New York Street Fight: MoMA Knocks Down Its Next-Door Neighbor


Friday, January 17, 2014

Last May, we reported on a story in which it seemed David had triumphed over Goliath. David was a quirky, acclaimed jewel box of a building in midtown Manhattan — the former American Folk Art Museum — and the preservationists who loved it. Goliath was the Museum of Modern Art, which wanted to knock it down and put in a few more galleries. In response to a public outcry, MoMA halted its plans to raze its neighbor and hired the architecture firm of Diller Scofidio + Renfro to re-evaluate its need for more space.

The re-evaluation is in, and it calls for knocking down the building in order to connect the museum to a neighboring high rise. MoMA has announced that it will start demolition in the next few months. 

The move has left some wondering if MoMA’s exploration was genuine. New York Times culture reporter Robin Pogrebin says Diller Scofidio is known for its diligence and thoughtfulness. “The thinking is that they did their homework,” Pogrebin tells Kurt Andersen. “On the other hand, they’re also employed by MoMA … and MoMA clearly had an interest from the outset of seeing this building go.”

But Pogrebin also points out that while the bronze façade of the American Folk Art Museum building is almost universally admired, its interior has undeniable flaws when it comes to showcasing art — lots of stairways, angular rooms. Plans unveiled last week show that the building will be razed to connect three floors of MoMA’s existing building to a high rise designed by Jean Nouvel. It will also feature two additional galleries with glass façades, stacked one on top of the other.

Kurt suggests that if MoMA tears down one building of architectural significance, it has an obligation to build a new one of significance as well. Pogrebin boils it down to the question: “How is MoMA treating this building — is it a piece of property or is it a piece of art? And certainly the architectural world feels like they’re taking down a piece of art.” 

→ Are the people outraged by MoMA's decision to tear down the former American Folk Art Museum overreacting?
Tell us in a Comment below.

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Robin Pogrebin

Produced by:

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Comments [15]

Alan Blum from Tuscaloosa

I enjoyed my many visits to the American Folk Art Museum and was sorry about the troubles that forced it to lose its intriguing building. What a treat to run up the narrow stairwell from the lobby and work my way down. The galleries were intimate and seldom crowded. An occasional bird flew in. A nice touch was the small displays in stairway alcoves. But the hue and cry over saving this quirky building—and assuaging the hurt feelings of two celebrity architects--is the most ridiculous cause since the movement to clothe naked animals. The conversation between Kurt Anderson and the New York Times reporter, who is no Ada Louise Huxtable, was the most self-absorbed I have ever heard on Studio 360. There are genuine, serious problems throughout New York City and the nation. The loss of an overpriced, underwhelming museum building that never matched the greatness of many of the artworks inside is not worth anyone’s time or tears. The loss of any number of brownstones, shops, restaurants, and social amenities is far more meaningful and lasting.

Feb. 06 2014 01:43 AM
jane from Hudson Valley, NY

Most comments here and letters to the NYTimes have been interesting to read. The Studio 360 Story was good.I enjoyed the Folk Art Museum Bldg. The drawing of the "new" MoMA looks like a huge refrigerator.Opening the Garden free to all is a BIG Mistake. Blaming the last architect is disgusting; he did what his client asked:the big atrium which used LOTS of space which could have been used for art, with seating for reflection. A writer mentioned the current Mall feeling of MoMA and that is right. Tom from above.I visit MoMA often..but there is a sense of shopping, not viewing and reflecting and thinking. I Have been a member since the '60's when I moved to NYC. I probably will not continue to visit or be a member or shop in the new huge space. MoMA's attack of the work of previous Professional architects, artists in fact, has caused me to just rethink MoMA..they hired them. The architects did the work of their client, ie, MoMA. The Folk Art Building is a work of art, whether one likes it or not. It should be incorporated into a new building and leave the huge ice-berg entrance out of the new plan.Obviously this has made me think about where I spend my time viewing art and where I spend my $$. Thank you for this program and request for comments.

Jan. 21 2014 09:12 PM
Charles from Trbeca

The reason museums are crowed is the previous administration has spent millions marketing NYC historical and cultural institutions as free or at a huge discount. Like a "all you can eat" buffet. Consume as much as you can as quickly as possible for one low price. Museums are simply a destination they can check off their list. They are Walmart mentality tourists. They pack the museums, Grand Central Station, Staten Island Ferry, Brooklyn Bridge, WTC, City parks etc. Their purchases are imported low end low quality tax free clothing Those purchases only weaken our and their local government tax base. It's turned NYC into a giant discount box store. Numbers, not quality were the goal. Even though they bragged about flooding the city with an additional 2 million tourists in 2012, restaurant sales were down from 2011. Please stop marketing NYC as cheap and start thinking about quality for a change.

Jan. 21 2014 03:14 PM
Matt from Upper West Side

This debate is not about architects. Architects don't build buildings; they design them.

It's insidious companies, landowners, developers, and real estate firms that build buildings. The media should know better than to pit the architects against one another. Architects don't see it that way.

Jan. 20 2014 08:56 AM
Tom Manning from Brooklyn

The real issue at MOMA is that the museum -- the building itself -- is less interesting, less distinguished even, than the average shopping mall. There is no space inside the museum that remotely does justice to the incredible art. No space that sets up the art to take your breath away. No vistas that stop you in your tracks. It's just a bunch of rooms with walls.

