Getting the Folk out

momaReading the early reviews of the American Folk Art Museum in New York makes you realise that there was a crushing logic to the decision by MOMA’s board to selected Diller Scofidio & Renfro to decide whether any parts of it could be preserved. Such a perfect architectural storm had blown up following the announcement that the large art museum was going to demolish its tiny neighbour. In turn, MOMA’s decision to punt the problem back to the architects had a certain ruthless aspect to it. And not just any architects. After their work on the Lincoln Center, DSR have established themselves as a practice to turn to in order to reconcile conflicting architectural ambitions that have historically dogged a project.

One doesn’t have to go back far – just 11 short years – to take a historical perspective on the AFAM case but it still proves highly informative. Reading the original reviews of the building indicates some of the issues that DSR are going to have to address. In 2002, Rowan Moore gave a generally positive review of AFAM. In conclusion however he raised the following question about the exhibition space: “the only doubts are caused by a faint air of insignificance that haunts the upper floors: what exactly is the purpose you catch yourself thinking of these patchy exhibitions?” Amidst the general applause from his fellows, Moore’s remark stands as an important pointer to the controversy surrounding the recent news.

For rarely has opinion about an art gallery diverged between art and architecture critics so clearly. When the sale of the building to MoMA was announced in 2011, Jerry Saltz, art critic in New York magazine wrote that whilst he approved of the work shown in them, “the galleries were long narrow corridors or landings, sometimes only a few feet wide, making it impossible to see the art.” Rather than focusing on the economics of why the administration of a relatively small museum with little potential for revenue raising should burden itself with a loan for US $32million to finance a new museum, Saltz focuses on the architectural issues. Perhaps understandably the architecture critic of New York magazine, Justin Davidson, felt the need to respond directly to Saltz comparing his criticism to “faulting Mercedes-Benz for making such lovely cars that minimum-wage workers go bankrupt buying them.”

Why such strong disagreement? It is worth quoting the introduction to Rowan Moore’s article at length: “New York has the most sophisticated architectural culture in the world, it puts on the best shows and has the most famous critics and many of the best practices and schools. It has the best parties the best gossip and an architectural court as exquisitely calibrated as that of a Chinese emperor.” He goes on to point out that despite this culture, new architecture of quality rarely gets built in the city. “When Martin Fuller in The New Republic proclaims the AFAM New York’s greatest building in decades this is not only because the museum is indeed a fine building, but also because the competition is limited.”

MoMA after all, with its prominent architecture and design department, led by chief curator Barry Bergdoll, is one of the key powers in this court of architectural opinion. Hence Bergdoll’s explanation of why MoMA must demolish the AFAM becomes key. In the Architect’s Newspaper Bergdoll unsurprisingly gave an architectural argument for demolition, stating that the building “was designed as a jewel box for folk art,” and could not be altered for MoMA’s purposes. To do so, would be to “denature its total design aesthetic,” suggested Bergdoll; offering perhaps the most architecturally refined reason for knocking down a building ever.

The argument in favour of adapting AFAM has been the stick with which MOMA has been beaten by architects and architecture critics since the announcement of demolition. Paul Goldberger in Vanity Fair suggested a number of different uses the building could be put to: a library; a wing in which the old New Yorkers could walk around and remember that MOMA was a small organization once. Yet Goldberger’s real achievement was to intimate at the reasons behind the whole debacle; largely the astute way in which MoMA has funded its expansion with real estate. Goldberger explained that MoMA had been exploring expansion, in the form of several floors of new space at the bottom of an 82-story condominium tower by the architect Jean Nouvel on the other side of AFAM.

Nouvel had planned to work around Williams Tsien’s building but when the small museum failed, MoMA together with its development partners were clearly offered an alternative; use it or lose it. They decided that it wasn’t something they could use, despite Paul Goldberger’s helpful suggestions; a fact that upset not just architecture critics but also of the Architectural League of New York. Others joined in. “At heart of Folk Art Museum fiasco: MoMA’s increasingly soulless, corporate ethos. Loss of public affection for MoMA underlies debate,” wrote Michael Kimmerman on Twitter, sounding like a war correspondent writing a telegram on the eve of the invasion of Sicily.

Indeed if one looks at AFAM today, with the gap sight for the new Nouvel tower on one side and the Taniguchi extension on the other, it is easy in hindsight to wonder at the decision to choose a site which would sooner or later effectively be surrounded by another institution. An interview in Architecture magazine back in 2002 with Williams and Tsien suggests that MoMA at least wanted to avoid this strange scenario. Williams said: “MoMA definitely wanted us to move the building and trade them for another site further west or off the block altogether.” Williams and Tsien, who appear to have had an admirable amount of sway with their client, suggested they remain because the plot faced a plaza.

We cannot know what fine algebraic balance was made within MoMA to reconcile the future benefit to the organization with the very real upset that their move would prompt within the US architectural establishment by demolishing AFAM, especially from an institution which boasts of having the world’s first curatorial department devoted to architecture and design. However, it is bracing for a European to see that New Yorkers rather than searching for a top-down solution; rather than questioning the lack of a co-ordinated city plan either at the urban level or in terms of its cultural institutions instead roll up their sleeves and argue their case in a court of public opinion.

What is the only surprising element in MOMA turning to DSR is that they didn’t do it before, they precipitously announced AFAM’s demolition. It is a cunning ruse to deflect criticisms from architects by getting them to solve a problem which is not entirely of their own making.

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About cosmopolitanscum

Journalist, writer, commentator, blogging about architecture, urbanism and design from a humanist perspective.
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