Robb Ogle

The announcement that the Museum of Modern Art is expanding into the space occupied by the former American Folk Art Museum for the last 13 years led to an outpouring of responses via Twitter. Art and architecture critics weighed in on Wednesday evening—many of them having just witnessed a three-hour presentation from architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro on the expansion plans.

The reception has been chilly. To a one, critics who penned news stories are not pleased.

Justin Davidson of New York is not impressed:

The architects who are designing this destructive expansion — Diller Scofidio + Renfro — understand perfectly what they’re doing, and it causes them genuine grief. They tried all sorts of contortions to fit the quirky little thing into the juggernaut that is MoMA, and I accept their claim that if they couldn’t do it, nobody could. The connective tissue between one structure and the next would have created disfiguring scars, the mechanical apparatus on top would have occluded the lovely skylights, and the idiosyncratic staircase would have to have been amputated in any case. By the time the architects were done tinkering with their old friends’ creation, it would have been so bastardized that there was little point in keeping the remains. In an architectural version of the battlefield paradox, DS+R would have had to destroy the building in order to save it.

But that hesitancy shows in the provisional design for the next phase. The client is bent on art-world domination; the architects seem halfhearted.

Note that Davidson has not been impressed for some time. His take from last April reads as if it could have been penned this week.

If a commercial developer were to tear down a small, idiosyncratic, and beautifully wrought museum in order to put up a deluxe glass box, it would be attacked as a venal and philistine act. When a fellow museum does the same thing, it’s even worse — it’s a form of betrayal.


[I]f the museum’s architects can’t figure out a way to use Williams and Tsien’s ingenious stack of rooms, that is a failure of imagination. The Folk Art Museum’s floors don’t line up with MoMA’s, a tricky problem that, handled creatively, could yield a distinctive museum-within-a-museum. To see how, MoMA’s trustees might drop by the Met, which in 1980 enfolded another freestanding structure built to exhibit decorative arts. The result is the American Wing.

MoMA has a distinguished architecture-and-design department whose curator, Barry Bergdoll, has remained silent about all this. His galleries bristle with impractical, visionary works, yet the museum seems intent on containing that kind of individuality under glass. In the painting and sculpture galleries, visitors pass from one radical movement to another, all in an atmosphere of overbearing minimalism. To MoMA, absorbing rather than tossing the Folk Art Museum would be like furnishing a pristine modernist house with an overstuffed floral couch. Its aesthetes can’t bear the incongruity.

(In fact, this ARCHITECT writer initially attributed that excerpt as a reaction story. Apologies for that.)

Paul Goldberger of Vanity Fair is not impressed.

The idea that a building of this quality would be torn down, and that the agent of its destruction would be another cultural institution, is not easy to fathom. I’ll concede that I didn’t believe it would actually happen—proof, I suppose, that even after a lifetime of writing about architecture in New York I have not lost all shreds of innocence.


When MoMA hired Elizabeth Diller, Ric Scofidio, and Charles Renfro last year, in response to the storm of criticism that arose when it first became known that the expansion might mean tearing down the folk-art museum, the architects asked for six months to examine and evaluate every aspect of the museum’s building program, including the future of the Williams and Tsien building. I don’t doubt that they approached this assignment with an open mind and explored a range of options before reaching their conclusion that the folk-art museum had to go.


So why not let the matter go? Not every preservation battle is won, and the museum and its architects have produced a long list of rational reasons why they don’t feel that saving this particular building is practical. But as art isn’t always a rational matter, sometimes architecture isn’t, either. The brooding, somber façade of the folk-art museum, made of folded planes of hammered bronze, combines monumental dignity with the image of delicate handcrafting, and it is a majestic, if physically small, architectural achievement. A city that allows such a work to disappear after barely a dozen years is a city with a flawed architectural heart. A large cultural institution that cannot find a suitable use for such a building is an institution with a flawed architectural imagination.

Jerry Saltz of New York is not impressed.

The word art barely came up. Maybe that's why midway through this excruciatingly verbose three-hour closed-door briefing about MoMA’s second major rebuilding in less than ten years, I felt my eyes tear up and my stomach turn. . . . Meanwhile, the namesakes of the starchitecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, joined by MoMA director Glenn Lowry, whirred on about accessibility, flow, institutional interfacing with the city, connectivity, navigational legibility, surgical interventions, gestures of variation on the white cube and the black box (don't ask), social and performative space, micro-galleries, auto-critique, and "a large new architecturally significant staircase." The more I heard and saw, the sicker and sadder I got. Somewhere inside me, I heard myself saying my good-byes to MoMA. I thought, I have seen the best modern museum of my generation destroyed by madness.

[More critical responses to come as they go up.]

And finally, Twitter was not impressed.