On Tuesday evening, the New York Society for Ethical Culture hosted a forum on the Museum of Modern Art’s expansion and the controversy surrounding its decision to demolish the American Folk Art Museum building. After a suite of introductions, MoMA Director Glenn D. Lowry took to the stage to explain the selection of the architecture firm Diller Scofidio & Renfro (DSR) to design the expansion. This was accomplished by way of a soft defense, with Lowry mapping out the various existential questions the museum confronted in planning the redesign and lauding the architects’ “thoughtful and compelling institutional critique of museums, especially the Museum of Modern Art.” The defensive impetus for the event was impossible to ignore: Elizabeth Diller, who spoke after Lowry, prefaced her lengthy presentation with a remark about how many of her colleagues in the world of architecture were surprised that she would make herself available to such public scrutiny.
The critical reprobation of the three-week-old decision to demolish Tod Williams and Billy Tsien’s American Folk Art Museum has been sharp, particularly among architecture critics. The sentimentality surrounding the Williams and Tsien building is justified: the structure received several major prizes and was seminal to the couple’s practice. But the building, as Diller said, is “obdurate,” and in her presentation she laid out the various options considered during the MoMA expansion planning thus far. Through these candid slides, Diller hoped to mitigate with transparency some of the anger surrounding the decision. The effect was slightly different: though many of the scenarios she ran through — the artificial remounting of the old building’s beguiling façade, for example — were convincingly unrealistic, one scenario resonated widely as a reasonable alternative. It involved using floor plates to effectively turn the old building into a stack of small galleries enclosed within the broader MoMA structure. Images of the slide circulated widely on social media, with the energetic assistance of #folkmoma, a hashtag and Twitter account dedicated to saving the American Folk Art Museum building:
Speaking of the “post-Taniguchi” curatorial culture at MoMA — i.e. post-2004, when the museum last expanded, at the hands of architect Yoshio Taniguchi — Diller said she found the institution “introspective and autocritical,” and that they “are bashing themselves all the time.” Regardless of whether or not the galleries-within-galleries alternative was scrapped due to pushback from the architect or MoMA’s many internal interest groups, Diller’s invoking the institutional self-flagellation introduced by Lowry was telling, as if the act of critique somehow supersedes its substance. This “autocritical” turn saw her talk pivot to a more mercurial series of proclamations: “Is modernism finished?”; “Smoothing over histories is not to be done”; “Modern art could not be more incompatible with a building designed for folk art,” and so on. The reddest herring of all involved Diller suggesting that making MoMA better could entail the “fourth dimension,” time, by opening up the museum “24/7.”
An architect designs buildings for clients, but the transactional nature of this exchange is perhaps too vulgar for an institution like MoMA or a brainy architectural practice like DSR’s. The result is that a pretty straightforward discussion about bulldozing a building that’s clearly not consonant with MoMA’s (however misguided) vision ends up provoking such bizarre acrobatics, which continued in the panel discussion of architecture critics, academics, and practitioners that followed. Panelist Karen Stein’s outspoken critique put the question directly to Lowry, who, with Diller, joined the panel for the (written)-questions-and-some-answers session that concluded the evening. “You collect architecture, you advocate for architecture, you are faced with an important work of architecture,” Stein said. “I would expect Walmart to tear it down, but I expect something better from MoMA,” she added. Lowry’s later response to this line of questioning reintroduced the long view and rearticulated his museum’s purpose: “We don’t collect buildings,” he said, noting that the AFAM building itself replaced a historic brownstone.
But if architecture, as Lowry argued, “raises a completely different set of questions [and] responsibilities,” that conversation was hard to come by on Tuesday night. And, as was separately noted during the panel, MoMA’s building has undergone a half-dozen changes since 1939, amounting to a major architectural revision once every 12 years. Though the Williams and Tsien building is perhaps aesthetically significant, it was constructed for an institution, the American Folk Art Museum, that could ultimately not afford it, with an idiosyncratic interior highly resistant to alternate uses. These are earthly matters that high architecture may find uninteresting or even antagonistic to the hermetic importance of a building, but they are nonetheless issues to be considered prima facie, before MoMA’s (rightful, necessary) susceptibility to broader critique. And in a room packed with some 600 people overwhelmingly involved in architecture, such a discussion would probably have caused a discomfort of purpose for more than just Elizabeth Diller.