Giles Ashford

The museum's expansion means destroying 'The Folk,' a quirky, celebrated building next door.

On April 10th, MoMA announced that it intends to tear down the former home of the American Folk Art Museum. This six-story, townhouse-scale building stands between MoMA and a planned 72-story expansion.  

This would sound like an everyday New York story were it not for the fact that this little building is regarded as an important work of 21st-century architecture, designed by two celebrated architects, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. With its hand-crafted white bronze façade, it presents itself as a cabinet of curiosity, snuggled against MoMA’s glass box.

The Folk Art Museum. Image courtesy of Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects.

"The Folk," as some call it, was considered an inspiration when first constructed after September 11. Herbert Muschamp, then architecture critic at the New York Times, wrote "I see their building's flaring façade as the wings of my personal holiday angel. It tops my New York tree."

MoMA has never shared such enthusiasm. It purchased the building in 2011 after the American Folk Art Museum was forced to liquidate it to cover debts. With expansion plans on the boards since 2007, MoMA viewed the little architectural gem as more impediment than asset. MoMA’s manifest destiny of westward expansion could not be fulfilled unless The Folk was taken down, façade and all.

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, MoMA director Glenn D. Lowry acknowledged that they bought the building with the understanding that it would be "difficult, if not impossible" to integrate it into their expansion plans. The Folk’s floor plates aren’t level with the existing galleries they plan to extend.

Architects, however, view the building as important and worthy of thoughtful adaptive reuse.

The Architectural League of New York recently published an "Open Letter" to MoMA, signed by architects like Thom Mayne, Steven Holl, and Richard Meier, to name a few. “We are urging them to reconsider and to release more information as to why they feel the need to tear it down,” says Rosalie Genevro, the League’s executive director. In the letter, they write:

The public has a substantial and legitimate interest in this decision, and the Museum of Modern Art has not yet offered a compelling justification for the cultural and environmental waste of destroying this much-admired, highly distinctive twelve-year-old building.

"People see this as a concern about city making," Genevro says. "It contributes to an interesting street and the city is better for it."

Curtis Wayne, a New York-based architect and host of the architecturally-themed radio podcast Burning Down the House, says The Folk is a victim of MoMA’s "tyranny of style."

"It’s the corporate dress code versus tie-dye," he says. He traces MoMA’s inability to embrace The Folk back to Philip Johnson’s long association with MoMA. "His architectural personality was so powerful that it was forever imprinted on the museum’s vision of itself," says Wayne. "Many people I’m talking to say they are ready to boycott MoMA if they go through with the demolition."

For alternative visions, architects Quilian Riano and Ana Maria Leon launched a Tumbler site dedicated to crowd-sourcing new thinking on The Folk.

The Folk Art Museum. Image courtesy of Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects.

#FolkMoMA as they call it, provides "the space for designers to protest by providing ideas," says Riano. "MoMA views architecture that does not fit its aesthetic as disposable," he continues. He says they are working on a more comprehensive website where the effort to save the building can proliferate.

MoMA director Glenn D. Lowry declined to comment for this story. MoMA’s chief curator of architecture and design, Barry Bergdoll, recently told The Architect’s Newspaper that the decision, though "painful" for architects, was purely "administrative."

So far, there is no indication that anyone on the other side of the curtain wall is listening. Outraged architects, after all, comprise a relatively small demographic. The larger public seems to have a more complicated relationship with the building. Such is the fate of ground-breaking architecture.

In a recent post, Bloomberg architecture critic James S. Russell wrote "The Folk Art, with its domestic scale and its sublime idiosyncrasy, would add a bit of drama to MoMA’s antiseptic white-box galleries." While that may be true, the moderns like their white-boxes and their un-folksy, non-idiosyncratic spaces. They also like their floors to line up. Blame Phillip Johnson.

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