Build It and They Will Come

With Cleveland’s Museum of Contemporary Art, Farshid Moussavi is reinventing the exhibition space as we know it. Alice Rawsthorn takes the tour.


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.”

Farshid Moussavi

Moussavi’s love of architecture goes back to her childhood in Sari, a city by the Caspian Sea in northern Iran, where her parents, both academics, commissioned a local architect to construct their family home. She remembers going to design meetings as a toddler and watching concrete being poured for the foundations. During her early teens, Iran was convulsed by revolution. In 1979, when she was 14, the family traveled to England to visit Moussavi’s brother, who was at boarding school there; her parents enrolled her, as well, in an English school rather than risk taking her back home. “At the time, I just got on with it,” Moussavi says. “But looking back, it was really tough. Having to start from scratch like that makes you strong, because you lose the fear of change.”

Her mother and younger sister moved to England a year later, followed by her father. Moussavi went on to study architecture at the University of Dundee in Scotland—where one of her professors suggested she pursue an internship in the then tiny London office of the Iraqi-born Zaha Hadid—and at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London. She spent two years at Harvard, where she was taught by Rem Koolhaas, who offered her a job at his practice, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA).

While at OMA, Moussavi began a relationship with the Spanish architect ­Alejandro Zaera-Polo. In 1993, they ­married and set up a firm in London, choosing Foreign Office Architects (FOA) as a suitable name for a partnership between an Iranian and a Spaniard working in England. Together they won a series of prestigious international commissions, including Japan’s Yokohama International Passenger Terminal, and emerged at the forefront of the post-Koolhaas-and-Hadid generation of architects, whose work is defined not by an identifiable style but by experimenting with design technology to produce structures that are specific to their location and purpose.

Moussavi has developed the theoretical side of her work at Harvard, having returned there to teach in 2005 and becoming a tenured professor a year later—and in a series of books based on research conducted with her students. Each publication ­explores an aspect of digital technology and environmental concerns relating to architecture: The Function of Ornament was published in 2006 and The Function of Form in 2009; The Function of Style is due out next year.

When Moussavi and Zaera-Polo divorced in 2011, they dissolved FOA and set up separate offices. Zaera-Polo has since been appointed dean of the architecture school at Princeton University, and Moussavi has stayed in London, where she lives in Belgravia with the couple’s 11-year-old daughter, Mina.

Farshid Moussavi Architecture got off to a spectacular start by winning a commission for a major housing project at La Défense in Paris, followed by the critical coup of the Venice show (which draws on the research for the three Function books), and now, MOCA Cleveland’s opening. “It has been exciting,” Moussavi says. “First time around, you set up an office instinctively. Second time around, you are more conscious of how it should be.”

Until recently, architecture was largely a man’s world. But together with Hadid and Kazuyo Sejima of SANAA—the Japanese firm behind the design of New York’s New ­Museum—Moussavi is one of a handful of women who have joined the trade’s elite band of world-class practitioners, with major commissions and prestigious academic posts. And she has done so on her own terms. In The Function of Form, she compares the impact of Gyrotonic exercises on the body with the fluid forms of contemporary architecture, and she draws similar parallels with the work of fashion designers Azzedine Alaïa, ­Miuccia Prada, and Hussein ­Chalayan, all of whom she admires for their innovations with shape and structure.

Antonelli remembers trekking around Venice with Moussavi in scorching heat four years ago when the two were members of the Architecture Biennale jury. “Farshid did so in platforms, balanced by a structured, deceptively sensuous Alaïa skirt and a Chalayan straw hat with aviator sunglasses built into the brim,” ­Antonelli says. “She was an eye-popping vision.” (Moussavi had persuaded Chalayan to make the hat for her trip after seeing it in his show.) “I often wear skirts, and I always wear heels,” Moussavi says. “The older I become, the more determined I am not to compromise the fact that I am a woman working in a male profession. I feel stronger and more confident by insisting on who I am.”

Gen W: The Artist is Present

Moussavi at the west entrance to MOCA Cleveland.

Hair by Doreen Parker-Kuczma; makeup by Jill Gunton for Flutter Cosmetics

Photographer: Dean Kaufman

Moussavi on site at Cleveland’s MOCA in June.

Photographer: Dean Kaufman

Moussavi on site at Cleveland’s MOCA in June.

Photographer: Dean Kaufman

A rendering of her Défense Nanterre housing development in Paris.

Moussavi’s Yokohama International Passenger Terminal.

The second-floor lobby and check-in area at the Yokohama Terminal.

The John Lewis Department Store facade in London.