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04.16.2013
MoMA the Demolisher
The Modern makes the "painful" decision to scrap Williams and Tsien's Folk Art building.
Dan Nguyen / Flickr

The Museum of Modern Art is in the unenviable position of destroying a relatively new building by a respected architecture firm. The former American Folk Art Museum building sits between the MoMA’s existing building and a planned tower designed by Jean Nouvel. The folk art museum’s former home, designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsein Architects, was completed in 2001 and sold to MoMA only ten years later, in 2011, relieving the folk art museum from a heavy debt burden.

According to MoMA’s director, Glenn Lowry, the folk art museum initiated the transaction. “We entered into the process with an open mind,” he said a statement. “However, it was also with the understanding that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to integrate a building that was designed for a very specific purpose and as a discrete structure with the Museum’s plans for expansion.”

Barry Bergdoll, chief curator of MoMA's architecture and design department, told AN that the decision was an administrative, rather than a curatorial one. He called the decision “painful” for architects and others who appreciate Williams and Tsein’s work, and acknowledged that museums have a responsibility to the art in their care—including architecture. But, he said, the building “was designed as a jewel box for folk art,” and could not reasonably be altered to fit a different collection and a different purpose. Bergdoll added that some possible solutions, including retaining only the facade of the former folk art museum building or drastically restructuring it, would violate its architectural integrity and “denature its total design aesthetic.”

 
Facade of the American Folk Art Museum (left). Interior of Williams and Tsien's building shortly after it was vacated by the American Folk Art Museum (right).
Giles Ashford
 

Williams and Tsien’s firm has been inundated with press inquiries since news of MoMA’s demolition plans broke, but a public statement on their website expresses their sadness over MoMA’s decision. “The Folk Art building stands as an example of a modest and purposefully conceived and crafted space for art and the public; a building type that is all too rare in a city often defined by bigness and impersonality,” read the statement.

Williams and Tsein are no strangers to museum design. Their design for the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia was completed in 2012, and they have undertaken two expansion projects for the Phoenix Art Museum. Their website lists several other cultural organizations as clients, including the HoodMuseum at Dartmouth College and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Meanwhile, the American Folk Art Museum, thriving in its scaled-back home on Lincoln Square, presents a cheerful public face. They have also issued a public statement via their website. “We remain grateful for the purchase of the building by our good neighbor, the Museum of Modern Art; the sale of the building was a necessary step for our resurgence.”

Virginia C. McGuire