It is a building, a building in New York City, a building erected in the dust of 9/11, a building that upon completion signaled hope for larger reconstructions, a building that presents itself to the world through the intricate patina and pocking of white bronze. White bronze. This alone conjures something alchemic, ancient, timeless.
But buildings are not timeless. They have their time. As architects we memorialize each one that resonates with the thoughtfulness of capital “A” architecture—in part because we understand what it takes to realize them.
Despite this, the Tod Williams and Billie Tsien-designed American Folk Art Museum may ultimately be doomed to the brutal translations of administrative efficiency, cruel syllogisms, that as Barry Bergdoll, chief curator of MoMA’s architecture and design department notes, are “painful.”
If floor plates do not align then tear down. If façade does not bespeak institutional mission then tear down. If “jewel box” then tear down. If A then tear down. If B then tear down. If A and/or B then tear down equals C. If C then the building is gone. So it goes.
The American Folk Art Museum doesn’t need it any more. MoMA doesn’t need it. But does the city still need it? Do the people need it?
It does not diminish it to call it a thing of beauty. Though the adjective might have been critically avoided when the building first appeared, its status as an object of beauty may be the only thing that even comes close to saving it, perhaps saving pieces of it.
The architecture world is outraged but this will not deter the logic of property nor the great American tradition of manifest destiny at all scales and dimensions—especially at townhouse scale in the midst of soaring towers. It’s like a Chinese “nail” building. It’s a primal object in a sanitized part of town. It’s the Other. It is MoMA’s other that cannot be reconciled with an institutional urge toward architectural homogeneity.
With architects promptly jumping to the building’s defense I wondered if there were other opinions floating around. Eric Owen Moss immediately came to mind. I figured his appreciation for philosophy might lead him to an understanding that could encapsulate the pain Bergdoll speaks of. I guessed right. Emailing from final reviews at SCI-Arc, he had this to say:
“If the mission of MoMA is to sustain in perpetuity what the institution initially advocated then, ipso facto, it stays. If the mission is to scrutinize what it once advocated, and to consider contradictory prospects, then, ipso facto, removal is a plausible option.”
Ipso facto the building has become a cloud and the weather has changed. Though it appears as timeless it has had its time.
It begs the question: at what point does a building exceed its materiality to become phenomenological? The architects are speaking. The public knows. But the building awaits the administrative hammer that will be brought down upon it, painful at that may be. It will endure as phenomenon without its weight upon the street.
Is it sentimentality that motivates calls to save it? And if so, so what? Are we that unsentimental about material culture? Isn’t this, then, the ultimate test of the folk ideal? And by this I mean the need for cultural memory and for collection, like that within MoMA’s glass box. Does this extend to architecture? Only when architecture does not come up against purely administrative decisions. But can the administrative mission really be separated out from the cultural mission? What would Orwell say? Or Conrad?
The building, the façade—that façade!—have emotional lives. As artists with artistic sensibilities, architects have put their emotional cards upon the table. What will MoMA show?
The ideas and opinions expressed in The Indicator are Guy Horton’s alone and do not reflect the views of ArchDaily, it’s editors, or affiliates.