Concept sketch for MoMA. View from 53rd Street.
Diller Scofidio + Renfro Concept sketch for MoMA. View from 53rd Street.

New York-based Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R) stepped into the sumo ring this afternoon, releasing a schematic plan for the expansion of the Museum of Modern Art's (MoMA) campus in Midtown New York—a hotly contested issue since MoMA announced but then backed off plans to tear down the beloved American Folk Art Museum.

MoMA acquired the building, which was built just 13 years ago and designed by local firm Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, following the financial failure of the Folk Art Museum. MoMA is in negotiations with Houston-based real-estate firm Hines to occupy the first several floors of a high-rise residential tower slated to be built to the west of the Folk Art Museum building and to be designed by Paris-based architect Jean Nouvel, Hon. FAIA. In a much-criticized move, MoMA announced in April of last year that, after several studies, the museum had decided to demolish the Folk Art Museum structure, citing unaligned floorplates, a different aesthetic, and a nonaligned setback.

The normally fragmented architecture community cried foul, and critics in no-uncertain terms called the decision unnecessary, wrong, and even philistine. A #FolkMoMA campaign even emerged on Twitter and Tumblr in protest. The proposal would demolish a piece of architecture that the museum was mandated morally to protect. One critic wondered whether it wouldn’t be a better idea to demolish the addition by Yoshio Taniguchi, Hon. FAIA, itself, which has indeed proven to be the Japanese department store so many feared.

Following their success in altering and expanding the Lincoln Center campus, DS+R came to the MoMA commission in May of last year—a commission fraught with issues. The architects proved themselves to be consummate architectural diplomats, not only in dealing with a self-protective board but in dealing with the museum’s architectural legacy—each building is designed by the best and brightest of their time. DS+R’s proposal adds and subtracts with an intervention that modifies, refreshes, and greatly improves the stiff campus.

Concept sketch for MoMA. View of the Sculpture Garden entrance on 54th Street.
Diller Scofidio + Renfro Concept sketch for MoMA. View of the Sculpture Garden entrance on 54th Street.

In a press conference on Wednesday at the DS+R offices, MoMA director Glenn Lowry introduced the architects. Elizabeth Diller gave a presentation that takes the same approach as at the Lincoln Center, using the term “surgical” to describe a series of modifications to the whole MoMA campus, implying that all of the interventions are local and focused rather than generic and sweeping. The press conference preceded a board meeting in which trustees will vote on the proposal. Diller started the presentation by saying that the overall goal was to bring art to the street—making the museum more transparent, breaking down departmental barriers for more interdisciplinary shows, and reviewing the function of the entire museum as it adds roughly 30 percent more gallery space for permanent and temporary exhibitions.

She then dove straight into the heart of the controversy regarding the Folk Art Museum—a sliver of a building that would be surrounded by the expanded footprint along 53rd and 54th Street between 5th and 6th Avenue after the construction of Nouvel's Tower Verre. Diller explained that she had great respect for the Folk Art Museum, calling it a “bespoke” design tailored to the needs of the museum. She went through several scenarios on how to integrate the museum in the expanded footprint. The fundamental problem in keeping the museum is that it forms a north-south wall blocking east-west circulation between the existing MoMA to the east and the expanded MoMA to the west. The existing service core for the tower adds to the obstruction.

Michael Moran
Peter Mauss

Diller presented three scenarios. The first would be accessed along the north 54th Street wall, but that would clearly create a bottleneck in a museum that expects to have three million visitors per year. The second and third scenarios created a loop for circulation along 54th Street, with the front part of the loop bridging through the existing Folk Art Museum building. The loop solves the circulation issue of bringing throngs of people to and through the new galleries and the Tower Verre.

Adapting the Folk Art Museum building, however, would basically compromise the building’s interior beyond recognition. A pall settled over the room as if the death of a family member had been announced. The architects would have had to destroy the Folk Art Museum building in order to save it.

Concept sketch for The Museum of Modern Art. View of the lobby, looking west.
Diller Scofidio + Renfro Concept sketch for The Museum of Modern Art. View of the lobby, looking west.

Diller then proceeded to her proposal to reconfigure the first several floors of the expanded MoMA in order to consolidate the new addition with existing structures. In the space of the Folk Art Museum, Diller proposed a cavernous “art garage”—to be called the Art Bay—open to the street with a liftable glass facade to allow visitors admission. The floor could elevate, creating seating facing a stage to an auditorium that would also open to the street (with free admission). She also proposed an east-west axis that would cross the existing ticket lobby and would stretch through the garden, which would be open off the axis and also off the street (again, free to the public).

At various points, Diller proposed removing existing floor space to expand the ground floor lobby in order to make it more inviting. The architect proposed glazing the front floor of the Taniguchi addition on 53rd Street, in a move that makes the entrance more prominent and inviting. DS+R means to appropriate the existing structure, in essence, with a transformative gesture that includes a diagonal canopy.

The dilemma for New York is a Sophie’s choice: whether to resist the demolition of an acknowledged masterwork, or to accept a proposal that aspires to be a masterwork itself— at least in terms of scope. 

Concept design for MoMA. Axonometric plan.
Diller Scofidio + Renfro Concept design for MoMA. Axonometric plan.

This post originally misstated the location for the press conference. It has been updated.