"We need to steel ourselves for more
rapid architectural obsolescence"

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American Folk Art Museum opinion Mimi Zeiger

Opinion: Mimi Zeiger argues that dismay over the New York Museum of Modern Art's plan to demolish the next-door American Folk Art Museum represents "a lingering sentimental belief that architecture is an exception to the rules of obsolescence."


The recent flurry of critical missives and tweets over MoMA's decision to demolish the next-door American Folk Art Museum (AFAM), designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, has got me thinking about Harley Earl. The square-shouldered vice president and head of design at General Motors introduced stylised curves, chrome, and sex appeal into an industry driven by function. His most significant contribution to American culture, however, may be not the tail fin but planned obsolescence.

The idea that a manufacturer builds the death (by uselessness or tastelessness) into the birth of an object was once radical. It transferred the decision about when a product reaches the end of its life from the producer to the consumer. Could your sense of self-worth - your Cadillac, your iPhone - weather one more season before becoming démodé? Today, upgrading is a function of Moore's law, the observation that technology gets exponentially smaller and more powerful every two years. It's like breathing: one inhale, one exhale.

Architecture — or really I should say buildings, excusing for the moment the theoretical or speculative options — has largely been spared the frequency of model changes. This slower epochal cycle owes less to a belief in Vitruvius' firmitas, utilitas, venustas than to the economic fact that buildings cost more than a Chevy. Then there's the social contract that buildings, even not exactly great buildings, should stick around awhile.

Yet MoMA's decision to follow Diller Scofidio + Renfro's recommendation to start fresh on 53rd Street, just thirteen years after the AFAM's celebrated opening, leads us to reconsider architecture’s obsolescence. Perhaps we need to steel ourselves for more rapid architectural cycle. Harvey Earl introduced new auto body models every three to five years. Too slow. Our era trades on the pop-up, the art-fair tent and the pavilion. The breathless pace of the internet only underscores design as a temporary, consumable product to be traded over mobile devices. To know the American Folk Art Museum is to Instagram the American Folk Art Museum.

Yet in all this churning through history, we have to remind ourselves that Williams and Tsien’s museum is considered the first new significant piece of architecture built after 9/11. You could even say that its facade of alloyed bronze panels, pockmarked from pouring hot metal onto bare concrete in the casting process, represented New York City’s toughness, resiliency, and belief in art, folk art, and art of the people in the face of adversity.

In his 14 December 2001 review, New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp lauded the building, writing:

"We can stop waiting for state officials to produce plans for redeveloping the city's financial district. The rebuilding of New York has already begun. The new American Folk Art Museum in Midtown, designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, is a bighearted building. And its heart is in the right time as well as the right place. The design delves deeply into the meaning of continuity: the regeneration of streets and cities; the persistence and mingling of multiple memories in the changing polyglot metropolis; and the capacity of art to transcend cultural categories even as it helps define them."

In retrospect, Muschamp's effusive wordsmithing borders on hyperbole. Yet in focussing on the cultural context in which the building was born, it captures much of what is missing from current discussion (which tends to be markedly concentrated on functionality and new square footage). If we practice the rules of obsolescence, the death of this signature piece of architecture was designed in at the beginning.

As much as I would want to praise the American Folk Art Museum for pointing a way forward out of that dark time, the structure is no phoenix. From the beginning it was anachronistic. This is its downfall.

Although completed in the new millennium, it is an artefact from the 1990s, or to crib from Portlandia, an artefact from the 1890s. Muschamp's title suggests as much: Fireside Intimacy for Folk Art Museum. "Our builders have largely dedicated themselves to turning back the clock," he writes of Williams and Tsien's obsessive attention to materiality.

The museum is a little too West Coast for midtown - too much like somethign from the Southern California Institute of Architecture, before computation took command. Its design values everything the current art and real estate markets reject: hominess, idiosyncrasy, craft. By contrast, Diller Scofidio + Renfro's scheme emphasises visibility and publicness. The same could be said for an Apple store.

A message from MoMA director Glenn D. Lowry posted on the museum’s website touts that the new design will "transform the current lobby and ground-floor areas into an expansive public gathering space." Indeed, the much talked-about Art Bay, the 15,500-square-foot, double-height hall in the scheme, walks a fine line between public space and gallery. Fronted with a retractable glass wall and designed for flexibility, the Art Bay is so perfectly attuned to the performance zeitgeist, that it makes Marina Abramović want to twerk.

