MoMA To Cannibalize Cultural Artifact

Facade of Williams and Tsien’s American Folk Art building.
Giles Ashford

Nothing says might so blatantly as the ability to blast away whatever gets in the way. And how much more expressive of clout it is if that something is carefully made, admired, very expensive, and still new. A primal territorial grunt seemed to accompany the Museum of Modern Art’s announcement last week—without a peep about considered alternatives—that it was in the museum’s best interest to tear down the American Folk Art Museum (AFAM) designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien and opened to great international acclaim—adorning magazine covers around the world—barely twelve years ago.

Many have noted director Glen Lowry’s justifying comment that AFAM’s cast bronze facade (a work of technological wizardry wedded to craftsmanship on an unprecedented scale that is the building’s chief wonder) is not compatible with the glass aesthetic of the rest of MoMA’s facade. One does not have to look back that far to find that MoMA has engulfed many a conflicting design aesthetic on its way to becoming the current block behemoth. In 1953, Philip Johnson’s wing added a web of black steel on black glass to Philip Goodwin and Edward Durrell Stone’s 1939 deliver-us-from-deco International Style; in 1985, Pelli did a slick seamless skin that was subsumed by the even sleeker Tanaguchi extension. Lowry need not worry about inconsistencies; by now, MoMA is far too large to be understood as a coherent whole from the sidewalk.

The townhouse scale of the American Folk Art Museum might have been turned to advantage. MoMA got its start in a townhouse owned by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. at 11 West 53rd Street. Two other Rockefeller townhouses on 54th were quickly absorbed to make way for the sculpture garden. (Back then the museum was more mindful about its impact and took care not to destroy some period rooms in those townhouses, donating two to the Museum of the City of New York and one to the Brooklyn Museum.) Incorporating the folk art museum into its 53rd Street line-up would not only counter the unrelieved, airport-scale stretch of the current facade, but also give a nod to those townhouse beginnings.

While AFAM does look very different from the rest of MoMA, it is unquestionably modern. It is the modern of intense materiality and process made visible; a modern that the museum has long underestimated and largely ignored in favor of a more doctrinaire and European-focused definition. It was an approach fixed by Philip Johnson who ruled the architecture department, directly and by proxy, from the museum’s beginning almost until his death in 2005. That approach was a narrow interpretation of the museum’s original mission "dedicated to helping people understand and enjoy the visual arts of our time" (according to an official history on the website). More recent curators of architecture at MoMA have struggled to correct that legacy. Preserving the AFAM—even if only the facade—would allow the museum the chance to provide a more expansive and more accurate picture of modern architecture.

It remains to be seen how this decision could undermine the efforts of the MoMA architecture department to regain the trust of an architectural community shaken to the core by the rough shod treatment of two highly admired practitioners. It certainly casts a cynical pall on the efforts of current department head Barry Bergdoll to present exhibitions engaged with contemporary issues from housing to climate change as well as on the talent search that is the Young Architects Program at MoMA/PS 1. While rescuing high quality architecture isn’t part of the museum’s brief, destroying a valuable cultural artifact should not be part of its operations.

In fact, by engaging with rather than demolishing AFAM, MoMA could show itself to be a far-sighted urban planner rather than opportunistic real estate developer. The increasingly fraught battles between new development and landmark preservation are fast becoming a defining New York issue. Taking an aggregate approach that allows for the coexistence of disparate elements—bronze and glass, townhouse and tower—could be an exciting alternative to the monolithic homogenization of 53rd Street.

Finally, it is the lack of transparency that is most disturbing about last week’s announcement following more than a year of impenetrable silence on the subject of AFAM’s fate. The MoMA experience has become unpleasant overall, from the opaque bureaucracy to the oppressively large lobby that seems to have no middle ground between dankly empty and rush-hour crush. Here was an opportunity to be more thoughtful and engaging about its role in the cultural and urban community. The sad fate of AFAM can be chalked up to overreach. MoMA, in highlighting the disposability of high quality architecture in the service of expansion, should be careful not to fall into the same trap.

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