Tear the American Folk Art Museum down!: Architecture review

The former American Folk Art Museum in Midtown (Inset: MoMA Director Glenn Lowry)
The former American Folk Art Museum in Midtown (Inset: MoMA Director Glenn Lowry)

The architectural cause célèbre of the past few weeks has surely been the fate of the former American Folk Art Museum, which opened in 2001 and was designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. Located at 45 West 53rd Street, the unoccupied building sits on land that the Museum of Modern Art has purchased in order to expand even further toward Sixth Avenue.

When MoMA announced its plans to raze the structure, many in the architectural community were up in arms. Just this week, the New York Times’s architecture critic, Michael Kimmelman, gave full-throated expression to this conviction in a front page story headlined, “Defending a Scrap of Soul Against MoMA.”

For some, the clash between this tiny building and the corporate museum next door recalls the battle between David and Goliath — if not a meeting of Bambi and Godzilla. Obviously the building must, in the name of architecture itself, be preserved! (Let me say in passing that it never ceases to amaze me how admirably high-minded New Yorkers are when it comes to other people’s property.)

Perhaps you saw, a few days back, the video of that “ice tsunami” on a lake in Minnesota that bizarrely crept from the water onto the land, mercilessly crushing any structure in its path. A perfect metaphor, it would seem, for the relentless westward expansion of MoMA.

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And yet, MoMA may have a soul after all. Before announcing the demise of the Folk Art Museum, the museum’s director, Glenn Lowry — doubtless concerned about a possible public relations disaster — personally visited Williams and Tsien to hold their hands and help them through the difficult days ahead.

In the interests of balance, however, I offer up this slightly more nuanced assessment of the building in question: Tear it down!

The façade, which frankly plagiarizes Christian de Portzamparc’s overrated LVMH Tower at 19 East 57th Street, is an ugly brown mediocrity that, from the day it opened, was as dysfunctional as it was ungainly. Occupying a tiny site originally meant for a row house, its interior was all circulation core — elevators and stairs — and almost no space for galleries. And in order to pull off the clumsy, value-engineered façade, the architects and the museum shut out almost all of the natural light that might have entered the space.

Following the outcry over the planned demolition, MoMA floated the idea that it will leave the building intact. This would surely be the worst possible solution. Not only would it leave standing a building that never was and never will be a functioning space for a museum or anything else. It would also gall the pedestrian with two examples of bad architecture: the structure in question and whatever is destined to rise up around it.

Neutered and hobbled by this misplaced respect, the new building would have to preserve a poorly designed and poorly executed structure that should never have been built in the first place.