From the outside, it is no more identifiable than the next glass-walled corporate office space on any block in Manhattan -- keeping the Folk Art facade could help do something about that. Keeping the facade alone is dismissed as "facadism," but I haven't heard anyone describing the Folk Art Museum interior as very distinguished.

As b from Brooklyn above says, the last renovation/expansion MOMA did was a big botch. It wiped out the museum's personality. Do something imaginative with the Folk Art Museum, it could be part of the solution, but the problem is much bigger.

Jan. 19 2014 06:32 PM
greg slater from east palo alto, ca

What about building the expanded MOMA around it - encompassing it - subsuming it, while leaving it intact as an entity itself - if necessary over it and with access through it - and in the process making it a work of art within the MOMA - that would be revolutionary and cool. They could even re-task it's exhibition space to serve other or more purposes than American Folk Art.

That's what they should do - subsume it into MOMA as a piece of art itself - art with space for art - which is supposedly why they are expanding MOMA.

Jan. 19 2014 03:24 PM
greg slater from east palo alto, ca

- Is the re-evaluation report online?
- Looking at pictures and reading comments, it seems that it's pretty much the facade that is the work of art (whether you love it or hate it - as all modern art). It sort of looks like a little building that got crushed from the sides by bigger buildings - maybe that was the intended effect.
In any case, if the thing is really doomed, maybe they can save the facade piece by piece and erect the facade as a stand-alone piece of art - in some park somewhere? Or maybe in a courtyard in the MOMA? Looks like it might make a decent climbing wall, too.
- Another preservation idea - Start a citizen architecture project to completely visually record the building exterior and interior and create a 'Virtual AFAM' for posterity. Then call the 'Virtual AFAM' a piece of art and exhibit it in the new MOMA.
I think I'd like to see the facade preserved and mad into a climbing wall in some park...

Jan. 19 2014 03:08 PM
Larry from New York

I would hope that the demise of the Folk Art Museum would encourage all architects to re-think their role - that they are designers, not art stars. The difference between designers and artists is that a designer's role is to meet the practical needs of their clients, and to do so beautifully, if that does not compromise the utility of the spaces their clients need and the operating budgets the clients have.

People have euphemistically admitted that the interior spaces of the Folk Art Museum were "difficult." Honestly, too much of the interior space was consumed with large photogenic staircases and architectural details and left too little useful exhibition and office space.

The building's identity and purpose was to be for Folk Art, not a Todd and Billie Museum. Like the American Center in Paris and the new Cooper Union building, the architects built things that did not serve the institutions' needs and which cost more to build and maintain than was affordable. And each case, the building caused the institution's demise.

At the new Barnes Foundation, Williams and Tsien did a great job, but because they were bound to fulfill the client's specific program. The Folk Art Museum however,is a cautionary tale. Perhaps it is architectural Darwinism if even Williams and Tsien's friends, the brilliant, inventive, well-respected Diller and Scofidio could not figure out a way to make the building a viable organism. If architects design buildings that fulfill clients' and societal needs and look beautiful, they will be loved and protected and used forever.

Jan. 19 2014 02:53 PM
Mary Rickel Pelletier from Hartford, Ct

The design investigation ought to be made public so that the design community and fans of the former Folk Art Museum can debate the formal details openly. If MOMA would exhibit design studies, this could become an exciting and informative discussion. Rather than another story of problematic expansion.

Jan. 19 2014 02:02 PM

Two ugly buildings walked into a bar...

Jan. 19 2014 01:50 PM
steve from manhattan

I've grown to hate MoMA over the 30+ years I've lived here. This latest development is the final nail in the coffin. MoMA has abandoned it's original mission in favor of the unbridled avarice of Manhattan real estate developers. It's become the Monstrous Mall of Modern Art. Next thing you know, Donald Trump will be named to the board or a curatorial position.

Jan. 19 2014 11:17 AM
b from BK

this is a very unfriendly building from a street scape and pedestrian pov

it is essentially a featureless bronze wall

no on will miss this once its gone.

the real issue is how the MOMA botched the massive last renovation. the "original" design of the 90's was far superior though smaller.

Jan. 19 2014 11:13 AM
gary from NY

Wish you would have talked about why the Folk Art Museum is no longer in that building. I was so disappointed by the experience of visiting it. I felt it was a mess as a museum space and the facade was un-welcoming, dull and inappropriate to the artworks. I think the bigger story is how the structure almost destroyed the museum. For the future I'd rather see MoMa now focus on trying to improve their own recently built sterile and cramped spaces rather than having to keep the Folk Art structure around as a reminder of a major failure.

Jan. 18 2014 08:24 PM
binbrooklyn from brooklyn

So long windowless gray gash; Penn Station, you aint!

Don't get me wrong, I too cherish when a designer is permitted to give in to whimsy and makes something unique; but this is merely unique and has all the hallmarks of value-engineering: not very useful, but bold and cheap!

In fact, there is a good reason why people don't make windowless gray gashes in the course of normal business.

Jan. 18 2014 04:36 PM
Dave Muir from Brooklyn.

Shameful and, above all, unimaginative. I am seriously reconsidering my membership.

Jan. 18 2014 04:26 PM

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