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MoMA: Neighbourhood Bully

MoMA’s uncompromising plan to demolish the American Folk Art Museum defies the fine craft heritage of modern art, writes Michael Webb in the AJ’s sister publication AR

If Donald Trump threatened to demolish an architectural jewel of New York and replace it with one of his tinsel towers, people would be angry but not surprised. Developers answer to profit-driven investors. Cultural institutions are supposed to have different values. The Museum of Modern Art was founded to advance the cause of Modernism in all the visual arts, including architecture, and it has fulfilled its promise for the past 84 years. That accentuated the shock of its recent announcement that it planned to destroy its neighbour, the widely acclaimed American Folk Art Museum (AR February 2002), to make room for more generic galleries.

Architects are urging MoMA to reconsider a wasteful and destructive act of vandalism

Architects and critics excoriated MoMA for betraying its principles and are urging it to reconsider a wasteful and destructive act of vandalism.

This is the 50th anniversary of AFAM, a nomadic institution that was born in a townhouse on West 53rd Street and presented exhibitions in several locations, before commissioning Tod Williams and Billie Tsien to tailor a museum to its needs. The architects shoehorned four storeys of galleries, plus offices and subterranean archive, auditorium and classrooms onto a 12 by 30 metre site. They turned the narrow footprint to advantage, cladding the facade in a shallow wedge of lustrous white bronze panels to signify craft, and opening galleries off a skylit slot of space and a cantilevered concrete stair. ‘It was conceived as a house for art, that was partly inspired by Sir John Soane’s Museum in London,’ says project architect Matthew Baird, who now heads his own New York firm. ‘We created long views through the vertical section and the curators exploited the multi-level spaces to create a succession of wonderful exhibitions.’

Gallery

The Folk Art Museum’s ceremonial stairs are made of blue black terrazzo from the second to third floor

The building won many awards but it was fated from the day it opened, soon after 9/11, when the city was traumatised and museum attendance plummeted. A few months before construction was due to begin, Glenn Lowry, the aggressive director of MoMA, made AFAM an offer that, in retrospect, sounds more like an ultimatum. He proposed a swap of sites: MoMA would keep the one next door, and provide another it owned further west. AFAM declined: the two townhouses they had been using were donated by Blanchette Rockefeller and they felt it would be ungracious to give them up. They would incur added costs and delays in redesigning the building and forfeit proximity to a pocket park across the street. Having raised over $20 million for the new building, they borrowed an additional $30 million for an endowment. Attendance and fundraising fell short, investments slumped during the financial crisis, and they were unable to make payments on the loan. In 2011, they sold the building to MoMA and moved to modest quarters near Lincoln Center. This April, Lowry announced that it would be demolished on the flimsy pretext that the floors didn’t line up with MoMA’s, and the opaque facade didn’t conform to the transparent aesthetic he favours.

MoMA is fond of glass, but transparency has never been the hallmark of its operations. A trio of rich ladies established it in rented quarters in 1929, and Rockefeller money ensured its growth. In 1939 it moved to the Deco-ish confection of Philip Goodwin and Edward Durell Stone, and in succeeding decades extended westwards into unremarkable blocks by Philip Johnson and Cesar Pelli, More real estate was acquired and Yoshio Taniguchi doubled the size of the institution. The architect has created several exquisite museums in his native Japan, and expectations ran high, but he may have been defeated by the sheer size of the project. The six-storey atrium overwhelms art and visitors alike, and it can seem as soulless and congested as an airline terminal. In her 2006 review, the late Ada Louise Huxtable deplored the monolithic uniformity of the new galleries: ‘What is missing is the quiet place where one can communicate directly and deeply with a single work or artist,’ she wrote. ‘At the new MoMA there is no repose.’

That is where the AFAM building excels. The spaces are intimate and varied, and circulation doubles as exhibition space. MoMA has architectural archives that are rarely on view, and are often lost in the generic white cubes. The current exhibition of drawings by Henri Labrouste feels awkwardly housed. MoMA’s unique collection of modern design can often seem like a showroom display or an extension of the museum’s shop in these impersonal rooms. AFAM represents the craft tradition from which Modernism evolved; MoMA stands for the ideological rejection of that alternate path. Modernist orthodoxy went out of fashion 50 years ago and MoMA would be smart to embrace AFAM, using its spaces to complement and contrast with the sleek white galleries that will surround it on three sides.

Staircase

Material pleasure; impeccable detailing as if hand finished: cherrywood handrail, warm against concrete and glass, riveted translucent screen, slender gallery bulstrading

The museum should realise that it has become too large to be seen as a whole. Many of the 2.5 million annual visitors are tourists, who come to glimpse a Picasso and a Van Gogh over the heads of the crowd, eat, shop and head on to the next must-see attraction. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is even more intimidatingly huge, but it is enriched by unexpected delights: the Byzantine galleries tucked under the grand staircase, the Suzhou courtyard house recreated by Chinese artisans, and a tiny Renaissance studiolo. These are as important to the art-going experience as the popular masterpieces and blockbuster exhibitions, and they provide a rare opportunity for quiet contemplation. The newly-restored Yale Art Gallery links three disparate buildings, and the eccentric plan and shifts of level reward patient exploration.

Developer Jerry Speyer who chairs the MoMA board commissioned his Manhattan house from Williams and Tsien, so he understands their exceptional gifts. Needlessly to destroy one of their finest works would be a crime, tarnishing MoMA’s reputation as a custodian and advocate of Modernism. There is still time to pull back. Write to Lowry to express your abhorrence of his philistinism, and encourage everyone to sign the petition at change.org/moma.

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