written by:
January 29, 2014
At a forum on MoMa's controversial expansion plan, its director, Glenn D. Lowry, and the architect Elizabeth Diller make a case for why the distinctive, 13-year-old former American Folk Art Museum building cannot be part of it.
MoMa expansion rendering

A rendering shows the Museum of Modern Art's 53rd Street entrance as it would appear after an overhaul of the museum's midtown campus. Image courtesy of Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

MoMa expansion rendering

A rendering shows the Museum of Modern Art's 53rd Street entrance as it would appear after an overhaul of the museum's midtown campus. Image courtesy of Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

The director of the Museum of Modern Art on Tuesday night used a forum that was billed as a conversation about the sweeping reconfiguration of its midtown campus to state categorically that the former American Folk Art Museum building will have no place in it.

“We made our decision,” the director, Glenn D. Lowry, told an audience composed of members of the institutions that sponsored the event—the Architectural League, the Municipal Art Society, and the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects—at the New York Society for Ethical Culture.

The proclamation followed a panel discussion on MoMa’s plans to demolish the 13-year-old former home of the Folk Art Museum as part of a larger redesign of its complex on Manhattan’s West 53rd Street—a move that has drawn the ire of preservationists, architects, and no shortage of rank-and-file New Yorkers.

Elizabeth Diller of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the architectural firm that MoMa hired to evaluate whether the folk museum could be incorporated into the redesign, also gave a presentation that detailed how she and her colleagues initially believed the building could be salvaged before ultimately concluding that it could not. She cited two reasons for taking up the challenge. “One was we truly believed we could save the building, and we believed that we could breathe new life into it,” she said. “And second was that MoMa’s mission forward was very compelling to us. We’re both supporters and critics of MoMa, and we have some of the same concerns that have been voiced in the media. It’s our museum, too, and we wanted it to be as good as it can be.”

But Diller said she and her colleagues “were unable to find an adaptive-reuse solution” for the Folk Art Museum building, an idiosyncratic structure with a distinctive, 40-foot-wide bronze façade that was designed by the architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien and completed in 2001. MoMa bought the building in 2011 after the folk museum defaulted on its debts. (Williams and Tsien did not attend the forum.)

One issue, Diller said, was the "vertical organization of the building, with its many stairs and voids" and small gallery spaces. But a bigger problem, she said, is the floor plates in the folk museum building don’t align with the floor heights in MoMa’s existing building. Because the floors support the facade of the folk building, she said, “we came upon this really terrible paradox that in order to save the building, in order for MoMa to have a productive space, it was inevitable that we would lose more and more of the original building and, I would say, its heart and soul.”

Lowry reiterated a point he has made elsewhere—that acquisitions over the past decade, such as the Frank Lloyd Wright archive, have added significantly to the museum’s collection, and to the need for space beyond what was carved out a decade ago in a $858 million redesign by the Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi. Lowry dismissed a suggestion from a member of the audience that the museum shift some of its works to its PS1 exhibition space in Long Island City, Queens, as unworkable, calling it a “bifurcation” that would undermine the way MoMa’s visitors experience its collection.

None of this stopped some participants in the panel discussion from taking MoMa to task over its decision to raze the folk museum building. Karen Stein, an architectural consultant and Pritzker Prize juror, was perhaps the most vocal critic, noting that MoMa has a long history of architectural stewardship that dates to its establishment of an architecture department in 1932. “I would expect Walmart to demolish it if they owned it,” she said, referring to the folk building, “but I expect something better from MoMa.”

Two other panelists—Jorge Otero-Pailos, an associate professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation; and the architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff—largely limited themselves to theoretical pronouncements. But Cathleen McGuigan, editor in chief of Architectural Record, suggested that MoMa was guilty of a rush to judgment. “It’s got an incredibly important place in our cultural history,” McGuigan said of the folk building. “Alas, it hasn’t had it for very long, and I think that’s why a lot of us are concerned about the speed with which this decision has moved ahead.” Later, she added: “What are we going to think in 10, 15, 25 years when it is gone?”

Stephen Rustow, principal at Museoplan, a design firm that specializes in the presentation of cultural collections, said that whether Diller Scofidio + Renfro had made a compelling case that the folk building could not be salvaged would depend on what its marching orders from MoMa were. “A feasibility study, as all the architects here know, is only as good as the questions that are asked,” he said. “If the question is, find the best, most flexible, optimal use of a particular site … then it’s inevitable that the Folk Art Museum has to be taken down, and I think Liz made that extremely clear.

“If, on the other hand, the question is, we as an institution have decided that there is something of value in the existing pieces of this structure and we want to … find what is best for MoMa while integrating pieces of this history, then I think any number of architects, and certainly DSR, could come back with quite a compelling project that would be very different from the one we see now.”

MoMa’s plans call for replacing the Folk Art Museum building with a new structure that will house spaces for exhibitions and performances. That space also will connect MoMa’s existing building with a planned residential high-rise designed by Jean Nouvel that is to include gallery space for the museum. The plans also call for MoMa’s Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden to be open to the public from the street during museum hours. Construction is expected to begin in the spring, with completion targeted for 2018 or 2019. MoMa, which is raising private funds to pay for the expansion, has not disclosed an estimated cost.

