Critics React to Folk Art Museum’s Imminent Demolition

Just as designers have reacted to the death sentence of Ted Williams and Billie Tsien's American Folk Art Museum building, forming petitions and a tumblr (crowdsourcing designs that integrate the building with the MoMA's existing facilities), architecture critics have also been wielding their weapon - words - and entering the fray.

Most critics have responded with outrage (it's "nothing less than cultural vandalism" says Martin Filler), denouncing MoMA's prioritization of corporate needs over cultural value. However, a few are actually defending MoMA's decision, saying the building was never ideal for displaying art anyway. See a round-up of all the opinions - from Davidson to Goldberger - after the break...

Courtesy of Polich Tallix Fine Art Foundry

Oh, the Ironies....

One of the best critical responses to the decision comes from Architecture Record's Cathleen McGuigan, who points out the many ironies involved in this story - the most principal of which being MoMA's supposed history of valuing architecture:

“MoMA was the first American museum to establish a department of architecture and design, and is now both judge and executioner of an acclaimed building by a distinguished practice, Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, the AIA firm of the year for 2013.”

She also notes that MoMA's real crime, was coming to this decision behind closed doors, without any outside input: 

“Not every significant building can or should remain standing in perpetuity—but decisions to destroy or alter key works of architecture should be made transparently and openly. And the voices of the public should be heard.”

© Michael Moran

"A Form of Betrayal"

In his well-written article for Vulture, architecture critic for New York Magazine, Justin Davidson, denounces the MoMA for their decision, which he describes as a "betrayal":

“If a commercial developer were to tear down a small, idiosyncratic, and beautifully wrought museum in order to put up a deluxe glass box, it would be attacked as a venal and philistine act. When a fellow museum does the same thing, it’s even worse — it’s a form of betrayal.”

He also unfavorably compares the MoMA to the Met, which faced a similar situation a few decades earlier and addressed it with far more "imagination":

“if the museum’s architects can’t figure out a way to use Williams and Tsien’s ingenious stack of rooms, that is a failure of imagination. The Folk Art Museum’s floors don’t line up with MoMA’s, a tricky problem that, handled creatively, could yield a distinctive museum-within-a-museum. To see how, MoMA’s trustees might drop by the Met, which in 1980 enfolded another freestanding structure built to exhibit decorative arts.”

Ground Floor Plan courtesy of Tod Williams & Billie Tsien Architects

An Act of "Cultural Vandalism"

Martin Filler's overblown critique for The New York Review of Books Blog is easily the most scathing - calling MoMA's decision not just "deplorable," "preposterous," and "tragic" but also an "odious" act of "cultural vandalism."

“The idea that Williams and Tsien’s structure has to go because its obdurate, nearly windowless façade does not blend in with MoMA’s banal 53rd Street elevations is simply preposterous. The notion of a standardized street front seems especially egregious when advanced by an institution supposedly dedicated to championing modern architecture and design in all its untidy diversity.”

"The tragic turn of events on 53rd Street is nothing less than cultural vandalism, made more odious because it will be carried out by a presumed institutional guardian of high culture and contemporary design. As MoMA grows and grows and builds and builds, the destruction of this architectural landmark may someday be forgotten by the general public; but for those who care about the long view of art, this needless desecration will remain a permanent blot on the reputation of those responsible for it.”

A crowd-sourced idea of how to save the American Folk Art Museum. Courtesy of the Tumblr #FolkMoMA

It "Speaks Volumes"

In her concise, personal, yet insightful article, Karrie Jacobs of the Itinerant Urbanist makes a stirring conclusion about what this decision means for the MoMA's reputation:

"The American Folk Art Museum is antithetical to MoMA[‘s] overdeveloped self-image and stands in the way of its seemingly endless expansion plans. That’s why it’s going down. And that’s exactly why MoMA should be wise enough to keep it. The difference between Williams and Tsien’s approach to Modernism and MoMA’s is the kind of aesthetic divide that a truly great museum would be big enough to engage and creative enough to exploit. That MoMA will undermine New York City’s zoning in the name of important architecture to build it’s cherished Jean Nouvel tower, but can’t find a way to preserve a far less remunerative work of important architecture, speaks volumes about the museum’s priorities.”

