Much Ado About the Morgan: Architecture Celebrates Itself

Damn that Frank Lloyd Wright. That thought flitted through my head as I left the civic dedication of the newly renovated and expanded Morgan Library. Wright had nothing to do with it, of course: The ambitious and accomplished Italian architect Renzo Piano is the one responsible for reconfiguring the beloved institution, which has been much missed during its three-year transformation.

Mr. Piano’s past projects include the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, the Menil Collection in Houston and parts of the Potsdamer Platz reconstruction in Berlin. His current endeavors promise to leave a significant mark in New York City: In addition to the Morgan, Mr. Piano is working on the new headquarters for The Times, plus expansions of the Whitney Museum and Columbia University.

So why curse the ghost of Frank Lloyd Wright? Because he’s to blame for the Guggenheim Museum. Wright’s famous rotunda is the sore thumb of cultural institutions. With his design, he made an emphatic point but set a confused precedent: Architectural independence trumps the true purpose of a museum—providing a safe haven for displaying and contemplating art. For the sake of spectacle, Wright pulled the rug out from under art. Something similar is afoot at the Morgan.

Though it’s not as egregious. At the dedication, Mr. Piano spoke of his wish to honor the original Morgan so that the “new doesn’t aggress the old.” He spoke, too, of creating a meditative space within the “good chaos” of New York City. These are exemplary goals; Mr. Piano is clearly an architect of acute sensitivity. Yet proposition and practice are two different things.

Mr. Piano’s contributions to the $106 million renovation include an education center, a concert hall, a reinforced vault for the museum’s holdings, an entryway and (what did you expect?) additional space for eating and shopping. The results are infinitely preferable to, say, the futuristic travesty that’s now the entrance to the Brooklyn Museum, or the shopping-mall brutalism of MoMA. It’s a blessing that Mr. Piano’s achievement is as streamlined and assured as it is.

The centerpiece is the entryway, relocated to Madison Avenue. A sun-drenched, three-story atrium now connects the existing Morgan villas with the Victorian brownstone on 37th Street. It’s to Mr. Piano’s credit that the addition’s spare industrial elegance—with its soaring banks of windows, blocky landings, right angles and glass elevator—works as well as it does. A modernist Morgan is less of an oxymoron than you might think.

All the same, it’s worth recalling that the library is there to highlight an astonishing collection of illuminated manuscripts, Old Master drawings and printed books—among many other riches. How well has Mr. Piano served the museum’s primary mission?

New Yorkers used to enter the Morgan through a smallish, stolidly proportioned doorway fronting 36th Street. The vestibule may have been clunky and stuffy, but it heralded a transition from the hurly-burly of city life into a realm of intimate, contemplative experience. No more. Mr. Piano’s atrium is mainly interested in herding the crowds and then wowing them. It’s a noisy public arena wedged inside an institution renowned for quiet pleasures.

As far as holding areas go, the atrium is more pleasant than most, yet it fails to elaborate upon or accentuate the nature of the Morgan itself. The addition is too busy celebrating its own fine self. The careless placement of a little gallery devoted to medieval artifacts off to the side is an insult to the glories contained within. (The coatroom has more presence.) In a weird way, the Morgan is now reminiscent of Dia: Beacon. In both cases, architecture justifies the expedition and art is along for the ride.

The original character of the Morgan’s galleries—or most of them anyway—has been retained, though one still has to wonder if the exhibition space has been doubled (as is claimed in a press release). “Where the hell’s the art?” one well-heeled visitor asked. I couldn’t help but empathize with his exasperation. There’s a nagging sense of misplaced priorities. The Morgan feels smaller for having been made bigger.

Judging from the overstuffed installation, the curators must have come to the same conclusion. One shouldn’t complain too much. A certain amount of showboating was called for, given the grand reopening. The museum’s holdings, after all, are almost relentlessly top-notch: drawings by Dürer, Da Vinci, Carracci, Goya, Ingres and an atypically tender Picasso; a fascinating array of tarot cards; paintings by Memling and the workshop of Bellini; the tightly wound script of the Brontë siblings and the working lyrics of Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” to name just a few treasures.

Criticisms and plaudits for Mr. Piano’s efforts will be modified as time tempers the novelty of the revamped Morgan. Repeat visits are called for. But as things stand, the overhaul amounts to much ado about, if not nothing, then less than one might have expected. The ultimate effect of the expansion is distancing and disheartening, as if the rare and exquisite items under the care of the museum were an afterthought rather than its raison d’être. Art can withstand almost any affront. Who could have guessed that the Morgan Library would be one of them?

The Morgan Library is located at 225 Madison Avenue between 36th and 37th streets.