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Making Way for The Modern
MoMA and DS+R to rework visitor experience, demolish Folk Art Building.
Concept sketch for MoMA's Sculpture Garden entrance on 54th Street.
Courtesy Diller Scofidio + Renfro

The American Folk Art Museum building on West 53rd Street will fall. As part of a broader reworking of the visitor experience at MoMA, led by Diller, Scofidio + Renfro, the museum will create a new multi-use spaces on the site, rework the lobby and ticketing experience, and build new galleries in a Jean Nouvel–designed tower that is being developed by Hines. The Modern’s board is expected to approve the new strategy in a meeting today.

As a condition of accepting the commission from MoMA, Diller, Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R) requested that it be able to rethink MoMA’s previous decision to demolish the American Folk Art Museum building, designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. “We approached the Folk Art building as an adaptive reuse project, but after intensive study it became clear that the building could not be adapted without compromising its integrity,” said Liz Diller, during a presentation to the press. The architects cited the alignment of the Folk Art building’s floor plates with MoMA’s galleries and circulation problems throughout MoMA’s existing and planned galleries as ultimately insurmountable challenges to preserving Williams and Tsien’s building. “We made a critical decision to take on the project believing we could save the building,” said Diller. “It’s a bespoke building designed for Folk Art. It’s very contrary in a way. Adaptive reuse became too much for the building to bear.”

Concept sketch of The Museum of Modern Art, View from 53rd Street.

Diller acknowledged the potential for controversy with the plan. “The architectural community was hoping the outcome would be different,” she said. In a statement, Williams and Tsien wrote, “This action represents a missed opportunity to find new life and purpose for a building that is meaningful to so many.”

Beyond the fate of the Folk Art Museum building, DS+R’s scope of work includes a broad rethinking of the museum’s urban presence and interaction with the public. On the Folk Art site, the firm plans to build a street-level “Art Bay,” an on-grade, multi-use space that opens directly to the street via a giant movable glass wall. The space will also include a moveable floor that can be raised to reveal bleacher seating at street level extending below grade, which could be used for performances, screenings, and events. Above the Art Bay, the architects are planning a “Grey Box,” combining the technical and programmatic capabilities of a white box gallery and a black box theater.

Concept sketch of the lobby, looking west.

DS+R is also planning to open up the lobby from 53rd to 54th streets from a single height to a double height on the 53rd Street side, including a peekaboo view into the massive Taniguchi atrium above. The firm is also creating a new east/west corridor perpendicular to the Taniguchi lobby, connecting all the buildings on the MoMA “campus” on 53rd Street.

DS+R’s plan addresses many of the criticisms visitors have made about the Taniguchi building: poor and disorienting circulation, bottlenecks, and a somewhat forbidding street presence. DS+R also plans to alter the main 53rd street entrance, creating a new canopy and adding transparent glass above to allow views out to the street and glimpses of activities within the museum.

Axonometric plan.

DS+R plans to distribute ticketing into as many as four locations, diminishing bottlenecks and lines, and allowing greater access to the public. The book store, Art Bay, sculpture gallery, sculpture garden, and other loosely programmed lobby spaces will all be free to the public. They also plan to create a new entrance to the sculpture garden on 54th Street making it accessible without entering the museum.

With the support of the board secured, the Modern will move swiftly to demolish the folk art museum to advance construction on the Nouvel tower. Hines expects to break ground on the new Tower in June. DS+R’s project is scheduled to begin following completion of the Hines Tower, expected in 2018, with a likely completion in 2020.

Glenn Lowry, MoMA’s director, said he was somewhat surprised to be undertaking another major expansion less than a decade after Taniguchi’s project opened, but said it was in keeping with the museum’s identity. “Taniguchi created a wonderful platform—a building many people want to be in,” he said, citing annual attendance figures at 3 million. “But it opened up a series of new questions.” DS+R’s focus on multidisciplinary interaction and public engagement is in step with the direction of the museum. “One of the things that has always excited me about MoMA is that it’s always a work in progress,” he said. “We asked them to take us out of our comfort zone.”

Alan G. Brake