Should the former home of the American Folk Art Museum, completed in 2001 to a design by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, be saved? Of course. Is that an automatic statement, as seems to be the tendency you can detect in the many blogs, tweets, statements, and petitions that have preceded this? No. I have long been a believer that buildings that have outlived their usefulness should not necessarily be torn down, but should be reused and altered as necessary. The fetishism of preserving every and any thing that has been built results as often as not in preserving mediocrity: You have only to look at the general lack of quality of the structures that make up the Upper East Side's so-called historic district for proof. What is more important to me is that tearing anything down is a waste of resources that should be seriously called into question; moreover, if something is of great value because of its design, we should preserve it.
The latter is not in doubt in this case. The former American Folk Art Museum is a stunning design, both in the way its façade abstracts and inflects the traditional brownstone row house, and in the intricacy of its interior spaces. Both achievements, however, also buttress an argument for tearing the building down. The façade is, truth be told, now somewhat forlorn, more than forbidding, as it attempts to state the importance of an institution that is no longer there. Its large form and slashing gesture made sense when it served to lead you into a museum asserting not only its presence, but also the continuity of a material-based craft tradition. Similarly, the interior worked superbly to make the most of a tiny site and to blend circulation and display space into an intricate puzzle of frames and viewing platforms in which you could view the Folk Art Museum’s collections.
Now the Museum of Modern Art owns the building, along with most of the block on which it sits, and seeks to expand into it –or rather, to use it as part of the base for a new residential tower, designed by Jean Nouvel, whose lower portion will allow it to continue to spread its art and offices through Midtown. I do not doubt that MoMA needs more room, nor do I disbelieve its argument that the Folk Art Museum’s former spaces do not fit most of its art or many of its other needs.
Yet I find it hard to believe that an institution as large as MoMA, the Mothership of Modernism in all its variety, cannot find good uses for this space. Not all of MoMA’s art is large, and not all of its buildings need to be taken up by the kind of large-scale public programs that have become the norm for more and more art museums. There must be room for intricate and intimate spaces to view certain kinds of art, or to gather in smaller settings.
Some find the former Folk Art Museum ugly and its spaces unpleasant. I cannot argue with them. I also cannot argue that the building was not built for or is the most efficient structure to house MoMA’s functions. What I can say is that this dark crystal of nested frames could once again serve to cherish, contain, display, and involve us with some form of art, and that it would be a crying shame to lose a design of such beauty.