I wrote the following on April 10, the day that The New York Times broke the news:
The Museum of Modern Art in New York has announced that it will demolish Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects’ American Folk Art Museum by the end of the year. The museum (MoMA) bought the adjacent West 53rd Street building in 2011. The plan is to replace it with new galleries, which will link to additional exhibition space in the base of a proposed mixed-use high-rise designed by Jean Nouvel, Hon. FAIA, for Hines. No architect has been chosen to design the replacement, but it is difficult to imagine that MoMA will gain a finer work of museum architecture than the one that they are going to tear down.
What could possibly justify the demolition of this critically acclaimed building (which, by the way, is only 12 years old)? “MoMA officials said the building’s design did not fit their plans because the opaque façade is not in keeping with the glass aesthetic of the rest of the museum,” The New York Times reported on the day of the announcement. “The former folk [art] museum is also set back farther than MoMA’s other properties, and the floors would not line up.”
MoMA took some flack for choosing restrained modernist Yoshio Taniguchi to design its 2004 expansion, over short-listed provocateurs such as Rem Koolhaas and Herzog & de Meuron. Critic Paul Goldberger gave a largely favorable review of the completed facility in The New Yorker, with the following caveat: “The decision [to hire Taniguchi], I suspect, was based in part on disappointment with the avant-garde architects’ proposals but mostly on the realization that the Modern is fundamentally a conservative institution.”
The decision to tear down the Folk Art Museum exposes MoMA to far less flattering characterizations than conservatism. It’s as though the board voted to incinerate a Gerhard Richter painting because it didn’t match the floor tile or fit through the doorway. MoMA must find a way to incorporate the American Folk Art Museum building into its expansion plans. What’s at risk is not only a magnificent work by important contemporary architects, but MoMA’s credibility as a champion of architecture.
Since I wrote the above, petitions have appeared on Change.org calling for MoMA to reverse its decision (two, here and here), designers have begun to post reuse concepts at folkmoma.tumblr.com, and numerous individual and institutional voices have joined the chorus of protest.
I’m still floored by MoMA’s anonymously stated concern about an aesthetic clash. As though visual juxtaposition and conceptual confrontation are somehow antithetical to modern art. New York magazine critic Jerry Saltz voices the opinion that Williams and Tsien’s densely layered, highly textured interiors are “absolutely unusable.” As though art cannot thrive in habitats with the slightest sensory interference. What nonsense.
Many profoundly affective art museums are the environmental opposites of the vast and austere post-expansion MoMA. I’m thinking, for instance, of eccentric historic house museums such as the Frick Collection in New York, the Musée Gustave Moreau in Paris, and Sir John Soane’s Museum in London. These are the proper museological precedents for the Folk Art building, which occupies the footprint of a New York City rowhouse.
Such places can only spring from the visionary sensibilities of an artist, an architect, or a collector (or some combination thereof). How wonderful it is to view William Hogarth’s celebrated series, A Rake’s Progress, in Soane’s tiny, skylit Picture Room, where the paintings hang salon-style on layers of hinged wooden panels. How tragic it would be to stick them in some white-painted drywall box.
MoMA possesses many collections that could benefit from the rich confines of the former folk art building. For example, those famous Mies drawings would look fantastic. (Hint.) Alas, the Modern seems determined to banish idiosyncrasy from the premises.
Ned Cramer's views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.