The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) announced today that in its next phase of expansion, it will tear down the 2001 American Folk Art Museum building designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects. The Folk Art building, which MoMA bought in 2011, stands between its existing facility and the site of the planned expansion, which would extend into a tower slated to rise next door designed by Jean Nouvel and built by Hines.
In a tightly choreographed presentation at the Manhattan office of Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS + R), the architects of the expansion, partner Elizabeth Diller said that the when the firm took the job, the architects hoped that Williams’ and Tsien’s building would not have to be demolished as MoMA had announced in April, inciting widespread outcry from prominent critics, architects, designers. “We made a critical decision to step in, feeling that we could save the building,” said Diller.
Diller showed an elaborate set of drawings and studies to illustrate the months of analysis that her firm undertook to try to adapt the Folk Art Museum into a place for “alternative cultural programming.” But in the end the firm concluded that so much of the interior of the building would need to be altered—with many serious structural issues to be resolved—that saving the building wasn’t “a logical possibility,” said Diller. “We came to an ethical paradox. In order to save the building you would have had to lose too much of it. The building will have totally lost its integrity.”
“I know the architecture community was hoping the conclusion would be different,” added Diller, who said she discussed the decision with Williams and Tsien a week and a half ago. In a statement released this afternoon, Williams and Tsien said: “This action represents a missed opportunity to find new life and purpose for a building that is meaningful to so many. Demolishing this human‐scaled, uniquely crafted building is a loss to the city of New York in terms of respecting the size, diversity, and texture of buildings in a midtown neighborhood that is at risk of becoming increasingly homogenized.” [Read the full statement (PDF)]
For MoMA, the demolition of the Folk Art building is part of a larger plan to take the institution in a new direction. In the presentation in their office, DS + R went on to show a set of schemes designed to make the museum much more friendly and physically transparent. Known for the strong urban design component of their architecture, they have devised a new space open to the street, called the Art Bay, on the former Folk Art site. It would be a flexible space, possibly with a moveable floor, for performances, exhibitions, or “spontaneous” events—all free of charge. In addition, they advocated opening up the sculpture garden to the public for free, with an entrance directly off 54th Street. (A museum spokeswoman said that all-day free access to the garden would begin this summer.)
DS + R also showed a proposal to open up the lobby of the existing Yoshio Taniguchi building and create “bridges” to the new galleries that will be built on three floors of the Nouvel tower. The aim is to improve circulation throughout the museum’s campus. “The current lobby, we feel, is quite mean. There’s a banality about it,” said Diller. She and her partners also want to make the museum literally transparent by swapping the translucent glass for clear glass on much of the façade. The MoMA campus has grown and changed over the years on Manhattan’s West 53rd Street, with buildings by Philip L. Goodwin and Edward Durell Stone (1939), Philip Johnson (1951), Cesar Pelli (1984), and Taniguchi (2004). “We’re flirting with a lot of architects,” Diller said. “Hopefully ours will be strong but much more surgical and careful. It’s not going to be characterized by spectacularism. It’s much more about intervention.”
The architects’ plans are in very early stages, but MoMA is likely to raze the Folk Art building by June, before Hines begins excavation for the Nouvel tower. At DS+R’s office, MoMA director Glenn Lowry talked about how the plans reflect the museum curators’ desire to break down the separation between departments and have more innovative exhibitions and programming.
Lowry defended the museum’s need to plan an expansion, only 10 years after the Taniguchi building opened, because of rapidly growing collections and more than three million visitors per year. “The Museum of Modern Art is a perpetual work in progress,” he said. “It’s never been finished.”
Still, many architects and architecture fans will mourn the loss of the Folk Art building, a slender, elegantly-crafted gem that was only in existence for a dozen years. “It has a powerful architectural legacy,” said the statement from Williams and Tsien. “The inability to experience the building first-hand and to appreciate its meaning from an historical perspective will be profoundly felt.”