Big MoMA’s House
At the evening session, Lowry, in response to a question about how he could trash a building when he’d never do the same to a painting, distinguished the character of architecture on the basis of its functionality, taking the issue of the Folk Art Museum’s future out of the realm of “preservation” and placing it in the more tenuous category of “adaptive re-use.” Could it be made into a good gallery, hallway, cafe, something other than it was designed for? Which means, of course, that the more precise the original design intentions, the more likely the demolition.
The question, clearly and honestly articulated by Diller, concerned how much of the building could be modified or removed before some essential singularity was snuffed. Her account reminded me of “The Birth-Mark,” the story by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Gazing on his beloved, a scientist becomes obsessed by a birthmark he feels is her only flaw and wonders if it can be removed. She responds that the mark “has been so often called a charm that I was simple enough to imagine it might be so,” but submits to her husband’s desire. You know the rest: he concocts many formulas and finally discovers one that excises the mark but, in so doing, kills her.
This death by transfiguration suggests another irony. Williams and Tsien are the designers of the new building for the Barnes Collection in Philadelphia, warmly greeted by nearly every critic who has trashed DS+R over the MoMA job. Although the original Barnes building was not torn down after the collection moved, there are legions who still fervently believe that the context it provided for the collection was coterminous with the collection itself, that the symbiosis of art and domestic space was the genius of the place. By any ethical measure, this does not suggest that MoMA’s demolition is some kind of karmic payback, but the parallel should prompt Lowry to think further about MoMA’s own context, a neighborhood that it is helping to eviscerate by its refusal to value its neighbor’s artistry.
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Investigating the seam between art and architecture has long been the stuff of DS+R’s practice. Its breakthrough work was the great “blur” on Lake Neuchâtel—a building formed from mist, not simply a fantastic installation but one that strongly identified architecture with the immaterial and the performative. DS+R’s professional quest, in many ways, has been to retain that project’s qualities of ineffability in more orthodox and concrete circumstances. The High Line (designed with James Corner) has been terrific because the project—an adaptive re-use long gestating in the minds of many—enjoyed such a singular and congenial armature, focused such widespread desire, and because its additions to the old viaduct were a canny combination of lapidary minimalism and fecund and ever-transforming plantings. Likewise, its renovations to Lincoln Center were inscribed on a strong but deficient template, becoming part of an enriched palimpsest that they cured of much of its inefficiency, imperial stodginess and inconsistent detail.
DS+R also has a long history of exploring the political in its architecture and critique. In particular, it has worked in exhibitions, installations, texts, and buildings to raise questions about surveillance and privacy, mass culture and tourism, the body and its prosthetic extension, and the distorting seductions of vision. In MoMA’s claims for the importance of its expansion, politics is invoked as a key motive, but in a deeply diffuse and elusive way. The obsession with “access” merges too easily with the project’s overriding emphasis on circulation: art will be brought nearer to “the street,” and people will be able to see it from the sidewalk. The cloistered garden will be periodically opened to the public. This will be facilitated by flip-up glass that will vamp the fantasy of the “museum without walls.”
Alas, this is a wan substitute for the genuinely political, which depends not on the generosity of private interests but on the creation and reinforcement of a genuine public realm, based on real public participation in the decisions that affect it. This dual dilemma was surely on the minds of those at Ethical Culture, and the disappointment at being invited to participate after the fact was galling. Likewise, the question of preservation, and the fraught discourse of precisely what was to be preserved, was too easily dismissed—by belittling it, for example, as “facadism.” Indeed, for many of those in attendance, the argument for saving the Folk Art building is that it is a work of art, full stop. It’s a good enough argument, but so is the idea that certain buildings—via their presentness, familiarity or eccentricity—are crucial parts of the city’s fundamental physiognomy, a quality difficult to codify through the normal routines of artistic or historical judgment.
But these values are central to the city’s sense of memory, respect, even compassion, and they must be fought out in a court without laws. Whatever the specific architectural merits of the Folk Art Museum, it is clear that its function on 53rd Street is, in part, as a last bulwark of a midtown in which the midblocks were reserves of row houses, elaborately expressed and in happy contrast to the larger towers on the avenues. By demolishing the Folk Art Museum and snuffing out its exceptionality, MoMA abets a money-mad engine in which nobody bats an eye at an eighty-story tower in the middle of the block but can’t find a way to save the lovely little treasure next door.