© Michael Moran

A Champion of Architecture?

With his article in Architect Magazine, Ned Cramer makes a similar point to Ms. Jacob's, emphasizing how the move will diminish the Museum's credibility:

"The decision to tear down the Folk Art Museum exposes MoMA to far less flattering characterizations than conservatism. It’s as though the board voted to incinerate a Gerhard Richter painting because it didn’t match the floor tile or fit through the doorway. MoMA must find a way to incorporate the American Folk Art Museum building into its expansion plans. What’s at risk is not only a magnificent work by important contemporary architects, but MoMA’s credibility as a champion of architecture.”

© Michael Moran

The MoMA's Lone Defender

Taking the role of the MoMA's lone defender is Vulture's Jerry Saltz, who claims that - ultimately - the building never fulfilled its intended purpose (he feels the building is more a manifestation of an "abstract ideal" of an art museum rather than an appropriate space for art) and thus (despite its architectural value) needs to be put down:

“This is among the most tragic chapters in New York museum architecture I have ever seen. The doleful truth is that no one wants to be right about something this painful. I understand the bitter reaction of architects and architecture critics to the news, but they should know that virtually every person in the art world believes that the Williams-Tsien building is a terrible place to look at art — and that it is just one of a spate of new museum buildings that put architecture before art since Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao. Architects: When you design an art museum, do whatever you like to the outside of your building. But please, create enough well-proportioned interior space to show art in. Art first; all else will follow.”

Courtesy of Polich Tallix Fine Art Foundry

MoMA: Grown Up and Soulless

Eschewing the typical line of criticism that most critics have lobbed at MoMA, mainly its corporate avarice, an older, wiser, and even somewhat jaded Paul Goldberger writes in his Vanity Fair article: "real-estate hegemony is nothing new in New York, and the sorry sight of cultural institutions acting like real-estate developers is all too familiar." Moreover, unlike many other critics, Goldberger admits that the building was never perfect for its intended purpose ("a 40-foot-wide plot is not the ideal size for a museum. Williams and Tsien struggled heroically to make the interior space workable, but it was never ideal.").

However, Goldberger does take direct aim at MoMA. First of all, for not attempting to find another use for the this significant building - whether as a separate set of galleries or even as a library (MoMA currently houses their library off-site in Queens). But second, and most gravely, he criticizes MoMA for betraying the integrity of its humble, innovative, noble beginnings:

"When MoMA bought the folk-art building two years ago, I remember thinking that getting rid of it was a possibility, but I doubted that the Museum of Modern Art would dare do such a thing. It seemed cynical for this museum of all institutions to tear down a building of such distinction, and make 53rd Street, which has already lost much of the diversity of scale and use it once had, more uniform still. But that view clearly was naïve.

The saddest part of this entire episode is what is says about the Modern, once a small museum itself, whose early identity was marked in the way in which its original building broke through the line of brownstones on West 53rd Street—a perfect symbol of a young institution that took pride in its fresh, creative thinking. That was quite literally a lifetime ago; we haven’t seen that MoMA in six decades." 

Gallery Floor Plan courtesy of Tod Williams & Billie Tsien Architects

The MoMA's "Other"

 And, finally, ArchDaily's very own columnist, Guy Horton approaches the debate from a more philosophical angle. First, he establishes what the building is to MoMA - it's Other:

"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."

Rather than openly criticizing the MoMA, he asks a series of questions, ultimately pondering: what does this decision mean for the MoMA's sense of identity, and what does it say about our own culture's value of architecture? 

"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? "

About this author
Cite: Vanessa Quirk. "Critics React to Folk Art Museum’s Imminent Demolition" 19 Apr 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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