MOCA Cleveland Coming into Focus

Friday, November 5, 2010

Last night in a presentation at Hunter College, Farshid Moussavi revealed more details about her design for the new Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, including a first look at the plaza designed by Field Operations. Rows of trees will seperate the mirroed black museum from an adjacent development site, and geometrically patterned pavement will pick up on the forms of the building.

The plaza will soften the hard-edged building, which is meant to reflect traffic, pedestrians, and the sky. Inside, a cobalt blue inner skin will reveal the structure underneath, and create a dramatic foil to the white walled galleries.

A monumental double staircase–one open, stacked on an enclosed fire stair–will offer views out to the city as well as into the main gallery.

The ceiling of the column-free main gallery will also be blue, illuminated with spots, resembling the night sky.

3 Responses to “MOCA Cleveland Coming into Focus”

  1. […] set a date for a groundbreaking, the goal is for a December start.© FOASources: and AN Blog.Related articles: var linkwithin_site_id = 96342; Share:    […]

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  3. William Eberhard says:

    MOCA = The Emperor’s Clothes

    The Cleveland Museum of Contemporary Art by London Architect Farshid Moussavi opened in October, 2012. Local Architecture Critic Steven Litt called it a gem. Don’t you believe it.

    MOCA Cleveland is the architectural equivalent of The Emperor’s Clothes. First, MOCA is not a museum. There is no permanent collection. It is more of a gallery, and not much of one at that. Secondly, the MOCA folks have attempted to sell us this drab black box as ‘architecture.’ It is not. In fact, it is quite a poor building that fails to rise to the level of what constitutes ‘architecture.’

    To rise to the level of ‘architecture,’ a structure must function at the basic levels of ‘shelter’ and ‘order:’ it must make life secure and enduring for occupants, protecting them from the elements, and it must provide a suitable framework for the required activities to be undertaken. Many buildings do these two things in adequate fashion. Architecture is when the framework of activities does not just permit them, it encourages them to occur – at the highest levels. Thirdly, the structure must have symbolic content. It must be capable of being ‘read’ or decoded by users as standing for something that represents the owner/ sponsor and aligns with their value and beliefs.

    Here, Moussavi fails at a biblical level. She intends nothing. She plays a geometric game, extruding a hexagon to a square – without intention. Neither form bears a symbolic meaning or connotes anything about MOCA, Cleveland or contemporary art. Thus, there is no meaning in her extrusion. It is a formal exercise without intention. But most contemporary art is not arbitrary.

    In the case of MOCA, contemporary art is apparently to be hidden and remain inaccessible. One is not invited or even tempted to enter. The mystery of the black box is a false promise for there is no ‘there’ there. There is no permanent collection. Message: “We have no standard-bearers of great contemporary art. Go elsewhere. We are really not a museum.”

    Moussavi presented her design when construction was almost finished to the American Institute of Architects annual convention of Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana architects. She spoke of her formal geometric abstractions – as if they had some intrinsic significance or value – and not of the experience of the users.


    MOCA’s form is an simple game of extruded geometry where the base form shifts from a hexagon as it rises to a square at its top, which produces a simple form that a third year architecture student would have been given a C- for and asked, “Is that all you could come up with?” MOCA Board members are reported to be privately saying, “It’s all we could afford.”

    The exterior of MOCA is clad in black stainless steel panels that are already streaking at the corners. They also present a range of colors that indicate the material selection and/ or production was not up to the task of producing uniformity. Additionally, the gauge of the panels is such that they reflect extensive oil canning, which makes the black box look cheap, though it was far from inexpensive. The 34,000 sf project cost a whopping $27.2 million – $800./sf! And the project’s size was reduced by over 10% to hit that number!

    Moussavi introduced slanting windows that have nothing to do with the experience from the interior as they slash through spaces and right through floors, revealing their arbitrary and formal imposition. With exterior walls that slant from side-to-side and warp, tilting in and out, from the inside looking out, one can quickly become dizzy and nauseous. The windows are relegated to conference and staff areas.

    One great tragedy of the design is that MOCA’s opportunity to make contemporary art legible to the community and the thousands of cars passing every day has been squandered on an opaque and uninviting composition where you cannot see in and cannot even see the entry unless you pass the structure. For $800/sf, one should get ‘dazzle,’ or at least a bit of sizzle.


    MOCA was given a fantastic corner lot at the edge of University Circle, the city’s cultural district with the Museum of Art, the Cleveland Botanical Center, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Institute of Art. the grand Church of the Covenant and Severance Hall, home of the word-renowned Cleveland Orchestra. The MOCA site is small. So was the program. In fact. MOCA, which had a lovely loft space in Midtown Cleveland designed by Cleveland Architect Richard Fleischman FAIA, now has less exhibition space than before its move.

