Plans announced by Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R) to expand the Museum of Modern Art campus registered a shock to fans of the former American Folk Art Museum building and MoMA alike. The scheme, which will see the Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects–designed building replaced with a gleaming, triple-height glass-cube "Art Bay," has raised questions about the future of New York's greatest modern-art museum.
Three ARCHITECT contributors—Alexandra Lange (Design Observer; Loeb Fellow), Mark Lamster (The Dallas Morning News), and Christopher Hawthorne (Los Angeles Times)—took to email to break down the news and answer a few of the most pressing questions.
ARCHITECT: Judging from the early response, no one is especially pleased with MoMA's decision to raze the former American Folk Art Museum building. Let's bracket that for a moment—since its fate is something that we've had almost a year to process, even if no one knew for certain what would happen until Wednesday evening. What's your immediate reaction to DS+R's concept for the expansion?
Mark Lamster: I feel like we're losing the building to help solve the traffic problem that MoMA in some large measure self-inflicted with its ill-conceived Yoshio Taniguchi design, and that even with all this expansion the place will still be over-crowded. Just look at the math. The Met is overcrowded now, and it has about five times the space per visitor MoMA will have after all this work is done. And in the meantime we suffer through construction and lose a valuable building. It says a lot about MoMA that they would actually call something the "Art Bay." And that space does look like some kind of loading dock. That's sad.
Alexandra Lange: The only truly positive aspect of the new plan is on 54th Street, well away from the location of the Folk Art Museum: a wide, transparent, public entrance to the sculpture garden. The long gray fence along 54th Street was an obvious error in the Taniguchi design, one the museum chipped away at with free coffee hours and ice cream. It is great that the garden will be seen and used—though I wonder if it will become a landscaped holding pen for museum lines. I agree with Mark, what we see in these renderings and plans doesn't seem to "solve" anything, just create more of the same, aesthetically and perhaps functionally.
ARCHITECT: But it seems to me that DS+R and MoMA seem to believe they are solving for several problems. Opening up so much of the museum for performances, for example. The Art Bay (the glass garage door feature) seems to anticipate more Marina Abramovic, more Tilda Swinton, more Jay-Z, which leads me to think that MoMA is investing an awful lot in the right now. Surely the corporate climate that surrounds performance art today (which is in no small part MoMA's fault) will change the nature of what young artists want to make as contemporary art going forward. But anyway, that's a digression. You make a great point about the fate of the sculpture garden. RIP.
What about the look and feel of the new museum structures? How do you think this stacks up to other DS+R museum projects: the Broad, the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in Boston? It is very convenient that two of you are living in cities with DS+R museums for comparison's sake.
Lange: I don't think we've even begun to see what DS+R has up their sleeve for this project. Lowry mentioned "a large new architecturally significant staircase" in the closed-door session that Jerry Saltz attended (I was not invited). Will there be a drop-down viewing space, as at the High Line and the ICA and Lincoln Center? A wedge of stairs for seating for those performances, as at the High Line and the ICA and Lincoln Center? It would be nice to see a new, textured vocabulary developing for this project, but that's not in the current renderings. It's odd to me that MoMA would have picked redo architects whose palette seems so similar to Taniguchi's—and people had always found the new interiors chilly. Performance, participation, engagement, all the buzzwords are in Lowry's official statement. But I don't think we have enough to look at to evaluate what that means spatially. Except more big boxes.
Lamster: I think the appropriate DS+R comparison is Lincoln Center, another New York City agglomeration with Philip Johnson as a prime mover. There was a good deal of "creative destruction" there, too—the needless eradication of the Kiley garden being the most egregious move—much of it in the service of circulation.
MoMA has built and destroyed so much of itself. If you look at the property they've owned on that block, and how it's been treated, you can't help but come away with a feeling of lost opportunity. We're now looking at an institution wedged into and around skyscraper development projects it might have controlled.
Lange: If the point here is to solve MoMA as a visitor experience, which is how the museum is selling this next phase, along with a lot of buzzwords ("participatory," "interactive," etc.), I am not sure architecture is the solution. Or it is only part of a solution. What's wrong with the lobby is line management, and their approach to ticketing, and people in groups and with kids and with bags. The architectural reading of who comes to MoMA and for how long has become wrong, and I would hope that what's really happening behind the scenes is some deep thinking about people rather than buildings and art bays.
Christopher Hawthorne: The short version of my take, which went up on the Los Angeles Times website today, is that DS+R should have resigned from the job once it became clear there was no way—politically or practically—to save the Folk Art building. Architects don't say "no" nearly often enough—sometimes I think it's just not in their DNA. Doing so in this case would have sent a powerful message—about preservation, the importance of architecture and support for one's colleagues.
Lamster: I just feel like this whole "we tried so hard to save it" defense is disingenuous. You either save it or you don't save it. There is no try. They expanded the brief they were given in several directions, and if there was a real desire to save the building, it would have been saved. It's a failure of imagination. But we shouldn't sit here chiefly blaming DS+R. This is the client's fault. This is MoMA, Inc., at work. Don't let's do what we always do, which is turn architects into the chief villains, obscuring the real culprits. They're just carrying the water, here.
Lange: I agree architects don't say "no" often enough. There was some tweeting last night [by LAT art critic Christopher Knight—ed.] about the irony of the architects of the new Barnes museum being upset that their building was going to be torn down. And the Barnes commission was definitely another time when architects could have said no ... if they didn't believe in the project. But in that case, as was probably the case here, the architects didn't agree with the critics. Architects often have a much more cavalier attitude toward preservation than writers and historians, because they do believe the next building (their building) can be better. I always thought the DS+R hiring was window-dressing for this result—and as we find out now, their brief was actually bigger, broader, different.