A museum employee walks up a stairway framed by Andy Warhol's cow wallpaper at the Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Education and Research building at the Museum of Modern Art. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
Imagine that the Guggenheim Museum decided to trash a Kandinsky because it clashed with the office décor. Or that the Metropolitan Museum of Art sent one of the Yves Saint Laurent dresses in its Costume Institute to Goodwill because hemlines are lower this season. Or that the New York Public Library decided that an unwieldy Audubon “double elephant” folio should go to the recycling pile because it’s too big for the shelf.
Luckily, you can’t. Such things do happen, perhaps, when remarkable works come by accident into the hands of people unaware of their value—but not when they belong to museums, whose mission it is to preserve important works and cultivate their greater appreciation. Yet something similar is about to happen on West 53rd Street, where the Museum of Modern Art has announced its intention to raze the adjacent building that formerly housed the American Folk Art Museum, now a possession of MoMA. This compelling, idiosyncratic and admittedly imperfect structure was completed in 2001 by the much-lauded firm of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, whose other credits include the new premises of the Barnes Collection in Philadelphia. The Folk Art Museum building has earned kudos and many awards, including the American Institute of Architects National Honor Award in 2003. Herbert Muschamp rhapsodized in The New York Times over a design that “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.” This passion-inspiring building is just the sort of object that a museum with a great architecture department would be expected to protect.
The storage rooms of museums are packed with works too mediocre to be exhibited yet of too much historical interest to de-accession. Buildings can’t be mothballed, but they are also more adaptable than art in frames or vitrines. They can be modified without being destroyed, which is more than can be said of a Kandinsky. Accordingly, prominent achitects including Steven Holl and Richard Meier have called for MoMA to reconsider its decision. The Folk Art Museum building is not without problems, mostly stemming from the tiny footprint Williams and Tsien had to work with; the galleries can be cramped, and would not be ideal for large-scale contemporary art. But they are far more graceful than those the Tokyo-based firm SANAA (Sejima and Nishizawa and Associates) designed for the similarly narrow New Museum, which opened in 2007.
Mine is not necessarily a view that everyone can accept: to many observers, the Folk Art building seems, like all too many museums these days, to be a grand-scale sculpture that fails to showcase the art it was built to house. But if that is MoMA’s opinion, then it should say so, which could help stimulate a worthwhile public discussion on the aesthetic of architecture. And even then, an open-minded assessment of the building’s shortcomings might be something the museum’s architects could mine for a considered renovation under their own direction. Instead, as an open letter from the Architectural League of New York notes, “The Museum of Modern Art has not yet offered a compelling justification for the cultural and environmental waste of destroying this much-admired, highly distinctive twelve-year-old building.”
“MoMA officials said the building’s design did not fit their plans because the opaque facade is not in keeping with the glass aesthetic of the rest of the museum,” Robin Pogrebin reported in the April 10 Times. “The former folk museum is also set back farther than MoMA’s other properties and the floors would not line up.” How can these arguments be taken seriously? The run-of-the-mill developers who are busy gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhoods like Fort Greene and Crown Heights, turning rows of brownstones into walls of condos, face issues no more demanding. If MoMA truly couldn’t figure out how to overcome these challenges—a foolish consistency, as everyone knows, being the hobgoblin of little minds—it might have thought to ask Williams and Tsien for some ideas. “We want to solve problems and we want to transcend solutions,” write the architects on their website, which admittedly sounds just like what architects would say—except that they certainly succeeded in solving problems at the Barnes, where the new building had to accommodate not just an existing collection, but the existing installation of the collection.
MoMA director Glenn Lowry says the decision to raze the American Folk Art building is “not a comment on the quality of the building or Tod and Billie’s architecture”—an astonishing remark, given that the quality of works of architecture should be one of the institution’s core concerns, even though it has never been satisfactorily embodied by MoMA’s own building. Its most recent redesign, by Yoshio Taniguchi, has been a huge letdown: the ostentatious understatement of its design succeeds only in getting in the way of the art. I grew up with the pre-Taniguchi MoMA and feel nostalgia for that building because of the unforced intimacy it allowed between the art and the museumgoer, but it was never great architecture either. The corporate atmosphere that Taniguchi has brought to MoMA is undoubtedly an accurate reflection of the change in ethos that many cultural institutions have undergone in recent decades. The essential distinction between the museum’s mission to conserve and the mindset of businessmen bent on what Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction” in the scramble for profits has been lost.
MoMA is in a terrible rush to demolish. The former Folk Art building is set to be destroyed by the end of this year, even before the designer of its replacement is selected or the money secured to build it. Architects aren’t unionized, but maybe they should act as though they are. What if they were to unite to protest MoMA’s philistinism by unanimously declining to interview for the job of replacing their colleagues’ creation?
The NYPL is also facing a threat to its flagship reading room on 42nd Street, as The Nation’s Scott Sherman has been reporting.