When the plans to demolish AFAM first surfaced in the spring of 2013 and the efficacy of its galleries to support MoMA collections came into question, I rebutted the suggestion that the cramped layout was flawed, suggesting instead that we see it within the legacy of the house museum, akin to Sir John Soane's Museum in London, where the architect spent his later years arranging and rearranging his antiquities. Or even a sibling of 101 Spring Street, Donald Judd's SoHo studio and residence now preserved as an artefact of contemporary art history and an exemplary piece of cast iron architecture. Fiscally rescued from obsolescence, these are zombie edifices: institutions frozen in time and largely immune from market ebbs and flows.

The sad fate of the American Folk Art Museum comes on the heels of a rough year. Cries of #saveprentice, although loud in the Twittersphere, ultimately fell on deaf ears so Bertrand Goldberg's Prentice Women’s Hospital (1970) in Chicago fell to the wreaking crews this past autumn. Richard Neutra's Cyclorama Building (1962) in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, was also deemed defunct and unfashionable. Michael Graves' Portland Building (1982) might be next, given reports of the cost to maintain the postmodern icon.

Past preservation movements grew out of grassroots efforts such as the Miami Design Preservation League, which formed in 1976 to save what would become the city's Art Deco district, or the Los Angeles Conservancy, galvanising two years later to save the Los Angeles Central Library. Is the future of preservation advocacy or apathy?

The Tumblr #FolkMoMA, initiated and curated by Ana María León and Quilian Riano, dragged the fate of AFAM - a pre-internet building - into the age of social media. The hashtag set the stage for a robust dialogue on the subject and a much-needed commons for debate, but failed to save architecture from capital forces.

In weighing in to protest or eulogise the passing of the American Folk Art Museum, perhaps what we mourn is not the building per se, but a lingering sentimental belief that architecture is an exception to the rules of obsolescence. This building strived to represent so many intimacies, but ultimately its finely crafted meaning was deemed disposable.

Fingers may point at the ethics of Diller Scofidio + Renfo's decision to take on the project or wag fingers at MoMA's expansionist vision, but the lesson here cuts deeper into our psyche. Architecture, as written in long form, exceeds our own life spans and operates in a time frame of historical continuity. Architecture writ short reminds us of our own mortality, coloured by mercurial taste.

  • Hamish

    ‘Then there’s the social contract that buildings, even not exactly great buildings, should stick around awhile.’ – the social contract is an argument for centralised governance, where the hell does it come into building conservation?

  • justin donnelly

    Really Mimi? “the Art Bay makes Marina Abramović want to twerk”? I thought that critiquing Muschamps for hyperbole was fair until I read this sententious quip. What is more, this article would have been so much more insightful had you only researched the economics of the building – what were the design and construction costs in 2001?

    How much money did the Folk Art Museum bring in over its 13-year history? How much more valuable will the property be to MOMA after the reconstruction? Take heed Dezeen. This essay, much like the preservation of AFAM, was a missed opportunity.

    • amsam

      “Take Heed Dezeen”? Talk about sententious…

  • sor perdida

    Mimi, no reasonably trained professional would take your far-fetched theory about instilling uselessness within a building, when it comes to the American Folk Art Museum. The building in question represents, it’s true, a short-lived momentum where at least in the US, after decades of historicist havoc (i.e. Post-Modernism), architecture harks back to its lost purity in an enriched way, by assimilating lost crafts and techniques in its reborn expression. It is what in Europe names like Herzog & de Meuron, Moneo or Zumthor were doing a decade earlier.

    On the terrain vague of speculative development and value-engineering that US architecture/construction business has become, doubled by a too weak and gentrified professional body to stand up for its values, the sort of architecture practiced by Williams & Tsien is doomed. It simply doesn’t bring ‘bang for the buck’ to put it in a rather trivial language that Mimi Zeiger is surely more familiar with.

    Yet, Ms. Zieger’s as well as Diller & Scofidio’s argument for demolition is not a cultural one. Even in the land of wild pragmatics, culture should not be a disposable thing for the sake of updating; what these individuals advocate is plain cultural crime.

  • Peezus

    Let’s think about this quote for a minute: ‘”Our builders have largely dedicated themselves to turning back the clock,” he writes of Williams and Tsien’s obsessive attention to materiality.’

    You can tell when a culture stagnates at the moment when it no longer gives value to the physical, but the “brand.” It happened to Europe. It’s happening here.
    Hedge fund derivatives work on the same principle. Making money out of thin air. In a few years all America will be a service industry revolving around a few brands that were started in the American golden age (1920-1970) just like Prada echoes a european golden age.

