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Grand Façade: A Final Farewell to Former American Folk Art Museum Facility (with video)

Entrance of former American Folk Art Museum facility Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Entrance of former American Folk Art Museum facility
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

In yesterday’s unsparing NY Times appraisal of Glenn Lowry‘s 19-year reign as the Museum of Modern Art’s director, Randy Kennedy reported that “the first stage of the controversial demolition” of the former American Folk Art Museum building would begin today. So this seems like a good moment to take one last look at the doomed building, via a CultureGrrl Video that I had shot earlier this year. (I had previously posted a narrated slideshow of its interior, with photos taken on July 8, 2011, the last day of AFAM’s operation there.)

In the video below, I’ll take you on a guided tour of MoMA’s ever-expanding W. 53rd and W. 54th Street empire, examining the fallacy of MoMA’s “façade-ism” phobia. As you’ll see, West 53rd Street is already one big procession of diverse MoMA façades, although many of the spaces designed by big-name architects, behind those façades, have been razed or significantly altered to make way for the next architect’s vision. Given this history, why should anyone be shocked by MoMA’s willingness to knock down the architectural statement of a neighboring institution?

What’s surprising is that MoMA didn’t take the trouble to consult Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, the architects of the former AFAM facility, on what might have been done to adapt their building to MoMA’s purposes. Assuming that the architects were willing to have that conversation, MoMA should at least have given them the courtesy of a meeting.

On Jan. 17, I had this exchange, via e-mail, with MoMA’s press office:

Q: Were Williams and Tsien asked for their specific input on how their building could be “saved”? Alternatively, did they give any unsolicited input on this? If so, can you provide details of what they suggested?

A: Williams and Tsien were not involved in the design process.

As CultureGrrl readers know, I’ve previously argued that the distinctive frontage of the AFAM building should be saved. MoMA has since announced that it will, in fact preserve and store those 63 copper-bronze panels.

What’s more, it is reportedly consulting with two outsidersNina Libeskind, COO of her architect-husband’s Studio Daniel Libeskind; and Fredric M. Bell, executive director of the NY Chapter of the American Institute of Architects—about what might be done with those pesky panels, other than stashing them in storage. Shouldn’t Williams and Tsien (assuming that they’re willing to talk to their nemesis) be involved in those discussions?

To my mind, the most appropriate use for the panels would be to return the façade to its intended W. 53rd Street site, at the conclusion of MoMA’s construction disruption. My guess is that the open-to-the-street, triple-height glass “Art Bay” on the former AFAM site (intended for exhibitions, performances and “spontaneous events”) will go the way of other fanciful innovations conceived and later dropped by architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro for other museum projects (Boston Institute of Contemporary Art, The Broad, to name two). In my video, I also mention that I doubt whether the proposed open-to-the-street glass entrance to the sculpture garden is going to survive in the final designs.

Now hear my further thoughts and form your own impressions, as we take a stroll down a busy, noisy midtown streetscape in flux:

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