The New York Times reported yesterday that the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is planning to demolish the critically acclaimed American Folk Art Museum building, designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects. MoMA plans to tear down the structure by year's end to make way for a new gallery addition that will connect its existing facilities to the new Jean Nouvel, Hon. FAIA–designed tower going up on a lot adjacent to the former Folk Art Museum. That tower will contain as much as 52,000 square feet of exhibition space for MoMA.
MoMA weighed the decision to reuse the Williams Tsien building as its gallery addition, but the museum told the Times that the combination of the bronze-and-copper cladding (which differs from MoMA's more open, glass-enclosed aesthetic) and the fact that the gallery floors did not line up with the existing MoMA facility made the decision to preserve it unfeasible.
Considered a seminal work of the New York–based practice, which was selected as the 2013 AIA Architecture Firm of the Year, the eight-story, 40-000-square-foot building opened in 2001, and was the first museum building completed in New York in more than three decades. Clad in sculptural bronze-and-copper plating that sheathes the 40-foot-wide façade, the building stretches 100 feet deep; inside, a series of galleries unfolds around a grand central staircase, each different than the last.
The American Folk Art Museum sold the building to MoMA in 2011 and retreated to its smaller satellite location at 2 Lincoln Square, a move that did little to secure the future of the Williams and Tsien–designed building. Financial strain prompted the retrench—the $32 million that the institution borrowed to construct the new building caused the museum to buckle. But the museum was also beset by bad luck: The post-9/11 recession exacerbated finances woes, and the closing of West 53rd Street from much of 2002 to 2004 to accommodate the construction of MoMA's Yoshio Taniguchi–designed addition canceled out the anticipated rise in foot traffic. Add in the recession that began in 2008, and the museum had little chance to recover financially.
But the architects also call into question the efficacy of their own design. A circumspect Williams told the Times in 2011 that the spiral galleries were a "challenging place to hang art," and cited the need for more signage: "From the onset, we believed a quiet façade was appropriate," he said. "Looking back, I would tell you we needed to be more aggressive."
The public outcry from the architectural community at the decision to demolish was immediate. Critic Paul Goldberger took to twitter, decrying MoMA as "the new villain in Modernist preservation: a terrible loss," and calling it "the saddest architectural news of the year." Karrie Jacobs said, "What I love about the Folk Art Museum is that it adds to midtown's variegated texture. MoMA, as a rule, doesn't tolerate variegation." And critic Inga Saffron just said, "What a waste."
MoMA plans to start interviewing architects for its new addition by the end of the year.