Demolition "only option" for New York's
folk art museum says MoMA director

| 19 comments

American Folk Art Museum building

News: the Williams and Tsien-designed former American Folk Art Museum in New York will be demolished just 13 years after it was built to make room for an extension to the neighbouring Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), despite an outcry from architects, conservationists and critics.

MoMA and American Folk Art Museum
MoMa's proposed extension by Diller Scofidio + Renfro - view from 53rd Street

In a statement last night, MoMA director Glenn D. Lowry said the museum will move forward with designs by Diller Scofidio + Renfro to extend its existing building over the site of the former folk art museum designed by American architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien and completed in 2001.

The decision follows a six-month study that investigated options for its retention. "The plans approved today are the result of a recommendation from the architects after a diligent and thoughtful six-month study and design process that explored all options for the site," said Lowry.

"The analysis that we undertook was lengthy and rigorous, and ultimately led us to the determination that creating a new building on the site of the former American Folk Art Museum is the only way to achieve a fully integrated campus."

MoMA and American Folk Art Museum
MoMa's proposed extension by Diller Scofidio + Renfro - view of the sculpture garden entrance on 54th Street

Williams and Tsien have described the move as "a missed opportunity to find new life and purpose for a building that is meaningful to so many".

"The Folk Art building was designed to respond to the fabric of the neighbourhood and create a building that felt both appropriate and yet also extraordinary," they said.

"Demolishing this human-scaled, uniquely crafted building is a loss to the city of New York in terms of respecting the size, diversity and texture of buildings in a midtown neighbourhood that is at risk of becoming increasingly homogenised."

MoMA and American Folk Art Museum
MoMa's proposed extension by Diller Scofidio + Renfro - proposed view of the lobby, looking west

The bronze-clad museum first opened its doors in 2001 to exhibit a collection of paintings, sculptures and crafts by self-taught and outsider artists, but relocated to a smaller site on Lincoln Square, further north in Manhattan, after the building was sold to MoMA in 2011 to pay off a $32 million loan.

However, Williams and Tsien believe the building already holds a "powerful architectural legacy".

"The inability to experience the building firsthand and to appreciate its meaning from an historical perspective will be profoundly felt," they said.

American Folk Art Museum building - photograph by Dan Nguyen
American Folk Art Museum building - photograph by Dan Nguyen

Diller Scofidio + Renfro's expansion will add approximately 3700 square metres (40,000 square feet) of new galleries and public spaces to the museum.

It will extend across two sites west of the museum's midtown Manhattan building, including both the folk art museum site at 45 West 53rd Street and three floors of a new residential tower underway next door, allowing the existing lobby and ground-floor areas to be transformed into a large public space.

Scroll down for the full statement from Glenn D. Lowry:


Message from Glenn D. Lowry
Director, The Museum of Modern Art

The Museum of Modern Art's Board of Trustees today approved initial details of a major building project that will expand the Museum's public spaces and galleries to provide greater public accessibility and allow the Museum to reconceive the presentation of its collection and exhibitions. Working with Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the renowned interdisciplinary studio based in New York City, the Museum has developed a plan to integrate its current building with two sites to the west of the Museum's midtown Manhattan campus into which it will expand: three floors of a residential tower being developed by Hines, at 53 West 53rd Street; and the site of the former American Folk Art Museum, at 45 West 53rd Street. The plans include new gallery space on three floors within the tower, and a new building on the site of the former museum.

The plans approved today are the result of a recommendation from the architects after a diligent and thoughtful six-month study and design process that explored all options for the site. The analysis that we undertook was lengthy and rigorous, and ultimately led us to the determination that creating a new building on the site of the former American Folk Art Museum is the only way to achieve a fully integrated campus.

As a major component of the Museum's desire for greater public access and a more welcoming street presence, the preliminary concepts approved today will transform the current lobby and ground-floor areas into an expansive public gathering space, open to the public and spanning the entire street level of the Museum, including The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden. In advance of these plans, the Museum will increase free public access to the Sculpture Garden later this year.

