychromic Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood, the MoMA commission was Pelli’s first opportunity to design a museum. His expansion project anticipated in many ways the institution we know today. With his great care for the design of public spaces, Pelli transformed the institution from a mere place to see modern art into a center for social interaction and gathering. His Museum Tower, designed as part of the complex, for the first time added a vertical emphasis to the Museum campus that would serve as a new architectural landmark in Midtown Manhattan. And his elegant polychromatic facade for the expansion building, consisting of subdued hues of brown, provided an elegant dark frame to the bright facade of the original Goodwin and Stone building, making it shine like a “medallion” in the street. This framing of the modernist architecture of the 1930s symbolized MoMA’s conviction that modern art, by now part of history, had a relevance and continuity in the contemporary.
Martino Stierli is the Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design.
Interior of the Garden Hall, 1984
For me, architecture is a fantastic art, but very different from painting or sculpture. People tend to see them in the same way, but I love the differences—the nitty-gritty that’s involved in architecture. I love it. Less perfect, but perfection is secondary in architecture.
I only met César Pelli a few times but he has loomed large in my life. His 1984 expansion of The Museum of Modern Art created much-needed new spaces for the Museum that have served us well over the years. He was an ardent advocate of modern art and architecture and often spoke of the importance of MoMA in his life.
When he agreed to be the architect of the Museum’s expansion, he was given a complicated task by the trustees: to develop a mixed-use tower that combined residential space with galleries for the Museum. He took on the challenge of dealing with the Museum’s demanding program and the complexity of inserting a new building into an existing campus with enthusiasm and good spirits. There were no models to follow, but the precedent he set became a catalyst for many other efforts. And, while many of the spaces he gave us have subsequently been modified or absorbed into our recent expansions, César was always gracious and elegant about these changes.
He was equally gracious about the criticism he received for the residential tower that he designed as part of the expansion. That criticism now seems misplaced. Today the curtain wall that he designed seems elegantly responsive to the urban grid around it and the apartments in the building spacious and intelligently organized. It is no surprise that Philip Johnson, founding director of the Museum’s Department of Architecture and Design and a man of exquisite taste, lived there for almost 20 years, until his death in 2005.
Glenn D. Lowry is The David Rockefeller Director of MoMA.
I had no time for anything. I was working over 40 hours at Yale and working over 40 hours on MoMA. Fortunately, my wife was also working on the project, so we both together would go to Manhattan, take the last train back to New Haven, collapse in our seats, wake up when the train stopped—sometimes the guards would wake us up—go to bed, and be at Yale early in the morning. But it was very exciting!
Nighttime view of the Garden Hall, 1987
Special thanks to Michelle Elligott, Chief of Archives, Library, and Research Collections.
All quotes are from an interview with César Pelli and Sharon Zane
recorded in New Haven, CT, on March 24, 1994, as part of The Museum of Modern Art's Oral History Program.