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MoMA & the Nouvel Kid on the Block: Revenge of American Folk Art Museum’s Demolished Building?

It’s been 10 years since I published what seems to have been some prescient commentary about the now (belatedly) completed Jean Nouvel-designed 1,050-foot tower (known to CultureGrrl readers as The MoMA Monster). The start of construction for that building, which has just opened for occupancy, had been delayed until late 2014, in part to await improved economic conditions (as David Penick, managing partner for Hines, the project’s developer, had told me while the project was awaiting city approval).

Here’s what I wrote about that situation back on Oct. 6, 2009:

Whatever happens, MoMA already has in hand the $125 million that Hines paid for the land adjacent to the museum—the site of the proposed tower. The new building would include on its lower floors space for MoMA’s next expansion. Considering what’s happened to the real estate market since that land sale, it now looks like a great financial deal for MoMA, not so great for the developer [emphasis added].

In a transaction that I had criticized as problematic (because no other bids had been sought), MoMA had acquired the Tod Williams Billie Tsien-designed flagship facility of the American Folk Art Museum for $31.2 million and later dismantled it to make way for its own expansion and for Hines’ tower, while agreeing to preserve in storage AFAM’s distinctive 63 copper-bronze panels:

Entrance of former American Folk Art Museum facility, just west of MoMA
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

I had no great love for the Williams Tsien “sliver museum, wedged into a tight space, with dark, narrow galleries” (as I previously described it), but many architecture aficionados mourned the passing of AFAM’s short-lived building on W. 53rd Street. That museum lives on in what had previously been its satellite facility near Lincoln Center, where it has mounted many well regarded exhibitions (including Self-Taught Genius).

Nouvel’s skyscraper, which includes space on its lower floors for expanded MoMA galleries and other museum-related purposes, still showed no signs of residential life when I passed by on Dec. 29, shortly before it opened for occupancy. The front door was locked and no doorman was in evidence:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Peering in from the sidewalk, you could glimpse the festively decorated (but deserted) lobby. I thought I caught sight of a person, then realized it was me in the mirror (on the right):

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Last February, Crain’s New York Business published this update by Daniel Geiger on the market challenges faced by the Nouvel condos:

The project [53 West 53]…has made several price adjustments since hitting the market almost four years ago, according to disclosures filed with the state Attorney General’s office. In September 2018, just over $123 million of reductions were filed. In total, roughly $167 million of price cuts have been made by the developers since the tower’s initial projection of more-than $2 billion in sales was disclosed in 2014.

When I tried to fact-check Crain’s information and to get an update on how the condos have fared since February (when the article was published), a spokesperson from Optimist Consulting, the PR firm handling press queries regarding 53 West 53, replied: “Our policy is not to comment on sales.”

That said, information about overall price reductions (corroborating Crain’s report) can be found on some of the Attorney General’s filings, by going here and searching for “53 West 53rd Street.” One can also visit the website of Corcoran Sunshine Marketing Group, which is handling the condos’ sales, to access (by scrolling down) a list of the condos (including prices and square footage) that are still available. (Keep clicking “VIEW MORE” at the bottom to expand the list.) By clicking the “IN CONTRACT” tab, you can peruse a list of residences that are already in contract.

To my surprise, the “IN CONTRACT” column had been titled, “RENTED,” until I pointed this out to the project’s spokesperson and inquired whether some unsold apartments had, in fact, been leased. I was assured that the apartments were all condos and that none were rented, after which I saw the change to “in contract” on the website. In all, there are 145 residences in the building.

There might have been a longer list of available apartments had Hines and Nouvel gotten their way during the city’s approval process: As CultureGrrl readers may remember, New York’s City Council lopped 200 feet off the top of the MoMA Monster, over strong objections from the developer and the architect.

This decapitation occurred because the City Planning Commission decided that “the applicant has not made a convincing argument that the design of the tower’s top (the uppermost 200 feet of the building) merits being in the zone of the Empire State Building’s iconic spire, making the building the second tallest building in New York City.”

For those of us who rue the surge of supertall buildings that mar the former beauty of Manhattan’s skyline, the City Planning Commission’s last-gasp defense of the supremacy of the Empire State Building’s signature spire now seems poignantly quaint.

Nouvel’s skyscraper, with its arresting, eye-catching exterior, helped set the stage for this eyebrow-raising shard, now rising nearby:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

And setting the stage for Nouvel’s tower was the late Cesar Pelli‘s Museum Tower, which was erected to help provide funds for the MoMA’s 1984 expansion by that architect. As I wrote here, the W. 54th St. block that borders MoMA on the north “had been low-rise in character” until Pelli’s luxury apartment project raised the bar and roiled the neighbors.

You can see Museum Tower at 2:37 in this 2014 CultureGrrl Video, in which I provided a guided tour of MoMA’s streetscape before the latest expansion.

The deliberate downsizing of the Nouvel tower to keep it beneath the height of the Empire State Building didn’t stop Corcoran Sunshine Marketing Group from posting an image on its promotional website that (because of its perspective) makes it appear that Nouvel’s 1,050-foot building (on the left) towers over Manhattan’s 1,250-foot signature skyscraper.

To see this image on Corcoran Sunshine Group’s website, click arrow to the right of at the top of the webpage and scroll through its slideshow.

Below is my own sunset view of the city’s skyline, as seen from the New Jersey side of the Hudson River. I’m guessing that the Nouvel tower may be the bright red, pointy shape immediately to the right of the tall spindly building seen at the left side of this photo:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

You can see how the Empire State Building (slightly left of center in the above photo) has been dwarfed by the upstarts (not to mention the overweening buildings of Hudson Yards, further south).

One of the many amenities for condo owners at 53 West 53, as enumerated on the sales website, is a free “benefactor membership” in MoMA (ordinarily costing a tax-deductible $2,362). Among the many perks for those members is an “annual benefactor luncheon with MoMA’s director and senior staff.”

Buy a condo, meet Glenn Lowry!

Glenn Lowry, MoMA’s director
Screenshot from video of a MoMA press conference

For those who can’t (or won’t) pay for a Nouvel condo, there are more affordable purchases to be had at the Museum Store—that is, if you can manage to get past the crush of people trying to get into it or past it. I don’t understand how the museum got permission to build an entrance to its new subterranean shop that juts out into what’s always been a pedestrian-clogged side street:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Here’s my brief video showing how this works (or doesn’t):

While championing best practices in what it touts as “the world’s first curatorial department devoted to architecture and design” (dating from 1932), MoMA has played a less benign design role in its own neighborhood, physically encroaching on a crowded public sidewalk and exacerbating the already excessive density of overbuilt Midtown Manhattan.

Maybe the museum’s A&D curators should have been consulted.

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My previous posts on the new MoMA are here, here, here, here, here and here.

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