Anatomy of a Museum

Courtesy of David Heald/Museum of Arts and Design

Few buildings have such an intriguingly checkered past as 2 Columbus Circle in Manhattan. Opened in 1964, it spent less than five years as the eccentric Gallery of Modern Art, founded by Huntington Hartford, the late A&P heir and notorious spendthrift. The design, by Edward Durrell Stone in a seraglio mood, was described by New York Times critic Ada Louise Huxtable as a “misplaced pleasure pavilion transplanted from some Shalimar garden to a Manhattan traffic island.” The public never embraced the cramped, airless galleries and oddball collection, and there followed years of random occupations by Fairleigh Dickinson University and the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs before the building was acquired by the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) in 2002. Amid protests from preservationists (plus Tom Wolfe), the museum commissioned a $90 million overhaul by Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works Architecture. On September 27 the new 2 Columbus Circle debuts with a show titled, appropriately, “Second Lives.”

1. Custom Finish

Some 500 glazes were tested to find the right iridescence for the façade’s 22,000 terracotta tiles, custom glazed by Royal Tichelaar Makkum in the Netherlands. “Because it’s a freestanding building, which is rare in New York, I wanted a glaze that would respond to all the different qualities of light,” says Cloepfil. “And of course the handmade nature of clay tiles is perfectly suited to the mission of the museum.”

2. The Entry

In the lobby the signature “lollipop” columns—which gave the original building its derisive nickname—stand preserved behind a glass wall. The ground-floor shop will sell limited-edition works by some 1,400 artists.

3. The Galleries

With 54,000 square feet—triple the footage of its previous space—MAD can now show 40 percent of its collection across four floors. The third-floor gal-lery will house “Permanently MAD,” a display of works by artists such as Robert Arneson, Dale Chihuly, Cindy Sherman, and Betty Woodman.

4. Open Studios

The education department, on the sixth floor, will feature an on-site artist residency program. Visitors can watch artists at work in three studios, located alongside spaces for master classes, workshops, and possibly a rapid-prototyping machine.

5. Glass Ribbons

Originally the structure had corner portholes but no real windows. Cloepfil removed tons of concrete from the façade and sliced it open, inserting ribbons of glass that jigsaw up, across, and into the galleries. The goal, says Cloepfil, was to “bring in light with the cuts connecting floor to floor and open up spectacular visual orientation points across the city.”

6. Destination Dining

Some of the best views in the neighborhood will be found in the ninth-floor bar and 140-seat restaurant (chef to be named), where the outermost row of tables practically cantilevers above Columbus Circle.

7. Innovatively Outfitted

The museum attracted unprecedented donations from design firms: Office furniture came from Steelcase, bathroom fixtures from Kohler, stairwell tiles from Sicis, and carpets from Suzanne Tick; even the architectural glass—more than $1 million worth—was contributed by Oldcastle.

8. Debut Show

“Second Lives: Remixing the Ordinary,” on view September 27 through February 15, 2009, features pieces by 50 artists—some specially commissioned by MAD—that transform everyday objects, such as dog tags, bottle caps, and prescription pills, into works of art.