I have come to realize that this medium is not the best place for nuanced opinions—it seems that screaming works better on screen, for some reason—but I am afraid I have to offer some “yes, but” or “yes, and” thoughts on the Museum of Modern Art’s proposed expansion, which was announced last week.
The biggest issue is whether the American Folk Art Museum building, designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, could and should be saved. Of course it should: It is a magnificent design. It was encouraging that the institution took a step back a few months ago from its plans to demolish the structure forthwith and let Diller Scofidio + Renfro look at the whole project while leaving the reuse of the building as a possibility. These architects have now done their job, and have come to the conclusion that saving the Folk Art Museum building is not possible.
Given the organizational diagram MoMA has released, I can understand why. Removing the Folk Art Museum building from the equation lets Diller Scofidio + Renfro neatly extend MoMA’s existing gallery floors. Because of the core of the massive tower that will rise over the site (which will pay for much of the new museum space), those new galleries will, as far as I can tell, remain dead-ends. MoMA will also gain an “art bay,” an expansion of the old “project room” in which the institution let artists create room-size installations. Finally, Diller Scofidio + Renfro are creating a new entrance on 53rd Street that will link up with the existing north-south free-to-the-public corridor that is one of the best things of Yoshio Taniguchi’s otherwise lamentable expansion of only a decade ago. What this will all look like, we do not know yet, though of course the architects’ previous work might give us a sense of what to expect. It seems like a logical design and I am sure the architects will make it beautiful and even remarkable.
It seems clear to me that the only way the Folk Art Museum might have survived was indeed as a relic. The amount of ramps you would have to build around it to line its floors up to those of the MoMA’s galleries would eat up all the expansion space that remained. The only alternative would have been to rip out the existing floors of the Folk Art Museum to align them, but then you would have destroyed the design. Even if you chose the first option, you could only show a limited amount of work within Williams and Tsien’s 3D puzzle of a building. If you left it with its own entrance, it would be divorced from the rest of the institution—a true relic.
Given the logic of MoMA’s expansion, there is no question that it makes sense to tear down the Folk Art Museum. That takes the question to the institutional level. MoMA wants to be the best modern art museum in the world, and "better" in the museum world almost always means bigger. The museum is hemmed into the middle of a block in Manhattan. Unless it decides to dig into bedrock, build a skyscraper, or create satellites, it must keep marching down the block wherever and however it can. Should it do so? Will we benefit from a bigger MoMA? That is a case I have not yet heard the institution make in a clear manner. It seems to me that MoMA might want to first solve the horrible circulation mess with which Taniguchi left them, and perhaps consider options that will avoid making this museum, with its incomparable treasures and its often wonderful exhibitions, into an ever bigger and less enjoyable box for mass entertainment.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.