Renzo Piano has become our go-to architect for museums. He designed the Centre Georges Pompidou in 1977 with former partners Richard Rice and Richard Rogers and then, solo, the Menil Collection and additions to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the High Museum of Art. The Pompidou Center is a singular piece of work, but the others are tasteful, intelligent and unobtrusive structures that generally stay out of the way of the artwork. So nothing prepared me for the power of Piano’s addition to the Morgan Library, which opened in 2006 but I saw for the first time last week. I’ve passed its discrete, metal-clad entrance on Madison Avenue countless times and simply walked on by, so unprepossessing did it seem from the sidewalk.
But the interior is commanding, a place where pristine cartesian space rules. Piano’s addition, which serves as a lobby and cafe, connects three existing Morgan buildings, including the original Charles Mckim-designed museum from 1903. Piano imagined the new building as a perfect cube and there’s a a geometric rigor in its details and construction as well as its proportions. This modest glass box (it’s only about about eighteen feet high) gave me more pleasure than any other modern building I’ve visited in New York City. My favorite parts are the framelesss glass elevator cabs (they’re also cubes) that rise and fall musically, and seemingly effortlessly, on exposed pistons. American architects continually grumble that their clients prefer traditional styles and that their contractors can’t build finely. This building shows otherwise.