What is an architecturally appropriate addition to the statuary niches of The Met’s facade, which have been left empty for over a hundred years?
In a grand undertaking, an architect’s ambition might spur them to take on more than what can be accomplished under their own direction, transmitting optimism and exuberant trust to younger generations, along with their unfinished projects. Such is the case at The Met. Careful inspection of the building yields a number of surprising unfinished details.
The original architects would have seen revivals of classical Greek architectural forms stretching back for thousands of years and would have had no reason to think this sturdy and flexible language wouldn’t continue to serve.
But from our current perspective, to fill the niches pretending that modernism never happened and to make the sculptures—or rather, statues—the original architects envisioned would be to defraud the viewer. We were always here, the sculptures would appear to say. The authentic gesture should contain the knowledge of modernism and, ideally, frame this ostensible break with tradition to make it understood as both continuous with the Western classical tradition and a repudiation of traditional forms.
The four sculptures sit impolitely in the niches, a little too close to the building’s front. Too big for the pedestals themselves, they claim the face of the building for a frame. With the understanding that many people see the facade from a car, five-foot-wide mirrored disks (matching the diameter of the Museum’s pillars and the portrait medallions) occupy each of the niches and are pushed toward the front of the facade to create a rhythmic pattern for a viewer traveling downtown. The crisp aluminum circles are supported by crushed and crumpled stainless-steel tubes that have been shaped by incredible force but belie the process to look light and improvised—doodles produced by playing with Art Deco forms and lighthearted cartooning. When encountered on foot, the tubes gain importance and the sculptures become individualized, like colossal figures.
As I was thinking through this proposal over the last year, Walter Benjamin’s “angel of history” came to mind:
His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
With this commission, modernism is the stratum directly on top of the building. If we imagine all of the sedimentary historical layers suggested by the facade as transparent, we see through modernism, through the nineteenth-century Beaux-Arts revival, through the Renaissance, classical antiquity, and possibly even earlier. When the disks catch the sun as it rises, it might recall a dazzling Egyptian temple.
Looking back further still, the reflective disks are like Neolithic architecture, not materially, but in terms of function. They register periodic alignments in the cyclical interaction of the sun and earth, a reminder that scale—in space and in time—is always relative.