The extension of MoMA's galleries to the west on its second, fourth, and fifth floors will add a variety of spaces and allow the Museum to present an integrated display of its collection across all disciplines—photography, architecture, design, film, media, prints, drawings, performance, painting, and sculpture. These carefully choreographed sequences will highlight the creative frictions and influences that spring from seeing these mediums together.

The expansion will add approximately 40,000 square feet of new galleries and public areas, providing 30% more space for visitors to view the collection and special exhibitions. The additional space will allow the Museum to show transformative acquisitions that have added new dimensions and voices to its holdings, drawing from entire collections of contemporary drawings, Fluxus, and Conceptual art; the archives of Frank Lloyd Wright; and major recent acquisitions by such artists as Marcel Broodthaers, Lygia Clark, Steve McQueen, Robert Rauschenberg, Gerhard Richter, Mira Schendel, Richard Serra, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, and Cy Twombly, among many others.

Our vision for MoMA's next phase will be completed over the coming years, and I look forward to updating you on our progress.

  • Colonel Pancake

    I have a strong preservationist inclination, but I can assure anybody who hasn’t been there that the Folk Art Museum was a sparsely attended hermetic box for a reason. When you compare the mediocre quality of the architecture with the quality of MoMA’s art that cannot currently be shown due to limited gallery space, I think it’s beyond question what act is the strongest holistic embrace of artistic culture.

    Ideally, every building by notable architects wouldn’t be demolished against the will of the public, but it’s Midtown Manhattan for christsakes. There simply aren’t vacant lots in proximity to the museum. It is worth admitting that it was an error on MoMA’s part to not plan ahead and anticipate more need for gallery space, but caution to overextend itself is admirable, especially when its that misguided optimism that sank the Folk Art Museum in the first place.

    • orangeeli

      As a New Yorker, an architect and someone that has visited both museums many times and has friends working for MoMA, DS+R, and TWBTA, I can assure you that this is a great loss and will forever mar the image of both MoMA and DS+R.

      The folk art building is better than the art that it once contained, even though I enjoyed the art, as well. MoMA is a terrible building now and nothing presented here shows that it will improve by much. At a minimum they could isolate the folk art building and keep it separate and gain the space back by making their building a half storey taller (which could easily be argued in a preservation conscious city like New York. Use it for small exhibitions, the smaller items of the design collection, or as the artist’s choice gallery. After a genius renovation of Lincoln Center, DS+R is really letting us down. The 53rd Street side of MoMA is already such a hodge podge of buildings, it would not change the image of the institution, only make it stronger to preserve the Folk.

      • Colonel Pancake

        I simply find the Folk Art Museum to be terribly overwrought with needless complexity and materials, much like all of TW+BS’s designs. I honestly think they’re mediocre. The most redeeming element of the building is the materiality of the facade, but even that lends to the poor quality of light and access with the street.

        MoMA has its problems, but it’s a very difficult site to work with and a terribly complex set of programmatic functions that need to be met. I actually think it’s a very good design, all challenges considered.

    • grb

      In my opinion, the Folk Art Museum was sparsely attended because:

      a) it found itself competing with – not feeding off – it’s spectacular neighbour for the precious hours and dollars of viewers.

      b) it’s site imposed severe constraints on what & how things could be shown in the narrow building.

      c) folk art is simply less popular.

      All of that is merely to lead to my view it was not a “mediocre” design, but exactly the opposite. I thought it was ingenious in how it opened up such a narrow and claustrophobic floor plate, and found it’s materials and detailing fresh and animated. In contrast, MOMA itself is a better example of “mediocre” architectures – layers of it, in fact. As for what is ideal and practical in Midtown Manhattan, doesn’t one of the world’s most important cultural institutions deserve to be held to a higher standard?

  • Frank Langella

    I wonder how much the MoMA paid DS+R to deflect the negative press? I would also like to see some renderings of those “attempts” to preserve the museum.

