There’s a new kind of theater in Cleveland: If you stand outside the city’s just built Museum of Contemporary Art, you can watch its walls change color with the light. When the sun shines directly onto their black mirrored steel, the six walls will look blue—the brighter the sun, the more vivid the hue—but if the sky clouds over, they will darken to black, just as they will when the sun moves around the building. And as each of them stands at a different angle, each reflects a different image of what is happening around it. “It’s as if the building is performing for you,” says Farshid Moussavi, the museum’s architect. “There are some amazing moments, when the distorted reflections produce a kind of new reality.”
A petite, vivacious Iranian who lives and works in London, Moussavi, 47, is one of Europe’s most innovative and influential architects and theorists. Her books are practically required reading in the industry, and the exhibition she curated on the cultural impact of architecture is a highlight of this fall’s Venice Architecture Biennale. “Farshid is impossibly gorgeous and devastatingly smart,” says Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. “She looks like an anime heroine and speaks with the intellectual power and authority of a pillar of contemporary architectural culture.”
MOCA Cleveland, which opens to the public on October 8 with surveys of the work of the German artist Katharina Grosse and the Canadian sculptor David Altmejd along with a group show featuring pieces by David Hammons and Gordon Matta Clark, is Moussavi’s first building in the United States. Though her constantly morphing museum has been eagerly anticipated by architecture buffs, it should prove equally compelling to the art world—after all, she’s done nothing less than create a radically new type of contemporary-art space that’s neither a stereotypical white cube nor a monumental museum in the traditional mold.
While the tone is set by the building’s constantly changing facade, there are playful touches inside, where visitors are invited to observe the daily life of the museum and its staff in a series of impromptu performances: They can peek through glass walls into the art-handling area, delivery bay, and other behind-the-scenes spaces usually hidden from the public. If they walk to the top of the spectacular steel staircase, they can look down into the main gallery to catch an aerial view of the artworks or watch the installation of new shows. But the grand finale is the ceiling of those galleries, which is painted in the same deep blue as those of ancient Egyptian tombs. It resembles the night sky, with the gallery lights shining like stars.
“We want the building to be an experience in itself and to reflect the role of the museum,” Moussavi says. “MOCA Cleveland isn’t a grand museum with a historical collection; it’s all about temporary exhibitions, which change constantly—so does contemporary art, and so should the architecture.” Luckily, Moussavi was blessed with an empathic client in Jill Snyder, the museum’s director. “I have learned so much about architecture from her,” Snyder says. “And I believe she has learned more about contemporary art and museums from us.”