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Folk Art Fiasco

By: Henson Architecture

Sharon McHugh reports for World Architecture News.

The architectural industry reacts to MoMA’s decision to demolish the American Folk Art Museum to accommodate its expansion.

As we all now know, MoMA has decided to tear down Tod Williams + Billie Tsein’s American Folk Art Museum, a building widely acknowledged for its exceptional craft and its folded Tombasil skin, which, among its many accolades, received the RIBA’s World Architecture magazine’s ‘Best Building in the World’ award in 2002.

As the American correspondent for World Architecture News, I remember well the stiff competition there was for this award and the resounding unanimity on the jury’s part to premiate the building the top spot. The building bested 300 entrants from 45 countries including buildings by Toyo Ito, Richard Rogers,  and Dominique Perrault, and was chosen for the top prize by a jury that included Peter Wilson of Bolles + Wilson, Benedetta Tagliabue of EMBT, Chris Wilkinson of Wilkinson Eyre, and John Patkau of Patkau Architects.  In addition to scooping the Best Building in the World Award, the building also won in the categories of Best North American Building and Best Public/Cultural Building.

Whilst jurors don’t always get it right, clearly this trio of honors given on a world stage says something special about the building.  Kieran Long, the Deputy Editor of World Architecture and now Senior Curator of Architecture and Design at the Victoria and Albert Museum and Critic for the Evening Standard, declared the Folk Art Museum “New York’s best building since Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim.” World Architecture’s editor Naomi Stungo questioned whether good architecture could be built in New York, especially after 9/11 which had just marked its first anniversary, and concluded that whilst “it is not easy to push for inspirational architecture in such a charged setting”…Williams and Tsien did just that.

I, like many in our community, am deeply saddened that MoMA has elected to raze this jewel-box-of-a building to make way for a 40,000 sq ft expansion designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro.   In the hope there is still time to influence MoMA’s decision before the wrecking ball befalls the building, we have gathered here the thoughts of architects, writers, critics, and architecture fans from around the globe on this disappointing turn of events.

We welcome hearing from you on the matter and urge you to take to your favorite social media platform if you believe the building is worth saving.

“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.”
Christopher Hawthorne
Los Angeles Times Architecture Critic

“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, Pennsylvania, 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.
Christopher Hawthorne
Los Angeles Times Architecture Critic

“I’m very disappointed,” said Robert A. M. Stern, the dean of Yale’s School of Architecture. “Justice has not been served.”
Robert Stern as quoted in the New York Times

“In an architectural version of the battlefield paradox, DS+R would have had to destroy the building in order to save it. But that hesitancy shows in the provisional design for the next phase. The client is bent on art-world domination; the architects seem half-hearted. Instead of healing the scar left by the Folk Art Museum, they have left a gleaming gap. A triple-height ‘art bay’, ample enough to accommodate house-size sculptures and outfitted with a glass wall that can be raised like a portcullis, opens directly onto the street. (No tickets needed.) Above that is a white-walled exhibition cube that, with a little deft stagecraft, converts to a black-box theater. These are neat tricks that will foster MoMA’s deepening commitment to performance art, and activate 53rd Street, but they still replace an important work of recent architecture with a pair of stacked glass boxes. It’s a disappointing trade-off, a Pyrrhic triumph of expansionist logic over irrational affection.”
Justin Davidson
Architecture Critic, New York Magazine

“The Folk Museum, ironically, may be the best building on the MoMA campus. (The museum purchased the building when the Folk folks were no longer capable of maintaining it, with an eye to expansion.) It was built in the wake of 9/11, as a mark of a new kind of sobriety in museum design, and it fast became a symbol of pride for the city – a rare work of idiosyncrasy in midtown. It would be a shame to lose it, and for such limited gain.”
Mark Lamster
Architecture Critic, the Dallas Morning News

“How will it all end? Around or after 2019, what you’ll get in place of the Folk Art Museum will be two 2,000-sq-ft double-storey glass boxes. They look like glass squash courts, one atop the other, and the front can be opened to the sidewalk. Don’t even think about MoMA’s permanent collection hanging on the walls here; nothing can. The slide I saw of the ground floor space showed Charles Ray’s Firetruck installed with its front end extending onto West 53rd Street – a weird choice, given that MoMA doesn’t own this work. DS+R call the space an ‘art bay’, I guess because that sounds better than ‘gallery’ or ‘room’. It most closely resembles a Chelsea megagallery with a glass garage door that rolls up on warm days. My eyes are tearing up again as I write this.”
Jerry Saltz
Senior Art Critic and Columnist New York Magazine

“This was a good work, but New York City is ever changing. Not everything lasts forever, and sometimes you have to let go.”
Richard Meier as quoted in the New York Times

Many architects said they feel badly for Mr. Williams and Ms. Tsien, whose folk art building was a breakout project that raised the husband-and-wife team’s profile.

“It’s devastating to them,” the architect Frank Gehry said. “It’s like tearing down my house in Santa Monica. It’s their kind of beginning. We all loved it when it was done; it was a major piece of architecture on the street,” he added. “I think Billie [Tsien] and Tod [Williams] deserve a major project in New York City, and let’s get it for them and get on with it. That will get them their dignity back.”
Frank Gehry as quoted in the New York Times

“It’s not for lack of trying that we find ourselves at the same pass….We can’t find a way to save the building.”
Elizabeth Diller as quoted in the New York Times


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