Glenn Lowry, the director of the MoMA, confirmed that the American Folk Art Museum, designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien Architects, will be demolished in order to make way for a re-design and expansion spearheaded by Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R).
The new year is beginning with very bad news from very good architects. Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the firm that was hired by the Museum of Modern Art to plan the next stage of its seemingly endless expansion, has decided to pursue a plan that calls for the demolition of the former Museum of American Folk Art, the small gem of a building by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien that has the misfortune of being next door to MoMA’s existing building on West 53rd Street. That puts it in between MoMA and the site of a planned residential condominium tower to the west, the base of which is to contain new gallery space for the museum. While the former folk-art museum doesn’t block all space for connecting MoMA and its new building—it is barely bigger than a townhouse, and there is room for the old and new structures to meet behind the folk-art museum, on the north side of the site—the architects and the museum say that single connection isn’t enough for adequate circulation. The new galleries won’t work unless visitors can enter the new wing one way and exit another, and that kind of continuous loop is only possible if the site occupied by the small, now empty folk-art museum is cleared and made available to MoMA.1
The new design does contain several persuasive virtues. It creates new access points, including a free 54th Street entrance to the sculpture garden, now sealed behind a high penitentiary wall. It peels off a strip of the black-glass façade along 53rd Street to soften that NSA-headquarters look. It alleviates the Penn Station–at-rush-hour feeling of the through-block lobby by opening new passageways and sprucing up the box office and coat check. Most of all, it adds more than 30,000 square feet of new exhibition space on three floors. Which is, roughly, the equivalent of one ample Chelsea gallery. A lot of art is going to stay in storage.
The architects accomplish all this not through wholesale reconstruction but by the kind of surgical interventions that Diller Scofidio + and Renfro carried out at Lincoln Center. That renovation turned out to be simultaneously subtle and transformative. It’s possible that as the architects refine their work, MoMA will receive a similarly rejuvenating spa treatment. Maybe seeing the Picassos will get more pleasant, and the whole complex will shed its cold, corporate air. But for now the design feels less like an optimistic hosanna than a mournful chorus of compromises.2
From the days both the new MoMA and the American Folk Art Museum opened, it was clear to almost all in the art world that they were tragic failures in terms of their primary missions. Now those disasters are joined forever. Perhaps this is as it should be. I suppose a lot of design critics will rave about MoMA's new showy event spaces, just as they did when these museums opened a decade ago. It kills me to write this, because I’ll be visiting MoMA for the rest of my life, but I left that meeting knowing for certain that I will never get to see its incredible collection shown properly. Good-bye, MoMA. I loved you.3