MOCA and the Dome of Heaven
A museum of contemporary art should catch one’s eye. Appropriately, then, one’s first reaction on seeing Farshid Moussavi’s new museum of contemporary art for Cleveland is: “What’s that?”
With its unusual angles sheathed in dark, mirror-like stainless steel, one might well suppose that it’s not a building at all, but a piece of abstract sculpture. It’s hard not be provoked and intrigued, and it’s hard not to want to go in and explore what’s inside.
The shape of the building, with its angled jewel-like facets, looks peculiar at first, but is in fact very simple and logical. Essentially the building makes a transition from an hexagon to a square. At the base it’s a hexagon, a shape which makes it interesting from as many sides as possible, and that also gives it a certain mobility, which fits with its location at a turning point, the junction of two roads. At the top, it forms a square, a more restful and stable shape, and one which also makes possible a large rectangular room on the top floor—a sort of “great hall” which is ideal for art display. In symbolic terms, the building takes one on a journey from the hustle and bustle of the city to a place of contemplation and escape.
The main entrance, to the east, is visible from Euclid as you drive by and also provides easy access to strollers in the park. It’s marked by a huge window of clear glass that opens up the interior. You enter at a slight angle from the Northwest side. The first floor holds a greeting area, a gift shop, a small café, and a two-story space for lectures and events; the second holds a small gallery; the third is mostly offices and classrooms; and the fourth floor holds the bulk of the museum’s exhibition space, and is the one place where a single, expansive room takes up almost the entire floor. One of the most radical and successful features of the building is that the covering of this gallery is not the traditional white, but is a rich, deep blue sky color, at once expansive and intense, which makes one feel enclosed not by a conventional ceiling but by the dome of heaven.
Overall, the course of progress for the visitor is ever heavenward, and as one climbs, the choices narrow and the geometric shapes grow simpler. The architectural challenge is to lead you up through the building to the main gallery at the top. This is done with a grand staircase whose unusual angles and periodic vistas—both inside the building and out— entice you along to explore. Much thought was devoted to the exact shade for the wonderful sky vault, and a small army of consultants was called in to provide advice—including the dean of Cleveland painters, the master of Op Art, Julian Stanczak.
It’s worth noting here that the overall effect of good architecture, however grand the concept, depends on the skill with which smallest details are pursued—whether that be a door, a handrail, or an electric socket—so that nothing mars the effect. Paul Westlake, of Westlake Reed Leskosky, who was Moussavi’s on-site collaborator, should be congratulated for the taste and sensitivity with which he filled that need.
In its geometric complexity, the building is a tour de force, and could probably not have been designed in an age before computers. What’s fascinating is the constant interplay between unusual, unfamiliar shapes and the sense that the whole scheme is organized according to a universal scheme of geometric logic. In fact, in some ways the building is more complex than it first appears. For example, its enclosed fire stair, mandated by law, wraps around the open stairway, rather in the fashion of Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous double-helix stairway at the Chateau de Blois. Fitting a stairway neatly into this tight and irregular space was surely a geometric brain-teaser, but most visitors probably don’t even realize that it’s there.
Where did this mastery of geometry come from? We lived in an age that’s increasingly multi-cultural, and my own belief is that this building draws much of its genius from a part of the world whose architectural influence we often overlook. Farshid Moussavi was born in Iran, and while she came to England as a child and was educated there, at some level her architecture surely stems in part from the Islamic culture she emerged from.
Representation of the human figure was banned from Islamic art, and perhaps in part because of that, Islamic art over a vast region— from the Alhambra in Spain to the Taj Mahal in India—displays a stunning mastery of complex geometries and symmetries: particularly a mastery of a geometric discipline known as “tiling,” which explores how to fill the spaces of a floor or wall or other geometric surface with “tiles” that leave no gaps and form striking patterns. In Persia, designers even experimented with Penrose patterns, a design method that fills a space with regular geometric shapes— but in a fashion that never exactly repeats itself.
Moussavi’s fascinating book on architecture, The Function of Form, is essentially a study of this issue. It explores the idea that complex forms of tessellation can create cellular structures that meet to both structural demands and psychological needs. While the book draws freely from western architecture, from the Gothic to the modern and the contemporary, many of the examples—such as the Yazdi-Bandi dome, the Kar-Bandi dome, the Kaseh-Sazi Dome, and the Muqarnas dome—are Islamic, and display a variety of covering techniques more complicated and ingenious than any found in the west.
In a famous article, published in The Art Bulletin in 1945, the art historian Kurt Lehman examined how the concept of “The dome of Heaven” led to the creation of a rich variety of Christian churches with magnificent central domes, embodying this concept. Notably, this idea was also picked up by Islamic architects, starting with the famous Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem (begun in 692), which established a central theme of Islamic art, that of a dome placed on an octagon—a theme which was pursued for the next thousand years across the Islamic world, and arguably achieved its culminating expression in the Taj Mahal. Interestingly, Christian architecture, such as a Wren church spire, tends to move from a simple geometric shape, such as a square tower, to a more complex one, such as an octagonal spire; whereas Islamic architecture, very often, works in the reverse sequence, starting with the more complex shape, the octagon, and progressing to one that is purer and more geometrically “perfect,” such as a circle (a dome) or a square. In fact, Moussavi’s museum for Cleveland might be conceived as a variation on this idea, since she starts with a hexagon rather than an octagon, and then moves upward to the square. The mode of transition from one shape to another is also a novel one, since the geometric shapes are not stacked neatly on top of each other, and thus do not read as distinct, but merge imperceptibly by virtue of their jewel-like facets.
At some mystical level, in Islamic shrines and mosques, this progression of geometric shapes always symbolized a spiritual progression towards a higher realm. Subliminally, I think we can sense this in Moussavi’s new MOCA Cleveland building as well. Ultimately its success is due to the fact that it not only fulfills practical requirements, but also lifts us to a higher realm, where we stand above daily life and connect for a moment with the deep mysteries of the universe. It’s a realm, I might add, with splendid vistas onto University Circle—vistas which transform ordinary Cleveland into a place of visual magic, as if one were standing above the landscape on a magic carpet.