The rather astonishing news out of New York that the Museum of Modern Art is on the verge of demolishing–rather than curating–a genuinely important piece of 21st century sculpture is one of the more disheartening pieces of preservation news this month.
Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s Museum of Folk Art, just down the street from the MoMA conglomerate, has in its short eleven-year lifespan added a touch of textural brilliance to West 53rd Street. As MoMA has expanded with a series of under-inspired buildings (Philip Johnson’s original extension, Cesar Pelli’s tower, and more recently Yoshio Taniguchi’s transformation of the original Stone building into a slick, seven-story vertical mall), the short, quirky but rapturous cast metal facade of the Museum of Folk Art has seemed like a perfect rebuttal. The Folk Museum itself never quite lived up to the impact that the facade had, decamping for smaller quarters near Lincoln Center several years ago and leaving its ambitious 53rd street location empty. MoMA moving in seemed like an obivous next step, but the Museum has instead claimed that negotiating the differences in floor heights would be too difficult. The New York Times reports, too, that the Museum finds the solid facade “not in keeping” with MoMA’s glass aesthetic. Debatable, since Edward Stone’s facade for MoMA’s original building is, um, mostly opaque.
What strikes me as really unfortunate, however, is that Williams and Tsien’s facade for this building was (is?) truly innovative. I was lucky to hear Tsien talk about the process at a conference in 2001, as the building was being finished. The design involved close work with a metal foundry, intense collaboration, and a hand-on understanding of the processes and results. Tsien talked about how they spent days casting samples so they could understand the inherent textural properties of the panels they were proposing, and altering both their design and their expectations on the fly. This sort of interest in fabrication has become more common over the ensuing decade, but this building is one of the reasons why that’s been so.
And that, I think, makes MoMA’s plans doubly baffling. While preservationists are used to stepping in only once the 25, or 50, or 75 year trigger points come around, the impending demise of this influential structure after just over eleven years should really inspire a preservation battle of its own. The past decade’s increasing emphasis on materiality, on fabrication, and on craft certainly owes something to the incredibly warm reception this building–and especially its facade–received. It’s likely to be seen, in hindsight, as a truly groundbreaking and influential experiment, one that broke new ground in marrying architecture to industrial craft while also winning widespread praise for its human scale and texture. Surely the facade deserves saving, even if the spaces behind are replaced? That seems unlikely at this point, and of course there’s no legal recourse due to the building’s youth.
The Museum of Folk Art is also important as a watershed moment in the growth of Williams/Tsien as a firm. They were well known before this, of course, but this was among their larger projects at the time, and helped make their name globally. (Full disclosure: Tod Williams referred to a grad school project of mine as a “turtle” on a jury. I’m still a fan). MoMA has announced that it is interviewing architects to design the replacement, and while one can hope for the best their track record suggests that this artisainally crafted piece will be replaced with another addition that feels like high-end retail.