Though it was indisputably a significant work of architecture, New York's American Folk Art Museum, designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, is being demolished. Its fate was sealed when Diller Scofidio + Renfro, which is designing the Museum of Modern Art's latest expansion, concluded that it could not be usefully incorporated into the project. “To save the building and allow it to be productive,” Elizabeth Diller explained in a public presentation last January, “we found it would lose its heart and soul.” She later added, “It's so regrettable that the building proved so obdurate.”
Though the shortness of the Folk Art Museum building's 13-year life is startling, it reignites an uncomfortable question for adventurous architecture: how particularly should architects hew to an idea, a program, or a personal artistic agenda if, in the future, it might demand heroic efforts to maintain and adapt? Highly expressive modernist buildings have proven especially obdurate: Paul Rudolph's 1971 Orange County Government Center stands abandoned in Goshen, New York (see book review, page 41). Boston mayor Thomas Menino spent two decades railing against Kallmann & McKinnell's 1968 Boston City Hall. (He failed to get it replaced, but the current mayor, Martin J. Walsh, also favors demolition.) Commercial redevelopment has doomed two important buildings by John Johansen: the 1970 Mummers Theater in Oklahoma City (being dismantled at this moment) and the 1,700-seat Morris Mechanic theater (1967) in Baltimore.
Buildings of the Brutalist era have proven to be particularly obdurate. Their beefy structures cast programmatic conceptions of the 1960s literally into concrete boxes—limiting flexibility as program needs grow, shrink, and disappear. Their pioneering aesthetic may not be widely appreciated, yet businesses and taxpayers must decide whether or not to invest in the costly renovations they now need. The Government Center in Goshen looks intimidating, even aggressive in exterior photos, but Rudolph created a palace of democracy intelligently attuned to a suburban era. You were supposed to pass through a veil of trees, then stroll into the government offices or courtrooms through a lush hidden courtyard, entering soaring atrium spaces that made paying a traffic ticket or attending a zoning meeting a celebratory experience. Now clumsy retrofitted ramps and wheelchair lifts blight its terraced levels. It has 80 separate, neglected roofs, many of which leak.
Obduracy concerns more than aging buildings. The Folk Art controversy would seem to vindicate critics of contemporary architectural spectacle, who see a Frank Gehry or Thom Mayne building as ego-driven personal statements indulged by spineless clients in thrall to the architect's Svengali spell. These will be tomorrow's white elephants, they argue.
John Silber, who built 13 million square feet of dour buildings while president of Boston University, received much attention in 2007 for a book-length screed whose sole purpose was to excoriate works that he deemed ugly and dysfunctional by his own fact-challenged lights, taking particular aim at Gehry's Stata Center at MIT. He tapped into a question often asked, however: why do buildings have to be weird?
Many people love gutsy, strange, idiosyncratic buildings. The stone and brick hulks covered with floral Victorian exotica that Philadelphia architect Frank Furness built for railroad barons were knocked down with abandon only decades after completion. Now almost everyone treasures Furness's remaining, wondrously strange (and hard to adapt) buildings, like the University of Pennsylvania's Fisher Fine Arts Library and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
Preservationists point to the rise and fall and rise again of talents like Furness to defend buildings where public taste has not caught up with that of architects. Yet the easy out for many clients is to build aspiration-free buildings that seem neutral and flexible. The results, too often, are buildings that achieve nothing. Silber's dreary legacy at Boston University is the norm, not the exception.
Which buildings of extraordinary idiosyncrasy can be saved? There was no groundswell to restore Rudolph's 1963 Art and Architecture building at Yale, observed the architecture dean Robert A.M. Stern. It was “the most hated building” at the school, he said. Nevertheless, Stern says he was able to convince the university “that the building had inherent value—that it was irresponsible and unsustainable to tear it down.” A painstaking renovation by Gwathmey Siegel in 2008 revealed a generosity of space and light in Rudolph's design concealed by ill-considered infill, so that generations of students had labored in squalor.
Preserving obdurate buildings must be decided case by case. The answers to some hard questions suggest what's possible—and offer guidance to those designing adventurous buildings today.

Does the building find a broad constituency? The Sydney Opera House thrives as a globally beloved icon even though its symphony hall and opera house have always been acoustically challenged and technically inadequate. The Folk Art Museum building, which closed in 2011, failed to find that broad constituency. Architects rallied to save it, but many in the art community thought its idiosyncratic display areas (in stairway niches, for example) did the artifacts no favors.

Can the building be adapted? Advocates could not get Edward Durell Stone's crumbling Huntington Hartford Gallery of Modern Art in New York restored, a 1964 building that had been closed for years because its tiny split-level galleries weren't thought usable—an argument rejoined in the Folk Art Museum controversy. Preservationists prefer to focus the argument on aesthetic and cultural significance rather than on functionality, since what feels useless to one generation (SoHo lofts in the 1960s) can become extraordinarily valuable to future ones. Yet the public gets impatient with buildings boarded up as they await a savior.

Can the building make a compelling case in aesthetic terms? Architectural expression alone can be the toughest preservation case to make, especially for individualistic designs. Chicagoans long fought to save the sensuous exterior of Bertrand Goldberg's 1975 Prentice Women's Hospital at Northwestern University. There was little defense of its ordinary institutional interior, even though its quatrefoil plan was once deemed groundbreaking. Northwestern University demolished the building last October, planning to replace it with an overbearing research tower.

Does the building have an owner with passion who will hire an architect of extraordinary sensitivity? Rudolph's Art and Architecture building survived because Yale takes its architectural patrimony seriously and raised the money to renovate it thoroughly, thanks to a significant gift from philanthropist Sid R. Bass. These conditions are much harder to create under public ownership. Though Rudolph's Orange County Government Center has been temporarily saved from the wrecking ball, a plan to demolish part of the building, restore the rest, and build an addition by an architect of no distinction and no obvious sensitivity to Rudolph's design (Clark Patterson Lee of Rochester, New York) is only temporarily on hold. There is no local leader championing a restoration, no expertise to approach the building in the spirit with which it was designed, and no procurement process that would attract architects of talent. Similarly, it will not be easy to figure out what adaptations Boston City Hall needs as long as the mayor is hostile to a renovation.

Spectacular design need not become obdurate, but happy longevity seems to depend on certain conditions clients and architects don't always fully consider. Is the owner thinking about the long-term needs of a unique design? Is she prepared to be a patron, a custodian, even an art director? Does the building create extraordinary value, transforming a neglected site and invigorating the organization it houses?

Given the experience with the Folk Art Museum, Elizabeth Diller says she now has a heightened sense of the need to reconcile expressiveness with adaptability in the MoMA expansion. Working with the museum curators, who know they won't be there forever, Diller says, “We're all thinking how best to support flexibility.” And yet, she confesses, “We don't know where culture is headed in the future.”

James S. Russell is author of The Agile City: Building Well Being and Wealth in an Era of Climate Change. He blogs at