Against Homogeneity

April 11, 2013

The American Folk Art Museum, October 2007.

Above is my one not-very-successful attempt to photograph the American Folk Art Museum on 53rd St., designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.  It opened to great acclaim in 2001 and was sold by its financially distressed owner in 2011 to the big museum next door.  Which, of course, was the beginning of the end.

I took the picture in 2007, while writing a mini-guide to my favorite buildings in midtown.  I divided the buildings into the “fat” ones — Grand Central and the New York Public Library at Fifth Ave. and 42nd St. — and the “thin” ones: Christian de Portzamparc’s  LVMH tower on 57th St., Raimund Abraham’s Austrian Cultural Forum on 52nd St. and the American Folk Art Museum.  To me, the thin buildings are especially appealing because, unlike the mammoth skyscrapers that are Manhattan’s signature  feature, they are significant works of architecture built at townhouse scale.  These skinny midblock masterpieces play a vital role in keeping midtown visually exciting.  They make for a variegated streetscape and act as barriers against encroaching homogeneity.

Shortly after the American Folk Art Museum sold its building to MoMA, I had a conversation with Tsien.   She reasoned that, since MoMA collects and displays architecture, it should simply add the Folk Art to its collection, preserve it and keep it, perhaps using it as an exhibition or event space.

I thought it was a lovely idea, but I didn’t believe it was going to happen.  Indeed,  MoMA has just announced its intention to demolish the smaller museum before the end of the year.  I’m not surprised.  The kind of building that Williams and Tsien designed, quirky and modest, with a facade that appears hand-crafted and circuitous exhibition space that transformed each visit into a treasure hunt, is not MoMA’s kind of building.  It doesn’t feature vast white-walled galleries or a cavernous atrium.  It doesn’t telegraph self importance or celebrate a doctrinaire brand of Modernism.  It is decidedly unglassy.

The American Folk Art Museum is antithetical to MoMA overdeveloped self-image and stands in the way of its seemingly endless expansion plans.  That’s why it’s going down.  And that’s exactly why MoMA should be wise enough to keep it. The difference between Williams and Tsien’s approach to Modernism and MoMA’s is the kind of aesthetic divide that a truly great museum would be big enough to engage and creative enough to exploit.  That MoMA will undermine New York City’s zoning in the name of important architecture to build it’s cherished Jean Nouvel tower, but can’t find a way to preserve a far less remunerative work of important architecture, speaks volumes about the museum’s priorities.