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

content delzresidence 013 1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
June 29, 2016
abc malacari marwick stair 01 0
A simple set of stairs is a remodel’s backbone.
June 28, 2016
Design Award of Excellence winner Mellon Square.
Docomomo US announces the winners of this year's Modernism in America Awards. Each project showcases exemplary modern restoration techniques, practices, and ideas.
June 27, 2016
monogram dwell sf 039 1
After last year’s collaboration, we were excited to team up with Monogram again for the 2016 Monogram Modern Home Tour.
June 27, 2016
switch over chicago smart renovation penthouse deck smar green ball lamps quinze milan lounge furniture garapa hardwood
A strategic rewire enhances a spec house’s gut renovation.
June 26, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent coralie gourguechon treviso italy cphotos by coralie gourguechon co produced by isdat planche anatomique de haut parleur1
Coralie Gourguechon's paper objects will make you see technology in a whole new way.
June 26, 2016
green machine smart home aspen colorado facade yard bocci deck patio savant
Smart technology helps a house in Aspen, Colorado, stay on its sustainable course.
June 25, 2016
Compact Aglol 11 television plastic brionvega.
The aesthetic appeal of personal electronics has long fueled consumer interest. A new industrial design book celebrates devices that broke the mold.
June 25, 2016
modern backyard deck ipe wood
An angled deck transforms a backyard in Menlo Park, California, into a welcoming gathering spot.
June 24, 2016
dscf5485 1
Today, we kicked off this year’s annual Dwell on Design at the LA Convention Center, which will continue through Sunday, June 26th. Though we’ve been hosting this extensive event for years, this time around is particularly special.
June 24, 2016
under the radar renovation napa
Two designers restore a low-slung midcentury gem in Napa, California, by an unsung Bay Area modernist.
June 24, 2016
Exterior of Huneeus/Sugar Bowl Home.
San Francisco–based designer Maca Huneeus created her family’s weekend retreat near Lake Tahoe with a relaxed, sophisticated sensibility.
June 24, 2016
light and shadow bathroom walnut storage units corian counter vola faucet
A Toronto couple remodel their home with a special emphasis on a spacious kitchen and a material-rich bathroom.
June 24, 2016
Affordable home in Kansas City living room
In Kansas City, an architecture studio designs an adaptable house for a musician on a budget.
June 23, 2016
modern lycabettus penthouse apartment oak vertical slats office
By straightening angles, installing windows, and adding vertical accents, architect Aaron Ritenour brought light and order to an irregularly shaped apartment in the heart of Athens, Greece.
June 23, 2016
kitchen confidential tiles custom cabinetry oak veneer timber house
A modest kitchen addition to a couple’s cottage outside of Brisbane proves that one 376-square-foot room can revive an entire home.
June 23, 2016
feldman architecture 0
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
June 22, 2016
Blackened timber Dutch home
A modern dwelling replaces a fallen farmhouse.
June 22, 2016
hillcrest house interior kitchen 3
Seeking an escape from bustling city life, a Manhattan couple embarks on a renovation in the verdant Hudson Valley.
June 22, 2016
angular
Atelier Moderno renovated an old industrial building to create a luminous, modern home.
June 21, 2016
San Francisco floating home exterior
Anchored in a small San Francisco canal, this floating home takes its cues from a classic city habitat.
June 21, 2016
modern renovation addition solar powered scotland facade steel balcony
From the bones of a neglected farmstead in rural Scotland emerges a low-impact, solar-powered home that’s all about working with what was already there.
June 21, 2016
up in the air small space new zealand facade corrugated metal cladding
An architect with a taste for unconventional living spaces creates a small house at lofty heights with a starring view.
June 21, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent marjan van aubel london cwai ming ng current window
Marjan Van Aubel makes technology a little more natural.
June 21, 2016
urban pastoral brooklyn family home facade steel cypress double
Building on the site of a former one-car garage, an architect creates his family’s home in an evolving neighborhood of Brooklyn.
June 20, 2016
Modern Brooklyn backyard studio with plexiglass skylight, green roof, and cedar cladding facade
In a Brooklyn backyard, an off-duty architect builds a structure that tests his attention to the little things.
June 20, 2016
the outer limits paris prefab home living area vertigo lamp constance guisset gijs bakker strip tablemetal panels
In the suburbs of Paris, an architect with an eco-friendly practice doesn’t let tradition stand in the way of innovation.
June 20, 2016
amaroso40040
When a garage damaged by termites had to go, a studio emerges.
June 19, 2016
the blue lagoon iceland geothermal spa hotel water visitors
The famed geothermal spa outside Reykjavík, Iceland, is entering a major new phase—paving the way for the area’s first five-star hotel.
June 19, 2016
heaven on earth maya lin topography what is missing california academy sciences wood video
A new monograph by Rizzoli explores the memorial project by the renowned artist.
June 19, 2016