Demolition of the American Folk Art Museum

As demolition of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien's American Folk Art Museum building gets underway in New York City, The Architect's Newspaper Executive Editor Alan G. Brake explores the controversy ignited by this decision, and what it says about the public's appreciation for architecture.

: image by Giles Ashford; courtesy Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects
The American Folk Art Museum building
The American Folk Art Museum building
The American Folk Art Museum building
The American Folk Art Museum building
The American Folk Art Museum building
The American Folk Art Museum building

The decision by the Museum of Modern Art to demolish the former home of the American Folk Art Museum, which was designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien and opened to acclaim in 2001, has ignited protest and debate in the architecture community in New York and beyond. The reasons for the controversy are varied and complex: for some, it springs from an attachment to Williams and Tsien’s building; for others, from an antipathy toward the continued growth and corporatization of MoMA; and for still others, from a fear of the homogenization of New York. Some regard it as a David versus Goliath fight and/or an elite versus the street argument, while others see the values of a more universal, globalized culture destroying the local and handmade. Rarely has a vacated museum on the site the size of a townhouse been the locus of such intense controversy.

All controversy aside, the debate underscores architecture’s capacity to carry complex cultural significance. It also underscores how the priorities of the architectural community do not necessarily align with those of the public, or even those in the larger cultural sector. Devotion to Williams and Tsien’s building may be largely confined to the architecture community. Many art critics greeted news of the building’s demise with pleasure, claiming that the tiny building (at least by the standards of midtown Manhattan) was always a poor environment in which to view art. As an architecture editor and critic and frequent museum visitor, I disagreed. I routinely went the museum for its unique combination of architecture and art, and saw many successful exhibitions there, including Adolf Wolfli and Martin Ramirez. (The museum’s near blockbuster exhibition on Henry Darger was less successful, given the atypical scale of the works in the tight confines of Williams and Tsien’s galleries.) I have not continued my visits since the Folk Art museum retreated to a non-descript space near Lincoln Center. Yes, Williams and Tsien’s museum could be challenging. It was never recessive — visitors were always aware of its spatial complexity, richly textured materials, and deft, sometimes moody, use of light — but it was above all an architectural experience. It operated materially and spatially to affect the mind and the body’s senses of touch, smell, and sound. The building’s much-photographed folded bronze facade — brooding in shadows and inviting to the hand—picked up on the materiality of Saarinen’s "Black Rock" CBS building across the street. It also provided a human scale to 53rd Street.

Visiting MoMA, following its hugely expensive last expansion by Yoshio Taniguchi, is an experience, though not a particularly pleasant one, architecturally. Its collection and exhibition program are among the finest in the world, but they are harder and harder to experience directly, given the overwhelming crowds (approximately 4 million annually), confusing circulation, and the placeless quality of the spaces. Taniguchi reportedly said he wanted to make the architecture disappear — in theory to make the art come to the fore — and he arguably did make the architecture disappear, but to unintended effect. Aside from the preserved Philip Johnson sculpture garden, there is little in the museum’s architecture to suggest either the dignity of a first-rate museum or the ideals of the institution’s founding and ongoing mission. MoMA's current incarnation has been called soulless by many, and Taniguchi’s blank gigantism only serves to reinforce this view.

Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R) argue their further expansion will address many of these shortcomings, and that to do so, it was necessary to sacrifice Williams and Tsien’s highly-wrought building. These assertions have been met with broad skepticism in the architectural community. The roll-out of the demolition and expansion plan — actually the third such roll-out — has been a public relations calamity for MoMA. 

The museum, or its director Glenn Lowry, however, does not appear to care in the least. At a gathering of more than 600 people sponsored by the Architectural League of New York, the AIA New York City Chapter, and the Municipal Art Society, Lowry sat through hours of questioning and heated debate about the plan, the merits of Williams and Tsien building, and possible alternatives to DS+R’s assertions, only to pronounce, in his concluding remarks, “Our decision has been made.” The building’s destruction was a fait accompli. The public hearing was revealed to be a wake.

