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MoMA’s Excoriated Expansion: The Critics Pile On (plus AFAM’s good year) UPDATED

Vacant lot where Jean Nouvel tower (including three floors for MoMA galleries) will soon rise Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Vacant lot where 1,050-foot Jean Nouvel-designed tower (including three floors for MoMA galleries) will soon rise
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Everyone’s beating up on MoMA, with a few sharp jabs reserved for Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the architects for the Museum of Modern Art’s planned expansion. The pile-up seems more like a referendum on what MoMA has become under Glenn Lowry‘s directorship than on the museum’s just announced architectural and programmatic initiatives.

Someone yesterday asked if I knew of anyone who had written favorably about this project.


All I could come up with is this long list of detractors: Paul Goldberger (Vanity Fair), Jerry Saltz and Justin Davidson (NY Magazine), Martin Filler (New York Review of Books), Christopher Hawthorne (LA Times), Barry Schwabsky (The Nation), Peter Schjeldahl (New Yorker) and, of course, Jed Perl (New Republic), who, abandoning all decorum, repeatedly dropped the “f” bomb in his takedown.

Only Davidson seemed to hold out a modicum of hope that perhaps “as the architects refine their work, MoMA will receive a…rejuvenating spa treatment….But for now the design feels less like an optimistic hosanna than a mournful chorus of compromises.”

Three heavy hitters today entered the fray—the Wall Street Journal‘s “Leisure & Arts” editor, Eric Gibson, and its architecture critic, Julie Iovine, double-teamed the project in a full-page spread; the NY Times‘ architecture critic, Michael Kimmelman, also pummeled it.

In arguing that MoMA is “an institution that has lost its way,” which has become “disconnected from its past,” Gibson quoted extensively from my 2004 WSJ article, The Lost Museum: MoMA’s Distressing Disposals as evidence that the ever-expanding museum has short-shrifted the most celebrated part of its core collection—classic modernism, which ought to be highlighted for its “continued relevance…to the art life of our time.”

Iovine (my WSJ partner in double-teaming the Kimbell Art Museum expansion) noted that DS+R’s MoMA expansion plans will resolve some of the existing facility’s infelicities. But she rued the loss of the American Folk Art Museum’s building and roundly debunked aspects of the new structure that will replace it: a “two-story mechanical wall—a kind of remote-control garage door in glass—that can open the space entirely to the street, as well as an elevating floor.” She calls this “a design trick [that] sounds very expensive (not to mention noisy to operate and a nightmare to maintain) and [is] of limited appeal for anyone other than party-hearty art-installation aficionados.”

Kimmelman joined the mourners’ chorus for the former AFAM building and likened the new plan for that space to the same architects’ ideas for a “Culture Shed” in New York’s Hudson Yards development, which he called “a glossy event and exhibition center without portfolio.” Where AFAM once stood, there will be an “Art Bay” (with the glass “garage door” referenced by Iovine) for performances and exhibitions, topped by a “Gray Box,” to be used as either a white-box gallery or a black-box performance space.

No one apppears to have noticed the similarity between the diagonal metal element (on the left) in DS+R’s plan for the folk-art site…

Concept sketch of MoMA's proposed new 53rd Street façade © 2014 Diller Scofidio + Renfro

Concept sketch of MoMA’s proposed new 53rd Street façade
© 2014 Diller Scofidio + Renfro

…and the metal “diagrid pattern” in Jean Nouvel‘s plan for 53W53, the luxury condo tower that, at 1,050-feet-tall, will dwarf MoMA (which sold the land to developer Hines for $125 million).

The MoMA Monster is expected to begin construction in the middle of this year:


It appears that DS+R is not only trying to homogenize MoMA’s façade, but is also coordinating the museum with the condo tower to its west (which will contain the new gallery space at its base). Perhaps this exemplifies MoMA’s boundary-blurring of culture and commerce, something that didn’t start with Lowry and probably won’t end with him.

UPDATE: In thinking about this further, I’m now wondering if the diagonal metal element in the DS+R concept sketch actually is part of the base of the Nouvel tower that contains the new MoMA galleries. I’m handicapped in my understanding of the architecture by not having been invited to MoMA’s in-depth press briefing on the project.

Meanwhile, to the northwest, the downsized American Folk Art Museum (which sold its building to MoMA in 2011, in a deal that I found problematic) is soldiering on in the small Lincoln Square space that was previously its satellite facility: In her latest Director’s Letter Anne-Imelda Radice has provided a detailed update about AFAM’s vibrant exhibitions program and its uptick in foundation support, not to mention rising attendance and a beefed-up staff.

AFAM’s director also highlighted her museum’s partnerships last year with the South Street Seaport Museum, Museum of Biblical Art, Boca Raton Museum of Art and Figge Art Museum.

Maybe MoMA should try to join that list.

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