MoMA reaffirms controversial plan to raze Folk Art building

Los Angeles Times Architecture Critic

The Museum of Modern Art, chasing new square footage less than a decade after its last major expansion opened to the public, has confirmed controversial plans to demolish the former home of the American Folk Art Museum, its neighbor on West 53rd Street in Manhattan.

After a six-month review of a proposed expansion led by the New York architecture firm Diller, Scofidio and Renfro, designers of a museum for Eli Broad that will open later this year on Los Angeles’ Bunker Hill, MoMA announced Wednesday it has no practical choice but to raze the Folk Art structure.

MoMA acquired the empty six-story building in 2011, after the smaller museum defaulted on more than $30 million in bond debt and sought cheaper quarters near Lincoln Center.

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Simply put, the Folk Art building, designed by the New York architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien and much praised by architecture critics when it opened in 2001, is in the way.

MoMA is planning to occupy three floors of a new 82-story residential tower, built by the developer Hines and designed by Jean Nouvel, immediately west of the Folk Art Museum.


Diller, Scofidio and Renfro examined a number of options for saving the smaller museum, including hollowing out its interior and preserving only its folded façade of dark metal panels. But in the end MoMA decided that keeping even some of it would have made a smooth connection between its existing galleries and the new ones in the Nouvel tower impossible to achieve.

According to figures released Wednesday by the museum, the expansion will add roughly 40,000 square feet of new gallery space, an increase of about 30%.

DS+R will replace the Folk Art building with a new entrance to MoMA on 53rd Street it describes as the “Art Bay,” a flexible high-ceilinged space fronted by a retractable glass wall. The firm will also design the MoMA spaces inside the Hines tower and has proposed adding a direct connection to the museum’s sculpture garden from 54th Street.

Williams and Tsien reacted to Wednesday’s news by posting a wounded statement on its website. “We have learned of MoMA’s final decision to raze the former American Folk Art Museum building and replace it with a new structure,” it reads. “This action represents a missed opportunity to find new life and purpose for a building that is meaningful to so many.”

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The statement describes MoMA’s midtown neighborhood as one “that is at risk of becoming increasingly homogenized.”

The idea that a museum would acquire and then demolish an important piece of contemporary architecture is unfathomable to many artists and architects in New York. While I admire the building, I don’t think the Folk Art Museum is the masterpiece some of my colleagues believe it to be; its interior is mannered and overdesigned, its dark and contorted façade presenting a kind of barricade along the streetscape.

There is also the complicating factor that Williams and Tsien are the architects of the new Barnes Foundation building in Philadelphia. By choosing to take that commission they helped guarantee that the original Barnes, in suburban Merion, Pa., would be stripped of its art and reduced to a sad architectural shell. Having endorsed the desertion of that building, their complaints about the fate of the Folk Art Museum ring somewhat hollow.

None of that makes MoMA’s decision defensible. The museum complains that its existing galleries, expanded by the Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi in 2004 at a cost of nearly $500 million, are cramped. Attendance at the enlarged museum has nearly doubled over the last decade to roughly 3 million per year.

But adding 40,000 square feet of exhibition space is not going to make MoMA suddenly feel serene. The new rooms will quickly fill with tourists, just as the old ones did. The great irony of this plan, as with so many recent museum expansions, is that out of frustration with its packed galleries MoMA has decided to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to build more of the same.

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That the hallways leading to these crowded rooms will be wider and easier to navigate if the Folk Art building is out of the way will be cold comfort to fans of art and contemporary architecture.

In fact, the idea that endlessly enlarging museum buildings will provide a better experience for visitors is almost never borne out by the architectural gigantism that results. On the contrary, the most powerful encounters we have with works of art tend to take place in the smallest and most intimate -- and even the most eccentric or impractical -- works of museum architecture.

Efficiency and endless expansion are catnip to museum boards; they are often fatal to museum architecture.

The sketchy plans released Wednesday show DS+R working at its most abstract and over-scaled, not to mention extending rather than offering an alternative to the sleek minimalism of the Taniguchi galleries. The hangar-like Art Bay, a hastily made collage of trendy museum-world pieties about transparency and accessibility, may look dated the day it opens, which according to MoMA may be as early as 2018.

MoMA appears to believe it is impervious to criticism -- or at least that fallout of the kind it is now facing won’t seriously damage its standing as a cultural institution in New York. Based on the early reaction from art and architecture critics and architects in New York and elsewhere, it may have seriously miscalculated.

The museum, already known for the corporate leadership style of its director, Glenn Lowry, and the connections of its board to the real estate industry, is in danger of permanently scarring its reputation.

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And so, it must be said, are the architects of DS+R. Imagine what it would have meant if they had announced Wednesday that – having failed to come up with a workable way to save the Folk Art building – they were resigning from the project, leaving MoMA to find another firm to take on the task of smoothing over the hole left by the destruction of the Folk Art building.

Of course the museum could have found a talented replacement. Architects -- by temperament as much as profession -- seem always to feel that they can redeem a commission, no matter how dubious or ethically fraught.

But cutting ties would have made a powerful statement that architects can be more than the handmaidens of an ethos that says growth is always good -- is a kind of oxygen, necessary for survival -- for museums as well as for corporations.

Elizabeth Diller and her partners are likely betting that eventually, if this expansion is built, the controversy will fade and they’ll be better known for remaking MoMA, a plum commission, than for aiding the demolition of an important building designed by two of their close colleagues.

Maybe they’ll turn out to be right. But it’s an awfully cynical wager for any architect to make.


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