Stepping into the large shoes of Philip Johnson, founding curator of the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) architecture department in New York, might have seemed challenge enough for Barry Bergdoll, who took on the position in January. But he also had to contend with a weighty anniversary: The department turns 75 this year.
Rather than simply pay homage to this influential department, which now also includes design, or its succession of curators, he resolved to rethink its history. The result is 75 Years of Architecture at MoMA, a retrospective that recently opened on the museum’s third floor.
“I don’t want to send the signal that we’re going to start a cycle of celebrating MoMA’s past,” Bergdoll said in an interview in the exhibition gallery. “But it allowed me to play with the permanent collection. It allowed me to think about my predecessors and take them on in a certain way.”
His choices are likely to draw broad attention in the art and architecture world, given the tepid critical response to some of the department’s exhibitions in recent years under his predecessor, Terence Riley. But Bergdoll said, “I don’t, in any way, intend this to be a manifesto of what I’m going to do or a platform on what the department should do.”
With drawings, models and wall text, the exhibition traces the department’s collections over 75 years. And here and there, it subtly challenges the thinking of some of Bergdoll’s illustrious predecessors. He argues, for example, that when Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock mounted the museum’s hugely important Modern Architecture: International Exhibition in 1932, they excluded some significant strains of modernism.
Essentially, they defined what came to be known as the ‘international style’ by featuring the work of European modernists such as Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius and J.J.P. Oud. In most cases, they selected buildings with radically simplified forms and an utter rejection of ornament. Marginalized or ignored were 1920s and 1930s expressionism and organicism, whose swirling or biomorphic forms have influenced modern architecture up to the present day, Bergdoll contends.
“There are things outside their field of vision in 1932 that are fundamental now—and fundamental to the collection,” he said. “I’m kind of critiquing the limits of their vision.”
Visitors can take in Marcel Breuer’s 1929 project for Potsdamer Platz in Berlin, reorganized as a cloverleaf configuration of roadways with multi-level pedestrian walkways and densely packed modern apartments and offices.
This section also acknowledges the Latin American contribution to modernist city design with examples such as Le Corbusier’s Urban Studies Project for Montevideo, which outlines a vast business centre under a motorway that juts into the bay, or a design for Sao Paulo by the architect, Oscar Niemeyer, and the landscape designer, Roberto Burle Marx, which included organically shaped planting beds, pathways and bodies of water. “We tend to condemn urbanism as slabs and highways without a human dimension,” Bergdoll said. “This shows a friendlier, even fun-loving side of modernism.”