    This is the blandest, emptiest form of current modernism. “Openness” as a guise for empty. I actually prefer them both the way they are. If you look at the early modernists, theirs was much more robust, substantive, varied: look at FLW, Le Corbusier, or Eames. What every happened to the beauty of the building itself? All of the new condo towers want to have the view out to see the architecture of New York, but they don’t want to be architecture themselves.

    So much for the power of the people… Just like Occupy Wall Street, money always hires the best goons.

  • arhitekt

    Certainly obvious now; MoMA should have hired a better architect if they ever had any sincere intent to maintain the Folk Art Museum.

  • David

    When museums acquire an artwork, their responsibility is to protect and preserve that artwork, not destroy it. I’m not sure what MOMA is, but it has ceased to be a museum.

  • spadestick

    “Only option” – what b*******. Haven’t you heard of building over, around, or across? Save the facade at the very least. It’s the only thing there that doesn’t look bland, grey and banal. I can’t believe that this is DS+R’s scheme presented – boxes, orthogonic behaviour and stark glazing and white boredom. The DS+R I know has lots of pizazz – curved corners and fashionable parallelogrammatic angular devices.

    What’s going on here? DS+R should stop it and turn the tables around against this attention grabbing director who’s trying to pull it off, “look, I’m bringing in more money here for you shareholders”. Is art for really for sale?

  • sor perdida

    Within the whole minimal mass of the MoMA block, the Folk Art Museum building has been so far a smart urban counterpoint. The two buildings work beautifully together, regardless the latter’s functionality.

    Unfortunately in the last decade MoMA has become a mere retail warehouse, its best exhibitions were assigned to picayune, suffocating, miserably-lit spaces (Le Corbusier retrospective, as well as the recent Magritte exhibition). It is clear that MoMA’s management is an anti-cultural, rapacious gang looking for more ‘display window’.

    Shame on Diller & Scofidio for such a trite affiliation. Here is a spineless ‘machine a servir’ – that’s how low Elizabeth Diller has become these days.

  • mb4design

    The building to be demolished seems as precious as the objects to be displayed in the MoMA expansion. If it can’t be incorporated or built around, move it inside as part of the permanent collection.

  • kadap

    The proposed extension looks like some well-lit, white boxes. It doesn’t relate to human scale very well, or create a novel personal experience. However, I’m sure it works well for displaying artwork, much like a big box store/warehouse does a nice job of displaying consumer goods.

    DS+R probably won’t flop, I like the majority of their work, and am just commenting based on the images shown in contrast to the existing folk art museum.

  • conway

    Is no one going to mention how trite DS+R’s proposal is above? It looks like a first year architecture student’s early attempts at learning SketchUp… No human scale, no attempts at an interesting juxtaposition between buildings, and the entry is little more than a green washed, corporate version of what currently exists. I don’t see the lines of museum-goers that wrap around the block to sneak in those glass doors being mitigated in any way by planting trees in a pseudo public “sculpture garden”.

  • jnzllwgr

    MoMA has really gotten too big for its britches. I’m not surprised by the outcome of the “investigation”. I’ve seen it plenty of times before when the analysis is already loaded to favour of the easiest route to a solution. It will be a shame to see the old FAM go, but it will be more of a shame that MoMA will continue to thrive on investors, benefactors, grants and visitors who choose to overlook the fact that this institution – whose core responsibility is for preservation and curation – is demonstrating they are not interested in excellence but merely succeeding when it’s convenient.

  • amsam

    Folk Art museum was overdesigned, busy and unattractive (and also nobody went into it). Knock it down already.

  • Guest

    MoMA is an institution of Modernism yet to look at its architecture one would think it has mistaken Modernism for the ‘contemporary’.

  • Nick

    MoMA would be wise to hire BCJ or John Pawson if they ever want to create a successful minimalist design. This is not the arena for DS+R as the drawings clearly demonstrate.

  • NIC

    FIRST WORLD PROBLEM.

    • h30

      NIC, most design debates are ‘first world’ issues.

  • Gary Walmsley

    I’d say what a waste, but honestly (at least externally the build is kind of hideous).