MoMA Celebrates the Sound of Silence

MoMA Celebrates the Sound of Silence

Mann Report, January 2020


MoMA Stairs
A building made of hard panes of glass and located on a busy Midtown street should be a recipe for cacophony. But the $450 million newly reimagined Museum of Modern Art features an expanded 40,000-square-foot gallery space that can offer musical performances — and blessed quiet.

“It’s about understanding the user experience and how you translate into it,” said Victoria Cerami, CEO of acoustic and audiovisual consultant Cerami Associates. “It’s the difference between a restaurant experience or the office experience. But the museum is the intersection of art and architecture. The patron may not connect to why this is so cool, but if it weren’t there, you’d notice it. It’s that invisible, unconscious need.”

As the acoustic and audiovisual consultant for the Mo MA, Cerami melded art and science to create an environment that allows people to enjoy music without distraction from street noise, speak quietly and wander the exhibits without footsteps distracting others.

The redesign was led by New York architecture firms Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Gensler. Cerami created an acoustical design focused on the lobby, bookstore, main staircase, gallery spaces, restaurants and eateries, Creativity Lab and the Marie-Josee and Henry Kravis live performance Studio. Dedicated acoustically absorptive finishes were applied throughout the gallery spaces, common areas and installations that included audio.

“The acoustical treatment at the stair at MoMA is also something you’d find at a restaurant,” said John Hauenstein, a Cerami principal. “That absorption may not come into play when the restaurant is lightly occupied or at a Sunday lunch. But at night when the bar is busy, it reaches a limit.”

MoMA Stairs 2
The staircase is clad in suave, stained panels of micro-perforated bird’s-eye maple, cantilevered from a steel sheet connected to the ceiling and suspended like a mobile. Walnut-paneled walls to dampen the clatter of heels are speckled with micro-perforation.

Perhaps most striking is the Studio, a dedicated space for performance, music, sound, spoken word and film performances that faces the street. However, sound is blocked via a box-within-­box construction, which places metal mesh within the façade, controlling sound and light that enters and leaves the space.

MoMA Studio
Acoustical ceilings were utilized to control noise levels in the common lounge and restaurant areas that involved eating/drinking, footfall, chair scraping, etc. Even the MoMA store implemented acoustical controls to provide a calm environment.

Cerami’s goal is to inform the client about the acoustic results of their design decisions so they can make the appropriate decisions, Maniscalco said.

“It’s about balancing the architect’s vision for the space and making it match,” added Matthew Schaeffler, associate principal.

Today, technology is increasing the accuracy of acoustical design without building a multitude of costly mockups. Cerami’s in-house demonstration studio allows clients to experience the varying results with different technologies. Virtual reality can allow clients to “walk” through a space and experience how noise levels (conversations, etc.) can change. In one case, a client in the midst of value-engineering a project made millions of dollars of decisions in 90 minutes after going through the simulations.

“We help guide them through the decision making for each company, and it’s different for each geography,” Maniscalco said. “What works for Google [a Cerami client] on the West Coast might not on the East Coast.”

The MoMA team was an early user of the studio, explained Virginia Demske, a Cerami associate.

“It was out of necessity. The whole team wanted to understand the implications of the façade,” she said. “Now, it’s become part of the drill. We’re always happy to do it.”