Un-Green Building: MoMA’s American Folk Art Mistake

One of the greatest attributes of a world-class city is its ability to respect and add new context to the works of previous generations of architects. Some old buildings come down to make way for new, allegedly more efficient ones, but in most cases those targeted for the wrecking ball are either old and crumbling, or hold little architectural value.

Neither of these criteria applied to the recent decision by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City to demolish a 12-year-old adjacent building simply because it doesn’t fit with the look of a planned massive expansion. After purchasing the 40,000-square-foot, eight-story building for $32 million in 2011, MoMA has made the very un-green decision to tear it down and start from scratch.

The bronze facade of the building formerly known as the American Folk Art Museum in New York. Image via Detelf Schobert / