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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

What Would Kurt Schwitters Say? MoMA, Folk Art, and the Architectural Horse Race in Vancouver, B.C.

Posted by on Tue, Jan 14, 2014 at 2:44 PM

I've been following with interest what's happening in New York, where an art museum that has an entire department devoted to architecture—MoMA, the behemoth—is destroying a significant work of adjacent architecture for the sake of its own expansion, just a handful of years after it already expanded, enormously, yet did not build itself sufficient good, workable space. Is the leadership at MoMA really the best arbiter of long-term architectural wisdom?

Michael Kimmelman is the latest voice against what nevertheless seems to be the irreversible decision to tear down what was the American Folk Art Museum (until that museum's finances fell apart). His piece in yesterday's New York Times is called "The Museum With a Bulldozer's Heart."*

Then again, the AMFA says its former building was its downfall—the ambition that went into paying to create it and keep it up, with a larger operating budget than the museum had ever worked with before, led to catastrophe and the museum almost having to divest itself even of its collections.

So, twice now, the AMFA building has been both a handsome work of design and an institutional albatross. I've only been there once: Above all, it's not MoMA (airy, monumental, white). I remember the AMFA building, designed by the architects Billie Tsien and Tod Williams, as a warren of tucked-away corridors and anterooms that were entirely missing the open spaces you'd expect them to lead to. In a folk art museum, this struck me as an eccentricity worth prizing. I also love beyond measure the darkened-gold bronze facade, which may be the earthiest chunk in all of midtown Manhattan architecture, a corporatized tower landscape. Tsien and Williams made magic with the awkward, 100-foot-long, 40-foot-wide site they had to work with. Last winter, when I had to wait for a friend on the sidewalk outside MoMA and the abutting AMFA on a freezing day, I found myself instinctively huddled up to the abandoned AMFA; it was more inviting than the lit-up MoMA.

One of the weirdest twists in the story of what will happen to the folk art building is that it involves not one, but two, pairs of married architects pitted against each other. There's Tsien and Williams, designers of the former AMFA; and there's Richard Diller and Elizabeth Scofidio, partners in Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the firm now working both on expanding MoMA and advising MoMA's board on the fate of the former AMFA building, which MoMA bought in the fire sale when AMFA was down. It's clear now that MoMA bought it not as a work of art—museums often say their buildings are the largest works in their collections—but as a piece of real estate. (What would Kurt Schwitters say?)

"In retrospect, Diller Scofidio had an implicit conflict of interest, taking on the expansion at the same time it swore to leave no stone unturned when it came to finding alternatives to demolishing the former folk art building," Kimmelman writes. "Accepting the expansion made establishing a continuous loop the bottom line."

And then comes the news that both couples are competing for the commission to design the new Vancouver Art Gallery in Vancouver, British Columbia, along with Swiss firm Herzog and de Meuron, KPMB of Toronto, and SANAA of Tokyo. SANAA, shortly after the opening of its New Museum in New York, had a traveling exhibition of models and blueprints that came to Seattle's Henry Art Gallery; I reviewed the Bowery museum and the Seattle show ("A Box and the Sound of Its Own Making").

A report by Alex Bozikovic in Vancouver's Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail doesn't mention the conflict between the two firms in New York, but its verbiage does pit them against each other in implicit, and interesting, ways.

DS+R, Bozikovic writes, "think of themselves as artists" and "deal in metaphor as well as unapologetically impractical shapes..." They are involved with "theatrics."

The folk art museum by Williams and Tsien is "modest" and "house-sized," "a counterpoint, almost a rebuke, to the monolithic white-box modernism of the Museum of Modern Art next door. MoMA won," he writes, when AMFA fell.

Now who will win this next round? The entire lineup is pretty exciting (press release), and gives the VAG a good chance of getting something wonderful. Maybe I'll be able to get director Kathleen Bartels to talk at length about her vision for the building. The VAG intends to announce its choice sometime this spring.

*Update: Everybody's piling onto MoMA in response to its expansion news. Just yesterday came two more pieces, from Eric Gibson at the Wall Street Journal, who urges a return to the classic modernism from which MoMA was born, and Michael Wolff at The Guardian, who says the "intimate, jewel-like" experience of the old MoMA is gone, replaced by the "impersonal," led by a "villain" director.


Comments (8) RSS

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biffp 1
I liked the Folk Art Museum. MoMA was kind of huge after the last expansion. Exciting news about VAG. In a city with some of the best attractions in North America, including an aquarium Seattle could only dream of matching, the VAG building seemed provincial.
Posted by biffp on January 14, 2014 at 3:36 PM · Report this
Correction needed in this article: The Globe and Mail is a national Canadian newspaper, not a Vancouver rag. It's based in Toronto, and to Canadians, is still too Toronto-centric.

This would basically be like calling the New York Times a Seattle-based newspaper.
Posted by -w on January 14, 2014 at 4:20 PM · Report this
@2: Thank you, and to everyone else, my sincere apologies. Here's a little more on the Globe and Mail:….
Posted by Jen Graves on January 14, 2014 at 4:32 PM · Report this
I, too, loved the Folk Art Museum and while it was open on 53rd Street, I went there more often than I went to MOMA. I loved the collection, and I'm apparently also the only one who liked the building: the rooms were beautifully proportioned for the kind of art they showed, which was mostly small and wanted to be viewed up close.

Too small and good and particular to survive in the mammoth uniformity that the city continues to insist on becoming. Sad.
Posted by tim b on January 14, 2014 at 5:23 PM · Report this
I guess MOMA needed some more generic glass-beam-and-light space designed to avoid any offense, or any reaction whatsoever. Things need to be as blandly anonymous as possible.
Posted by Jizzlobber on January 14, 2014 at 5:37 PM · Report this
Here is what the MOMA can do to free up some space: take everything on the bottom two floors, and put it in a dumpster.
Posted by judgemental on January 14, 2014 at 6:53 PM · Report this
@3 - no worries, and thanks for the article. Like most people in Canada, I feel flattered that you're taking an interest in goings on up here (& on the same scale as NY!).

One of the most interesting things to me about the VAG move for me is that the block of Cambie between Georgia and Dunsmiur in front of it is going to be closed to cars and converted into public space. This is important up here because the VAG has been the go-to site for protests, political rallies, street fairs, and general public life ever since they started operating out of the courthouse in the early 90s, and they seem to want to use this closed street to continue playing that role in the city. Judging from the G&M article, I suspect that Herzog & de Meuron would be the most likely to try to pick up on this role, but I'm mostly just interested in hearing what happens next.
Posted by -w on January 14, 2014 at 7:34 PM · Report this
Clara T 8
Bummer the folk art museum is pretty nice.

As for Kurt Schwitters he's to busy possessing Sam Bellomio to comment.
Posted by Clara T on January 14, 2014 at 7:55 PM · Report this

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