The enigmatic new building at Euclid Avenue and Mayfield Road is infused with a sense of motion that belies the heft of its 1,354 stainless steel exterior panels, 34,000 square feet of space and $27.2 million price tag.
It's a visual puzzle that plays with your mind as much as staring at M.C. Escher's infinite staircase. The structure's six sides rise from a hexagonal base to meet at a square roof, almost as if you've spied it mid-transformation — a process of unfolding, of creation.
"It produces this kind of crystalline form, and the shape of the building appears to change as you move around it," explains Farshid Moussavi, the London-based architect who designed it.
The reflective black exterior is always in flux too, charting the progress of lazy clouds as they float across a blue summer sky, or glowing with the grayness of winter.
"A contemporary art museum should not be a monumental building — static and frozen," Moussavi adds. "It should evoke the idea of change."
The result is a place where boundaries blur, exploration is part of the experience and guests create an ever-changing work of art all by themselves as they interact with and react to the building on their ascent to the fourth floor.
The Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland's new home will open Oct. 8, an event that marks another transformation — one that sees the museum emerge from an anonymous space along Carnegie Avenue to one that allows the institution to not only remake itself, but re-imagine how it connects with the community and longtime patrons.
"For us to reach our potential, we needed to be at University Circle," says MOCA executive director Jill Snyder, adding that the museum's board decided more than a decade ago that a move was needed. "The next five years was waiting for the right location."
But finding available property near the city's cultural hub was difficult. Then, in 2005, Case Western Reserve University launched the search for a developer to makeover a triangle of land between Euclid Avenue and Mayfield Road — a development called Uptown at the crossroads of Little Italy, CWRU, the city's world-renowned hospitals and critical mass of museums. It would serve as a focal point for the neighborhood around University Circle, and MOCA was offered the chance to build on the point of the triangle where Euclid meets Mayfield.
A search for an architect began soon after, while museum staffers and stakeholders began considering the possibilities. Snyder says they ultimately decided that progress meant a more professional and efficient back-of-house operation, and a welcoming space that provided room for programming — be it speakers, concerts or collaborations with neighboring institutions.
"[Farshid Moussavi Architecture] just rose to the top," Snyder says of the selection process that whittled 34 architectural firms down to three before the final selection was made in 2006. "We liked that none of their buildings looked remotely the same and that they were clearly a response to site and program."
MOCA had raised more than $20 million toward its $34.8 million capital campaign when the recession hit in 2008. It could have sunk the campaign. Instead, the museum put fundraising on hold, asked Moussavi to scale back the building's then-38,000-square-foot design, and in 2010, cautiously moved forward. The museum reached its goal by the end of that year. Snyder says she believes a lot of it had to do with a laser-precise message to would-be donors.
"We successfully communicated to the community that a contemporary art museum, which could be stereotyped as being marginal or not essential, is cutting edge. It's radical, and it's not for just a narrow slice of culture," Snyder says. "We said, •Contemporary art is the R&D of culture.' It's about risk and innovation and creativity and it's central to the values of a region that wants to launch itself into the 21st century by reinventing its past."
That's why, this fall, there's an intriguing new building anchoring the edge of Uptown — "a beacon," Moussavi calls it — one that begs you to step inside and see what's going on for yourself (no admission is charged for anything on the first floor).
Of course, as each new layer is revealed, you'll want to look even closer. Why don't you let us show you around?