A New York Art Gallery Asks: What Would You Demolish?

The Storefront for Art and Architecture is hosting a competition that asks people to design new places by subtracting, erasing, or destroying what’s already there.

Image Dan Nguyen/Flickr
The former American Folk Art Museum building in New York. (Dan Nguyen/Flickr)

Nothing still stands of the former American Folk Art Museum in New York City, a gem of a building designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects. It was razed in 2014 by the Museum of Modern Art, its neighbor, which is forever expanding on W. 53rd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. The building’s destruction led to a great deal of wailing in the architectural community, in part because MoMA, a museum charged with enhancing the public’s understanding of architecture, was the party responsible for its destruction, and also because the architects designing MoMA’s expansion, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, did not stick up for their colleagues’ work.

Around the time that the news of this demolition was first unfolding, in 2013, the Storefront for Art and Architecture, a contemporary art and architecture institution in SoHo, was hosting an unusual competition—a ”Competition of Competitions”, as they called it, geared at rewiring the architect–client relationship. And the competition that won that competition is now open for entries.

“Taking Buildings Down” stems from the heated debate over the now-sealed fate of the Tod Williams Billie Tsien building. It’s a competition that asks entrants to name a building, structure, or infrastructural project that ought to be destroyed—as a creative action. Anyone can enter the contest (not just architects); according to Eva Franch i Gilabert, director for the Storefront, the organization has received more than 120 submissions since the contest opened on January 12.

“While to build is often perceived as an Apollonian pursuit, to destroy appears to be its Dionysian counterpart,” reads the call for entries. “Understanding that our built environment is the product of many forces, it can dialectically be reduced to the tensions between creation and destruction, addition and subtraction, and erection and demolition.”

Urs Fischer, You (2007). (Urs Fischer/Gavin Brown)

Back in April 2014, the Storefront named David Bench and Jonathan Chesley the winners of the “Competition of Competitions” for submitting “Taking Buildings Down.” Both Bench and Chesley are on the jury for “Taking Buildings Down.” So is Annabelle Selldorf, principal at Selldorf Architects, where both Bench and Chesley work as designers. Other members of the jury include Jeff Byles (author of Rubble: Unearthing the History of Demolition), Keller Easterling (author of Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space), and more experts from the special intersection of Apollonian and Dionysian impulses in design.

Franch i Gilabert says that the Storefront deliberately shied away from putting its thumb on the scale with regard to the demolition of the former Folk Art Museum building. “I didn’t want to launch the competition in relation to [the demolition],” she says. “We delayed the launch of the competition in order not to go one way or the other about it, but to allow some of the conversations that were happening to happen.”

In addition to several cash prizes, winners of “Taking Buildings Down” will see their proposals assembled in a print publication. The criteria for entering are strict: “Removal is all that is allowed.”

Ellsworth Kelly, Ground Zero (2003). (The Whitney Museum of American Art)

Here’s one example of creative erasure that comes to mind. Two years after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the architecture critic for The New York Times received a package from Ellsworth Kelly, the artist. It was a recommendation for what to do with Ground Zero, then a still-pressing question. The artist (who died this year) suggesting replacing the World Trade Center towers with a void: a plain field of grass, which he visualized by placing a green trapezoid onto an aerial newspaper photo of the site.

It was never a serious suggestion (or rather a suggestion to be taken seriously), but Kelly’s proposal-slash-artwork was much more than a plea for a park. Its very outlandishness in the context of Lower Manhattan makes it a creative negation—a proposal that knows full well that towers of some sort would be built on the site.

Whether entrants in “Taking Buildings Down” will focus on solving problems by removing infrastructure or engage in architectural criticism by targeting buildings remains to be seen. “From door handles to entire buildings,” Franch i Gilabert says, “the scale of operation is very much up to the participant.”

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps is a writer at CityLab. Previously, he was a senior editor at Architect magazine.