MoMA May Not Raze Folk Art Museum After All


Following public outcry, New York’s Museum of Modern Art is reconsidering plans to raze the former home of the American Folk Art Museum, located next door to MoMA’s 53rd Street location. This new hope for the Tod Williams and Billie Tsien-designed building comes with the announcement that architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro have been commissioned to plan the MoMA’s imminent expansion.

The American Folk Art Museum (AFAM) sold its flagship to MoMA in 2011 after defaulting on $31.9 million in bond debt incurred during its construction. It has since been operating in its old headquarters, a smaller space near Lincoln Center. MoMA’s preliminary plans for the acquisition, unveiled last month, had called for demolishing the adjacent building, only 12 years old, by the end of the year.

The museum was concerned about the two structures’ dramatically different facades—that the opaque, bronzed exterior of the AFAM would clash with MoMA’s sleek esthetic—and by the difficulties in aligning the floors on the two sites, which are at varying heights. The 40-foot-wide AFAM stands between the existing MoMA galleries and what will be 40,000 square feet of new exhibition space in an 82-story building being designed by French architect Jean Nouvel. All-new construction would allow for seamless transitions between the three plots.

News that MoMA would destroy the old AFAM building sparked widespread criticism. Among the protests,an open letter from the Architectural League of New York argued that “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.” In New York Magazine, Justin Davidson called the decision a betrayal from a fellow museum, pointing out that “if a commercial developer were to tear down a small, idiosyncratic, and beautifully wrought museum in order to put up a deluxe glass box, it would be attacked as a venal and philistine act.”

The criticism seems to have given MoMA pause: the Williams and Tsien building may be spared after all. “We have asked MoMA, and they have agreed, to allow us the time and flexibility to explore a full range of programmatic, spatial and urban options,” said Diller Scofidio + Renfro in a press release. “These possibilities include, but are not limited to, integrating the former American Folk Art Museum building.”

Glenn D. Lowry, MoMA’s  director, also released a statement yesterday. He made no promises about the structure’s future, saying only that the firm will “carefully consider the entirety of the site, including the former American Folk Art Museum building, in devising an architectural solution to the inherent challenges of the project.”