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Editorial> MoMA, Develop Don't Destroy
Julie V. Iovine considers the fate of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien's American Folk Art Museum.
American Folk Art Museum.
Dan Nguyen/Flickr

Every year, The Art Newspaper, the august art tabloid out of the U.K., publishes its data-crunching Exhibition & Museum Attendance Figures for museums around the world. And once again the Museum of Modern Art figured prominently in the top ten of multiple lists, including presenting three of the 20 most popular exhibitions for the year (the design show Talk to Me was in fact number 20) and standing at number three for total art museum attendance.

MoMA has long since proved its might in terms of establishing an agenda for art, and particularly architecture stretching from Philip Johnson’s groundbreaking International Style show of 1938 to Barry Bergdoll’s Rising Currents exhibition two years ago. And so it is paramount that MoMA use its considerable clout and weigh in decisively on the fate of the American Folk Art Museum (AFAM), now standing empty and engulfed on three sides by MoMA, the building itself to the east and property it owns and plans to develop with Gerald Hines on the west and north. MoMA, in fact, owns the AFAM building having bailed out the struggling institution last summer when it was forced to give up its flagship due to fiscal mismanagement and retreat to a second-floor gallery near Lincoln Center. It’s hard not to hear the licking of chops: Jean Nouvel’s supertall for the site currently works its way around and behind AFAM but it would surely make real estate sense to simply gulp it up.

AFAM, a small masterwork by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, two outstanding talents in contemporary architecture, is a delectable morsel—only 40 feet wide, its most remarkable feature is its facade of 63 cast panels of white bronze, a material common to propellers and fire hoses but never before used architecturally, textured like concrete, and faceted with subtle origami-like folds. In one stroke, the architecture tells the story of the institution’s key interests: material, craft and scale. On completion, it was awarded ARUP’s Best New Building in the World for 2001 and graced innumerable magazine covers around the world. It was the first new ground-up museum in New York in 30 years going back to Marcel Breuer’s Whitney; one might say AFAM breathed warm, sensual life into a poorly understood and too easily dismissed architectural voice, Brutalism.

Something has to be done to prevent the cannibalism of a small icon by an as yet to be built icon, if only to prove that contemporary architecture is not instantly disposable. In an impromptu conversation with a Hines vice president, I was told that the developer would as soon see the building erased from the site, but that Hines was waiting to hear from MoMA, noticeably silent on the subject. Tod Williams and Billie Tsien are also hanging fire. At a press conference for the new Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, Williams spoke with anguish and concern about the fate of AFAM. He knows that New York real estate is a take-no-prisoners game, but he is still hopeful, noting that one of the museum’s floors aligns perfectly with one of MoMA’s. Williams said he, too, has heard from no one at MoMA.

There are compelling reasons for MoMA to come up with a solution and a way to incorporate at least the AFAM façade into the new tower that will be conjoined to the museum only at a few interior levels. Several expansions of the museum have all included the original 1939 Goodwin and Stone facade. That may have been about preserving legacy, but saving AFAM could be on message, too. In its materials—apart from the white bronze, there is bush-hammered concrete, cast resin, and salvaged timber on the inside— it speaks to a modern interest in texture and fabrication that MoMA has left largely unexplored, and that could contribute to the museum’s professed commitment to a wider understanding of modernism.

Paul Goldberger has suggested online that MoMA turn AFAM into a home for its director, something like Saarinen’s house for the director of Cranbrook. Surely MoMA can do better (Besides, Glen Lowry is already comfortably ensconced in the Museum Tower). At a time when MoMA is talking the talk of responsible treatment of quality resources and of architecture’s ability to solve complex problems, it should act accordingly and find a way to incorporate not destroy AFAM.

Julie V. Iovine