Having operated in rented quarters since it opened as the commercial New Gallery in 1968, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) Cleveland has constructed an impressive new building in the city’s University Circle neighborhood, home to the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Cleveland Orchestra and other cultural institutions. The museum opened to the public Monday; A.i.A. attended opening festivities over the weekend.
Designed by Iranian-born, London-based Farshid Moussavi, the striking new facility resembles a gigantic chunk of a shiny mineral, resting on an airy plaza. Six sides, some triangular, some trapezoidal, rise 65 feet from a hexagonal base to form a square roof. The building’s exterior is clad with 1,354 black steel panels that create shimmering reflections. MOCA Cleveland is the first U.S. building and the first completed museum for Moussavi, who is also currently at work on the Quran Museum in Tehran, slated for completion in 2013.
The 34,000-square-foot new building gives the non-collecting institution about 8,000 square feet for temporary exhibitions, with three quarters of that area on the top floor and one quarter in a second-floor project space. MOCA’s inaugural exhibition, “Inside Out and from the Ground Up” (through Feb. 24, 2013) is currently on the top floor, while a large sculpture by David Altmejd, The Orbit (2012), is in the project gallery (through Dec. 30). A spacious ground-floor area is accessible to the public free of charge during open hours; MOCA director Jill Snyder hopes it will serve as an “urban living room.”
One unusual aspect of the design arose from the necessity for an enclosed fire stair, which Moussavi placed underneath the snaking, open-topped stair that provides access to all levels of the museum. The fire stair’s interior was painted yellow; a sound work by Haegue Yang is installed inside. The open main stairway extends beyond the top-floor galleries to a landing just under the roof, allowing visitors to look down into the main gallery even while shows are being installed.
Another exceptional feature of the building is that the inner surface of the steel walls (which are visible from the ground floor and flanking the main stairway), along with the ceiling of the main gallery, are painted a dark, matte blue. At the press conference, Moussavi explained that for her, “the idea of neutrality was problematic. I did not want a cold, sterile white box.” In her view, against white walls, art “floats,” while the darkened ceiling weights the space and anchors the artwork.
The new MOCA was constructed at a cost of $27.2 million, with the lion’s share coming from the MOCA board and from foundations including the Cleveland and Gund foundations. Board chairman Scott Mueller proudly pointed out at an opening gala dinner on Friday that the building is fully paid for. At a press conference, Snyder mentioned an October 2008 board meeting, in the midst of the tanking economy, to discuss the project, which had already been in the works six years and for which only about half the money had been raised.
But the board rallied, and though 4,000 square feet and $1.5 million were shaved off of the project, Snyder maintained that this forced the design team to focus on essentials. “It made the building better,” Snyder asserted.
“Different,” Moussavi demurred.
The architect of record for the project, Paul Westlake, compared the process of designing the building to “sex in the back of a car. It’s terribly exciting but it’s not very comfortable.”
“Inside Out and from the Ground Up,” organized by chief curator David Norr, considers the ways contemporary artists deal with space and architecture. It includes three commissions: a mural from German painter Katharina Grosse, a sculptural installation by Brazilian artist Henrique Oliveira and a group of photographs by Cleveland photographer Barry Underwood that document the new MOCA building during construction. Louise Bourgeois, Gordon Matta-Clark and Rachel Whiteread are also featured among the show’s 16 artists.
Oliveira’s installation is a highlight of the show. Carambóxido is a roughly eggplant-shaped form, about 50 feet long, that rests on the floor, clad in scraps of wood, with a stem that seems to burst through a neighboring wall. One side of the sculpture, turned toward another wall, is open, revealing a cave-like interior lit with bare bulbs and lined with scraps of rubber and wood, bits of rusty metal and other refuse. The exterior wood scraps come from Oliveira’s native Brazil; the interior materials were salvaged from the streets of Cleveland. The biographical note was fine, but for me the smell of rubber, the invitingly disarrayed interior and the sense of looking into an exploded Lee Bontecou sculpture was sufficient to create a compelling piece.
The new MOCA is one of several new contemporary art-related developments in Cleveland, along with ongoing collecting of contemporary art by the Cleveland Clinic and Progressive, the auto insurance company, and in tandem with economic development including a new sports stadium and medical convention center. The Cleveland Museum of Art has recently increased its contemporary programming on site. Also, sharing time with Cleveland collectors Fred and Laura Bidwell, it will program half of each year at the Transformer Station, a 3,500-square-foot contemporary art venue in a former Cleveland Railway Co. facility on Cleveland’s West Side, which is due to open in February 2013.