The destruction of the American Folk Art building — a structure which was no doubt a major step in Williams and Tsien’s assent to the highest ranks of American architects — resonates with so many in the architecture community because it underscores how little appreciated architecture is by the public, and how even enlightened institutions see buildings as disposable when other assets would never be treated as such (MoMA certainly would not bulldoze a seminal Richard Serra sculpture or put a wrecking ball through a stack of Pollocks). The case for preserving modern architecture has always difficult to make to the public, and recently, major works have fallen or hang in the balance. Northwestern University recently demolished the structurally innovative and formally daring former Prentice Women’s Hospital, designed by Bertrand Goldberg, whose career had just been celebrated with a retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago. Frank Gehry and Jeanne Gang had pleaded to save the building. So had the Chicago Tribune and The New York Times. No matter. The future Houston’s soaring Astrodome is in doubt since local voters failed to fund a conversion plan. John Johansen’s Mummer’s Theater in Oklahoma City, a complex assemblage of volumes and colors is also going to meet its end.

The newness of the Folk Art building is even more troubling. The building was built too recently to fall under New York City’s landmarks law, giving preservation advocates few legal options to challenge MoMA’s plan. The basic question remains: How can a state-of-the-art, purpose-built museum, less than 13 years old, designed by renowned architects, not be repurposed by an adjacent museum? Of course it could have been. It could have been used as a project space or a library, ideally, or at least as administrative or educational space. MoMA, as DS+R told it, merely saw the building as a kink in the circulation plan of their larger “campus.” Kinks, apparently, must be smoothed over. Lowry has said the building will be completely demolished by June.

When it the American Folk Art Museum opened in 2001, it was the first major piece of architecture to be built in New York following the destruction of the World Trade Center. It was a small but powerful signal that New York could realize significant works of architecture, and it ushered in a new period where leading architects from around the world began building in the city (with mixed results). Architects and many New Yorkers rightly embraced it. The leaders of its institutional neighbor apparently never shared that affection.

In a move designed to pacify its critics, MoMA announced that when the Folk Art building comes down, its distinctive mottled bronze facade will be disassembled and stored for an as yet undetermined future use. Perhaps this will satisfy some critics. I doubt it. Architectural fragments often do more to remind us of our mistakes, of our cultural shortsightedness, than they do to to retain the best essence of the art of building. The bronze panels may come to symbolize a mar on MoMA's history, a footnote in the long story of urban erasure.

Alan G. Brake is executive editor at The Architect’s Newspaper.

This article is expanded content for Texas Architect, May/June 2014.

by: Alan G. Brake

Talk About It

About 3 years ago: Jose Oubrerie

I have already made known my disgust to the MOMA (we are members)
The most surprising is that Liz Diller, Scofidio and R are accepting to do that. Whatever you think of the Museum of Todd Williams and Billie Tsien, its destruction will have another effect in encouraging developers everywhere in similar situation to not hesitate anymore. It is also curious that MOMA, supposed to promote, protect and show contemporary Art does not include Architecture in this category. The MoMA has been already disfigured 2 times, by Cesar Pelli and then Tanigushi, who has not been able to make again fully visible Ed Stone building, this was the first disdain of Architecture ..."lets keep the facade..." now even the facades will probably be gone.....

About 3 years ago: Anonymous

I'm less worried about how the public views architecture than I am about how moma views architecture, clearly moma doesn't really understand the art in architecture

About 3 years ago: kjh

the folk art building never fit in with the surrounding neighbors. nice, but the design did a big pppfffttt to the adjacent buildings. hopefully the new building will look like it belongs.

About 3 years ago: Jonathan Brown

It's a shame we live in such a financially rich society that is so culturally bankrupt that tearing down relatively new buildings of high design long before they could attempt to fulfill their usefullness could ever make sense.