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Bigger and Better: MoMA is right

Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s MoMA expansion shows every sign of being sensitive and lively, a fact that has been lost in a debate about corporate insensitivity

The decision of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) to demolish the American Folk Art Museum building designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien and to hire Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R) to design its expansion has provoked a controversy whose acrimony is unusual even in exchanges about high-profile Manhattan architecture. That MoMA initially sold the ground parcel on West 53rd Street to the Folk Art Museum and later purchased the Williams and Tsien building from it, thus allowing the latter to liquidate debt and re-establish itself in its current location near Lincoln Center, is a rarely mentioned reminder of the close relations – hardly predatory – between the two institutions. At least some of the financial difficulties of the Folk Art Museum involved paying off the construction of the Williams and Tsien building, a home that it could not afford and subsequently abandoned to an uncertain future.

Acquisitions at MoMA in recent decades have far outpaced available exhibition space. Currently, it has room to exhibit only 20-30 per cent of its permanent collection of painting and sculpture. As a new generation of chief curators seeks to work in a more collaborative and interdisciplinary manner, emphasise the interconnections of modern art, exhibit more performance and media art, provide thorough coverage of global modernisms, and accommodate large-scale artworks, the limitations of the 2004 renovation by Yoshio Taniguchi and the need for additional and more flexible galleries have become evident.

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A view of the proposed extension from 53rd Street - does this hold the promise of bringing the MoMA’s architecture up to the level of its art?

Only a small percentage of visitors to MoMA make the journey across town to the orbital PS1 contemporary art facility in Queens, and attractive as the vision of satellite branches of the museum spread throughout New York City might be in principle, the financial, administrative and curatorial advantages of operating in a single location by expanding westward proved compelling. Jean Nouvel’s Hines Tower that will be constructed directly to the west of the Williams and Tsien Folk Art Museum will contain large new MoMA galleries on its 2nd, 4th and 5th floors. Long before DS+R became involved with the expansion, the location of the Folk Art Museum between the existing Taniguchi galleries to the East and the new exhibition spaces in the Nouvel building made its demolition virtually certain.

Nonetheless, the architects insisted that their contract with MoMA included a provision to revisit all possibilities for the adaptive reuse of the Folk Art Museum. Six months of thorough, rigorous and imaginative investigations followed. After viewing some of these studies and having spent a decade of my life studying the meticulous working methods of the practice, I have no doubt they pursued in absolute good faith every possibility for MoMA to re-use the Folk Art Museum. Their realisation that bridging the Hines and Taniguchi galleries and providing adequate circulation and core services would entail destroying the most compelling features of the Folk Art Museum –its vertical orientation, detailing, atrium, natural illumination, and facade – led them to conclude that its demolition was preferable to its retention as a dark and barely recognisable shell of its former self. Marrying the programme of a folk art museum with that of a highly visited museum of modern art would not work, and it is to the credit of DS+R not to have flinched from this reality. 

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A view of the proposed sculpture garden entrance on 54th Street

Few buildings in the urban environment obtain the automatic right to exist forever, frozen in time as programmes, clients and owners change. Nor is it the mission of MoMA to preserve works of architecture, even a building such as the American Folk Art Museum that many architects and critics regard as a work of art. Fuelled by an alliance between friends and supporters of Williams and Tsien and opponents of the pro-business policies of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the furore surrounding the demolition of the Folk Art Museum conflates the expansion of MoMA with insensitivity to art. Yet this is not a tale of David and Goliath. Over the past decade I have seen more first-rate exhibitions relating to modern art, architecture, film and photography at MoMA than any at other museum. Nor can I think of many other cultural institutions that are working with commensurate intelligence to re-invent themselves for the global 21st century and to become bigger and better. 

Architects and admirers of modern art should be thrilled by the collaboration between MoMA and DS+R that holds out the promise the Museum may finally attain architecture of the same distinction as its permanent collection of art. Highly aware that visiting MoMA sometimes feels like traversing a crowded airport, DS+R are proposing a range of design measures – from a double-height entrance on West 53rd Street, to an expanded Bauhaus stair, to new ways of accessing the sculpture garden – that entail rethinking the museum from top to bottom with the intent of enabling visitors to engage with art in spaces of varied scales and making the museum more gracious, inviting and accessible. 

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An exploded view of the extension that would replace the American Folk Art Museum, boasting a Bauhaus stair and a double height entrance

This is genuine populism where it matters – on the ground – and the most exciting reinvigoration of the Modernist legacy of MoMA to emerge in many years. Rarely do museums take on challenges of this magnitude and select architects as capable of rising to them. Yet instead of celebrating the brilliant synergy of MOMA and DS+R, the New York architectural community has fixated on the demolition of the Folk Art Museum. That no one has come to the defence of the DS+R expansion – which shows every sign of being as sensitive yet lively as the work by the studio on Lincoln Center – speaks volumes about the envy and pettiness that dominate contemporary American architectural practice and the replacement of incisive journalism and criticism about the built environment by empty cant.

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