Elizabeth Diller defends MoMA plan to demolish Folk Art building

Times Architecture Critic

Last week the Museum of Modern Art confirmed plans -- as it expands to the west along 53rd Street in Manhattan -- to demolish the former home of the American Folk Art Museum, a much-praised 13-year old building by New York architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.

MoMA and its director, Glenn D. Lowry, have since been roundly criticized in the press. So has the architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, which both helped MoMA evaluate the fate of the Folk Art building and is designing the expansion.

On Wednesday afternoon I spoke by phone with Elizabeth Diller, one of the firm’s founders. We discussed the almost uniformly negative reaction to the announcement as well as the details of DS+R’s proposal for MoMA, which is still in an early design phase. What follows is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.


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Christopher Hawthorne: Have you been surprised by the intensity of the critical reaction so far?

Elizabeth Diller: Yeah, I have. We fully expected that this was going to be hard. But it was hard going through the work, it was hard announcing the news and it’s been hard reading people’s reactions to the news. On the one hand I think that it’s a good sign that the architecture community is being cautious about the loss of buildings. We would be on the same side if we didn’t know all the details that we know. On the other hand, I think that the press has been too fast to reduce the conversation to heroes and villains and martyrs, and to suggest that what MoMA is doing is necessarily bad. We want to get more information out. We want to share the problem with others and invite them to really take a hard look.

What about the notion that you have a conflict of interest here? That you acted as judge and executioner in helping MoMA weigh the future of the Folk Art building and also proposed the replacement for it?

I just can’t see it that way. When we stepped into this, we stepped into harm’s way, in a sense, to take this on. And we only agreed to take the commission if we were able to really work hard on this question [of the Folk Art building’s fate] and figure out what was possible. MoMA gave us their word that if we had come to a decision to save the building and renovate -- even if it were more expensive -- they would accept our decision. That was the pact, basically, for our involvement. We weren’t hired just to do one discrete thing, to make a judgment about what to do with the Folk Art building. We were hired to help MoMA with an expansion. And when we opened it up to a bigger scope, looking at how to make the museum work better, the project became much more complex, quite frankly. So I don’t know how to answer that question. We tried very hard to make it work, to use the [Folk Art] space, to make the circulation work, to make the logistics work. And when that became so difficult -- when it passed the threshold of losing its identity -- we proposed a different approach.

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A few architects – Thom Mayne, for one – say they see some of their built work as ephemeral. Is that a view you share? Would you protest, say, plans to knock down your ICA museum in Boston five or ten years from now?

Obviously this is a really, really difficult question for any architect. If the ICA were to be abandoned – or if it were going to be used for a different purpose, a different set of needs, and the museum as we designed it was totally out of sync and impossible to transform, then I would assume [demolition] is possible. When we make things, we can’t control the way they’re used. We design, we choreograph, we imagine how the public will use it -- and then things change. You do the best you can in the present -- and in the near future that you can imagine. You try to future-proof the design. And if you design something in an idiosyncratic way, so that there’s no other way to use it, you’ve made yourself vulnerable.

We don’t monumentalize our projects. We don’t imagine that we are building for history. We imagine that we’re building for the occupants. We try to make buildings last long and be resilient, but also be not so idiosyncratic that they can’t change. I think the reason this [Folk Art] building was very difficult to transform into something else was its degree of idiosyncrasy. If we were to eliminate a lot of those idiosyncrasies, we could use it. But at a certain point it takes on another identity. The very people who are so emotional about the loss would be seeing a very, very compromised building, just to make it work.

What about the idea that many of the most successful or memorable museum buildings are deeply idiosyncratic, regardless of era or formal approach? I’m thinking of museums as different as the Isabella Stewart Gardner in Boston and a building you know well, the 1971 UC Berkeley art museum by Mario Ciampi.

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I totally agree with you. Those are great museums and they work really well. Except for the seismic issues, the Ciampi building could have continued to work. I love that building. Personally when we have a chance to do a museum -- because we’ve been on the art side of the wall for the first half of our career -- we have a belief that the exhibition space ought to be rewritable. That’s the part that shouldn’t be idiosyncratic. That’s a personal view. I don’t want to cast judgment on others. But art changes and needs change. And we feel that you should try to make space that -- without being neutral or reductive -- gives artists and curators a chance to try different kinds of things. There are plenty of other places in a museum to be expressive or idiosyncratic as architects. Galleries are really not the place to do that.

In terms of future-proofing, following on what you just said, to a certain extent your MoMA design, especially the big, stacked rooms planned for the site of the Folk Art building, bets on a shift in programming or even mission at MoMA toward new uses of exhibition space, especially for performance. I think many of us hear that and imagine, as a kind of worst-case scenario, Jay-Z and Jerry Saltz dancing through a music-video shoot. There’s a concern that big, flexible, transparent spaces like that could become quickly dated and maybe aren’t future-proofed. What do you make of that suggestion?

We’re not immune to the criticism. We’ve been listening to it. This is an ongoing project. But our sense is that it would be great for MoMA to have a flexible space that could be opened up to the street and have exhibitions. Certainly not paintings on a wall, but installations as well as performance, lectures, different kinds of events. There’s a way to subdivide that space vertically too, and there’s another space above -- we call it a gray box. These are spaces where MoMA can try things it hasn’t done before. Let’s say there’s a performance that isn’t big enough to go into the atrium, that’s workshopping something or a smaller scale. Here’s a space, after the pragmatics are done, after the bridging [to the existing museum] is done, that will allow us to have some interface with the street and do something that’s alternative. It’s something that has to be thought hard about. The aesthetics of that are not set.

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Final question: All things being equal, would you have liked more time to work on this scheme before it went public in this way?

We will have more time. Hopefully we can stay on track with clarifying the vision, working together with the curators, and we’ll have a lot of time to develop the scheme. Should we have published these images? I don’t know. They’re intended to be sketches about what could be. The takeaway from the sketches is connectivity to the street. It’s something that’s really important to us. It’s something we talked about right from the beginning, on our first interview day with MoMA: that the art now is half a mile away from the entrance. MoMA could have a better civic presence generally, and the entrance on 53rd Street could be more generous, be a double-height space. There are a number of gestures that make the entrance more inviting and more announced and also give options and possibilities for getting art into these spaces. The lobby, when it becomes more efficient and more cleaned up, there could be great options for showing art there. In many ways it reminds me of our work on Lincoln Center: We started with one part of the project, and then it became clear that when you touch it over there you are affecting it elsewhere. And I think this one too started with a smaller scope. Then we had the critiques, and MoMA said, ‘OK, well if you have a better idea, put it forth, put it on the table.’ And so we put on the table some ideas about the lobby space, and they were receptive.

There’s a lot of work to be done. It’s not finished. What we’re doing is sharing a progress report. The only thing that was tied to a six-month time frame was the fate of the Folk Art building. So there were a couple of publishable images related to that last week. But we’re working on a lot more.


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