Demolition Style: Big Art, Small Architecture, and the Dust of Daily Life

 

The negative reactions to MoMA’s recently presented expansion plans along 53rd Street have been surprisingly sharp. A good number of them have been jabbed into the side of MoMA’s architect, Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R), but as many have found their point in the director of MoMA, Glenn Lowry, and his design committee (although some wonder whether the “committee”—the Board?—was only the Director in a hall of mirrors.)

Some of the criticism has come from within the art community, which has been made uneasy by the unseemly muscle flexing that violates Picasso’s beatific call for art “to wash the dust of daily life off our souls.” But, most of the controversy has been instigated by the architecture community, upset by DS+R’s preview of MoMA’s big-space fist pump knocking out Tod Williams’s and Billie Tsien’s American Folk Art Museum.

DS+R’s proposal had been eagerly awaited in art and architecture circles since May of last year when MoMA, judiciously, backed away from its earlier position to raze the former Folk Art building, and hired DS+R to re-think things. And who better to do it than a firm that had cut its teeth on brilliantly re-imagining client programs, upending norms of social practice, and designing guerilla space within institutional cracks.

That was then, this is now.

Only those present in MoMA’s inner chamber know precisely what happened, but, if DS+R indeed proposed alternatives to demolition, the options fell on deaf ears. Apparently, A.F.A.M.’s magnetic folded façade and its charming but quirky ensemble of interior spaces were never a match for the bully on the block.

The emotional hand-wringing over the undignified demise of a popular piece of modern architecture has been fueled by the fact that the most revered institution of modern art and design is the reaper at the pyre, turning the flame up once again on the uneasy alliance between Architecture and Art.

It is an old saw, but one that does not lose its teeth, especially when territorial boundaries get confused. Whenever Architecture’s functional imperative swerves into aesthetic practice and Art’s aesthetic imperative swerves to functional utility, Lucretius smiles in the Forum.

Yet, this controversy is more subtle than the usual jostling in the design of an art museum. It is more than White Box versus Bilbao, or who gets the upper case ‘A’—architecture for Art, or Architecture for art?

The design of art museums almost always provokes a table-turning tussle over disciplinary territory, and the rhetoric over the MoMA expansion is indicative of this—and then some. MoMA’s director has consistently played the functionalist, noting the difficult alignment of A.F.A.M.’s floor plates and the cramped nature of its galleries and circulation. Even the heralding of DS+R’s big-box spaces and the glazing of 53rd Street has been about the functional solution to new artistic practices and public access rather than aesthetics. Little has been said about the imagistic character of the expansion, its ineluctable material presence, or the experiential choreography of interior spaces that DS+R’s proposal might have to offer.

On the other hand, although much of the architecture community’s dissent has been drawn from its sense of responsibility for social utility—the cultural importance of preserving architectural significance, the unsustainability of steamrolling a 13-year-old building, the consequences for the urban public of hegemonic private power—the heart of the matter is, largely, aesthetic. Most just like “the look” of the A.F.A.M. building, plain and simple. Sure, the interior was idiosyncratic, even difficult for many, but what about that beautiful wrapper. And this is where the real nut lies, I suspect.

At bottom, MoMA simply finds the strong abstract figure of A.F.A.M.—with its hammered bronze façade as mysterious and lyrical as its interior—to be an aesthetic interloper in the space of Art. Or, at least, Art as MoMA’s director sees it.

 Architecture is intended to provide the space for MoMA’s collection, not to become part of it. When the cry to save the architectural art of the A.F.A.M. came, curatorial judgment necessarily followed. How could it not?

To keep the American Folk Art Museum intact would essentially mean adding it to MoMA’s permanent collection, conferring upon it MoMA’s curatorial imprimatur. Even those who have argued to save, at the very least, the A.F.A.M. façade have missed this point: keeping the façade alone only exacerbates. the problem, rendering the architecture even more object-like—a skinned sculptural relic with way too much stylistic broadcasting power over MoMA’s public presence.

The only real option for MoMA was to build up, over, and around the former Folk Art building, rent it out or stuff some ancillary administrative program inside it, and then go on about its Art business with benign indifference. But, even this could not happen. At the end of the day, it was always a matter of Style—curatorial and corporate.

MoMA’s talk of functional necessity (as if Art was a matter of fixed truth and not taste) and its barely concealed eye-roll at those fetishizing an object of aesthetic delight (as if Architecture was not, well, a matter of Art) was a diversion, a smoke screen.

One wishes that a larger discussion had taken place—the more humbling and honest one about the intractable natures of art and architecture and their embeddedness, about curation and preservation; and about the city as an urban museum, one of whose holdings for public display is MoMA itself.

At a recent panel discussion hosted jointly by the Architectural League, the Municipal Art Society, and the American Institute of Architects’ New York chapter, Glenn Lowry remarked, “We don’t collect buildings.”

I suppose that is fair enough, but one can’t help but hear the muffled aside, “At least, not this one.”

And as for the bully on the block, you parishioners next door at St. Thomas Episcopal Church might take heed. MoMA’s westward expansion along 53rd Street is almost done. Beware of the turn to the liturgical east. Only your altar, a few feet from MoMA’s bulging property line, stands between your souls and Picasso’s “dust of daily life.”

Contributor

Peter Wheelwright

PETER WHEELWRIGHT is a writer, architect, and former Chair of Architecture at Parsons the New School for Design. He designed the Kaleidoscope DollHouse in collaboration with Laurie Simmons in 2000. The prototype is in the Collection of Art and Design at MoMA. His recent novel, As It Is On Earth, was a 2013 PEN/Hemingway Honorable Mention for Literary Excellence (see "In Conversation," The Brooklyn Rail, Sept. 2012).

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