    Upon arrival, one must enter away from the visible intersection of Mayfield and Euclid. When I entered, there was one person in front of me speaking to the admission representative in the tiny foyer. Someone came through the revolving door behind me and contact was unavoidable. On this Sunday, five months after opening, there was no art to see. An installation was in progress at the uppermost level and a small 120 sf ‘installation,’ complete with security guard, was on the second level.

    The only real design feature of MOCA is its stair – Moussavi herself calls it the “dominant architectural feature of the building.’ The compression of the entry segues to a transition zone where a portable snack bar has been added adjacent to a two-story space with a few tables and chairs for events and audio-visual presentations, though nothing was ‘on’ during our visit – another puzzling absence of content from an organization that begged for money for years because they ‘couldn’t wait’ for a facility with technology. Now they have it, and there is nothing to show.

    The monumental stair is pressed up against the exposed construction of the exterior envelope, which are large beams and the interior face of the metal panel systems and exposed electrical conduit, all painted a very dark shade of blue. Everything is painted dark blue, except the white sidewalls of the stair.

    The stair inevitably pushes you into the dark blue exterior steel frame and metal panels – hardly a rewarding experience. The stair shifts angles and doubles back at landings as it drags one upward – small gallery on the second level – staff work areas on the third level – up to the fourth level. As you finally turn for the last half section of stairs at the primary exhibition space, you are confronted with a massive exposed air handling unit – painted dark blue –hovering just above your head with its three flywheels waiting to shave off any hairstyle tempting verticality. The light fixtures hang down into your headroom just off the upper landing, obscuring your view down. It is unpleasant and absurd. You perceive that the roof is too low and you feel compressed at the largest open space in the project – the exhibition room. Even Wright knew that after ‘compression’ came ‘release.’ Not Moussavi.

    The blue is unrelenting. It is too much of a presence. It will not be a friend to much of the contemporary art product. This is a place where art on walls will not be a likely be a successful experience for the artist – or viewer.


    The stair is cantilevered off of its anchoring walls and was reportedly a frightful expense, though it reflects exposed concrete, drywall and painted steel, with some plate joints clearly visible. The fire stairs is immediately adjacent and is neon yellow. Perhaps if you run very fast, it all turns green.

    The lighting in the facility is primitive and inadequate, particularly given the amount of light that the exposed blue wrapper absorbs. On the stair, one is often walking into a glaring light source, a condition neither pleasant or safe.

    The exposed concrete floors have no control joints, so they are cracking randomly already. How did associate architect Westlake Reed Leskosky miss that one?

    The only redeeming part of the facility is the gift shop – a narrow space that opens curiously at its end with full-height clear glass walls and doors to the receiving dock with its trash in full view. The irony is apt.

    Cleveland has long suffered as an import zone for architects from out-of-town by owners who routinely forego even a cursory examination of the considerable talent resident in northeast Ohio. While comprising only 28% of the state’s architects, northeast Ohio firms have won over 45% of the State AIA design awards over the past 20 years. The MOCA facility is a perfect mistake and serves as one of the most legible and costly examples of what happens when a user lacks a clear statement of needs, does not truly know what constitutes design excellence, and retains an architect – with no experience in museums or much of anything for that matter – who sees an opportunity to try something notorious rather than good. Moussavi’s MOCA is a notoriously terrible building that fails to make MOCA a destination of merit – or content.

    One of Moussavi’s reported selling points has been that the mirrored black stainless steel façade ‘reflects the changing city.’ That sounds good, but it is a bit of a stretch. At best, it reflects the weather and passing cars, and there are no prizes for that. The media has labeled the façade “exhilarating”: and “shimmering,” but the media always drinks the Kool-Aid of the arts establishment for fear it will need to think on its own and reveal its lack of understanding of ‘art.’ But as Suzanne Langer pointed out, the user is the enactor of the aesthetic event. The façade’s oilcanning diminishes and eliminates positive attribution.

    With only 12,000 visitors a year – many of those members who came more than once – Cleveland’s MOCA invites comparison to the MOCA in Cincinnati. London-based Zaha Hadid delivered an interesting series of stacked volumes on an even smaller site in downtown Cincinnati. Her original design of shimmering glass boxes evolved to be more brutal concrete forms stacked with daylight admitted in the offsets and crevices of the forms atop a fully glazed street level. Hadid’s design created multiple exhibition spaces – and a dramatic stair – and visitation jumped from 25,000 per year to 95,000 per year. As novelty has worn, Cincinnati MOCA draws 70,000 per year, this in a community that has been nationally known for being unfriendly to contemporary art, indicting the director – now a Clevelander – for a Maplethorpe exhibition in 1990. But Moussavi is no Hadid. MOCA Cincinnati has made contemporary art more accessible, legible and interesting for area residents and visitors and the attendance numbers indicate that MOCA Cincinnati has dramatically increased traction with its community. Moussavi’s MOCA Cleveland attendance numbers will speak for themselves.

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