Major urban institutions, like viruses, are hard-wired for survival and growth. The bigger they get, the more determined they are to keep growing, even to the detriment of their host. We see it all the time with hospitals and universities that stomp all over their neighborhoods, simultaneously trading on, and destroying, the local character. And now we are seeing it with a different kind of institution, the Museum of Modern Art.
It is foolish to think you can have a reasoned conversation about expansion with mega-institutions because the issues are always framed by their own hermetic logic. What’s good for the system is all that matters. So, when MoMA Director Glen Lowry and architect Elizabeth Diller make the case for demolishing the American Folk Art Museum, they start with the assumption that growth is a good thing. Expansion, they argue, is necessary to relieve overcrowding in its 53rd Street compound. Huge numbers of visitors requires the creation of a sequence of continuous galleries, so MoMA’s collection can be displayed in a more effective, interdisciplinary manner. The Folk Art building interrupts that continuous flow, and it is impossible to incorporate the structure into the new wing because of what Diller calls its “obdurate” design. (That means, ‘stubborn, unyielding,’ by the way.) Ergo, it must be destroyed.
This formulation turns the teensy, 6,000-square-foot Folk Art museum into the problem, when the real problem is that MoMA’s vast scale has made it an overwhelming, pleasure-less place to engage with art. Making the compound bigger will only degrade the experience even more, no matter how elegantly Diller Scofidio & Renfro refine their proposal for a new east-west circulation corridor. And who believes this will be MoMA’s last expansion? If the plan is realized, the museum and its residential appendages will sprawl across more than two-thirds of its block. Cities thrive on diversity, but MoMA is turning its swathe of Manhattan into a monoculture, a ghetto of extreme affluence.
MoMA keeps comparing its situation to that of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, another mega-museum that struggles with overcrowding. The Met moves six million visitors a year through its galleries; MoMA handles three million, double the number it saw before the 2004 Taniguchi expansion. The Met’s solution to the increasing numbers has been a series of architectural appendages. Why shouldn’t MoMA add another wing? What gets forgotten is that the Met is located in a park and set back from Fifth Avenue by a broad plaza and monumental staircase. Manhattan can handle tremendous density, but those millions of visitors are surely felt more intensely on 53rd Street than in Central Park. It is not only MoMA that is unbearably crowded now; it is all of Midtown.
Density has become the new urban rallying cry. There is probably not a city in America that would not benefit from higher concentrations of people, but that doesn’t mean all density is created equal or that there are no limits to density. I was once a New Yorker, but when I travel now from my home in Philadelphia (which has densities similar to Brooklyn’s) to Midtown, I am increasingly aware of the oppressiveness of the crowding—on the sidewalks, in the subways, in museums, in public places of all kinds. This is purely anecdotal, I realize, but on my last visit to Midtown I was reprimanded twice by strangers for intruding on their personal space, even though I had no choice in the matter, having been jostled by fellow travelers. The stress level seems way up.
Museums were once places where New Yorkers could go to find an oasis of tranquility and contemplation from the unrelenting city. I can hardly believe that as a college student I would sometimes journey to MoMA’s garden or the Frick’s garden court simply to be alone and do homework. The Folk Art museum was designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien to provide space for repose. Though some critics have complained about its inscrutable metal facade, the solidity was intentional and—when you consider its purpose—functional. Within the thick armature of its concrete walls, you could feel removed from the world. The domestically scaled spaces might not be perfect for displaying art, but neither are MoMA’s supposedly all-purpose white boxes. You could see the hand of the architects on every surface—the beaten bronze panels, the bush hammered concrete—a personal stamp we rarely experience anymore. Eccentricity is part of its appeal, the antithesis of Taniguchi’s malleable, subservient MoMA galleries. The Folk Art was the first museum, and first serious work architecture, to be completed in New York after 9/11, when the city was reeling from the enormity of the tragedy and reconsidering the predilection for bigness that produced the twin towers. As then, New York is again suffering from a crisis of bigness. It needs to make room for the small.
MoMA perceives the Folk Art museum as a threat to the institution, but it shouldn’t. The Met has found a way to decentralize with the acquisition of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Marcel Breuer building, where it plans to install its growing contemporary art collection. The satellite will be an excellent pressure valve. MoMA, which is more fleet in its operations, more attuned to new ways of thinking about space, could easily establish similar satellites around the city, boutique spaces for shows that get swallowed up in the big house. In an interview, Diller told me that when MoMA hired her firm, they “asked us to make them uncomfortable.” Instead they were suckered in by the institution’s faulty logic. Rather than pursuing ways to chop up the Folk Art building to make it fit into an expanded MoMA, they should have explored ways to invent a new, de-centralized kind of museum. No obsolete albatross, the small, intimate Folk Art may well represent the first inklings of what a modern New York museum can be.