The Museum of Modern Art collects and prizes the sculpture and designs of Isamu Noguchi, a towering figure in 20th-century American art. But just across West 53rd Street, the developer of 666 Fifth Avenue, Brookfield Properties, is planning the opposite: dismantling one of Noguchi’s largest sculptural installations, one that he called “a landscape of clouds” that he designed in 1957 in the skyscraper’s twin lobbies.
On either side of a central bank of elevators, the Japanese-American sculptor, who pioneered the idea of sculpture opening into, and shaping, the environment, designed an upside-down ocean of backlit, undulating aluminum blades floating in a light of its own making. The entire space glows. Just outside the lobbies in a passage connecting West 53rd to West 52nd Street, a former water wall of vertical blades stands, an upright version of the ceiling. Until several years ago, before the water was turned off, it acted as a cascade, water rippling over a washboard of corrugated glass and falling into a bed of plants, creating an acoustic oasis in Midtown.
This wall and the ceiling in the lobbies are intact, but they are not landmarked. Brookfield Properties, which now has a 99-year lease on the building, intends to remodel the lobbies as part of a building-wide renovation, disassembling and perhaps donating the pieces to an outside group, if one presents itself.
The developers say Noguchi’s work, because of changes in a previous renovation, no longer has any integrity meriting preservation. “It in no way reflects Noguchi’s original vision,” Andrew Brent, a spokesman for Brookfield, wrote in an email.
The preservation community disagrees. “The most significant part of the original ensemble has survived, and it’s landmark worthy,” John Morris Dixon, a board member of the New York/Tri-State chapter of Docomomo, a modernist preservation advocacy group, said last week.
“You already have this strong, creative treatment of the walls and the ceiling and you can’t expect to come up with something nearly as artistically effective again,” said Mr. Dixon, a former editor in chief of Progressive Architecture Magazine. “Why risk it when you’ve got it already? The lobby is a great asset that gives a high degree of individuality to the building. Culturally it would be a major loss to the city, and a loss to MoMA, too, because it’s a kind of extraterritorial exhibit just across the street. It’s like a MoMA annex.”
In 1998, Noguchi’s installation narrowly escaped demolition when the formerly open-air midblock passage was enclosed and remodeled, along with a corridor connecting to Fifth Avenue. At the same time, the lobbies lost their original marble floor, a riff on Manhattan’s grid, as well as polished marble walls that reflected the luminous ceilings.
The 1998 renovation did, however, preserve the ceiling and water feature even as it set the stage for the current predicament. Although it is possible to recreate the floors and walls from the original quarries, which would re-establish the visual integrity of the design, the developers maintain that the design is compromised because of a lost passage off Fifth Avenue leading to a view of the water wall.
Mr. Dixon, however, says that the lobbies are semi-enclosed spaces that stand on their own regardless of the changes off Fifth Avenue. Neither the developer nor the architect, Kohn Pedersen Fox, knows whether the original red French marble walls still exist behind the wood paneling applied in 1998, possibly making the marble issue moot. (Also, the Noguchi Museum has no evidence that Noguchi designed the unusual floor.)
Brett Littman, the director of the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, said in a statement that the museum was aware of the developer’s plan.
“We do know that Noguchi’s site-specific installation is in jeopardy,” he said. “The museum and its board are working to ensure that the work remains in situ.”