  • Peezus

    I think it’s a ridiculous premise, however, that any architecture should have planned obsolesce, or that we should at least shrug at this as a new normal. It would be like looking the other way at the death of a prodigious child. The only place were people do planned obsolesce is in suburbia, and we call those people “bad developers” not architects.

    What happened to placing value on things in society? This person is stupid, this building is bad, these developers are bad. Planned obsolescence in any product, building is why this economy is going down the toilet – it’s not something to be shrugged at.

    If anything the FAM was the opposite of that (sturdy, material, not flimsy), which is why its demolition is so absurd and wasteful.

  • kadap

    So the argument that system forces, “the market”, data, and analytics should govern our built places? I would personally hate to live in a world that forgoes homeyness, idiosycracies, craft (and oh yeah, quality), for planned obsolescence. Does anyone like to spend time in an Apple store? No. They go there to get products fixed which otherwise can exist in a simulated autonomy.

    Maybe I’ve missed the point though, the whole debate and scenario over the museums would make a fantastic performance art piece. It could be title “MoMA, Coming to a Strip-Mall, Near You”

  • justsayin

    Still do not understand what the fuss is about. At the bottom of all the furore, it seems that what is irking everyone is not the notion that a great building being lost, senselessly, nor some metaphysical crisis about architecture’s permanence, or the lack thereof – instead, it seems to be an outrage about a big corporation like MoMA being able to do whatever they want in a city like New York, without consulting the public for the sake of yet another elitist money making scheme, aided by the vision of architects who should be worried about their own proposal being torn down a few years down the road (let’s admit it, DSR’s recent work has been, well, embarrassing).

    It is sad that the critic fails to take a position herself. Enough obfuscating and talking in general terms, and let’s name what is wrong with the things, without fearing the retribution of the “establishment”.

  • Smack

    This is actually Zeiger’s argument.

  • James

    Culture verses commodity. Unfortunately, the author places even institutional buildings in the realm and rule of capitalism rather than culture. Shall we consider art to have similar rules of obsolescence? I shudder to think how this article’s logical conclusion suggests an end to architectural preservation. Values may change, but the value of preserving artefacts of our culture will always remain.

  • davvid

    The author is correct. The Folk Museum building’s fate was sealed when the museum decided to situate itself as a thorn in the MoMA’s side.

  • arriven

    Shouldn’t a city like New York want to nurture diversity and uniqueness? Who cares if the building vaguely resembles that of a west coast design. This is New York f***ing City, where the world comes to meet (OK, yes there are for more diverse and int’l cities, but it’s all North America has so bear with me).

    If this thing is demolished for yet another glass cube I will be disappointed. Obscurity in a city is just as important as clarity. Personally I really love this building’s aesthetic. It’s monolithic face is minimal, easy to capture and iconic. A conglomeration of glass and aluminium will only make this block sink into the noise of the city. I say keep it standing and re-purpose its interior.

  • Frank

    Aldo Rossi said;: ‘The history of architecture is the history of the architecture of the ruling classes’. If the economic model is decentralised and open, if there is freedom of entry, exit and information, the result is not diversity but rather homogeneity. Flexibility is synonymous with homogeneity as ambiguity is synonymous with transparency.

    As all ‘perfect’ markets converge toward monopoly in the long term, an architecture generated from similar principles will likewise exhibit similar characteristics. Its called a ‘Happy Meal’.

  • spadestick

    The panels should be saved at the very very least. DS+R should acknowledge something their contemporaries created. Competition amongst starchitects is the worst thing I can think of.

  • marwan al-sayed

    As a former employee of Tod and Billie’s and an admirer of their positive “resistance” to buildings as commodities I, like many others am disheartened to see this building razed and yet, this forces us to heed the ephemerality of life itself as Jorge Luis Borges reminds us when he writes, “All is built on sand, but we must build as if the sand were stone.”

    Aarwan al-sayed, Los Angeles.

  • Earth_Architect

    It is not thoughtful to tear down when others on earth have yet to be built up.

  • Derek

    Meanwhile in Canada, they’re trying to preserve a two storey motel in the heart of downtown Toronto, whose facade with multiple air conditioner units sticking out windows would make anyone cringe that it might be considered a heritage building ><

  • Jimbo

    I thought the Folk Museum was being demolished because its layout and spatial arrangement did not suit the new owners and they are able to throw enough money to pull off the project. Obsolescence is quite different from change of use.

    Of course, the reason we repurpose or renovate is because demolition is not cost effective; or because we care about architecture, history and the context of communities. In this case, the client cares more about their perceived needs and is willing to spend the money. Let’s not turn it into a movement.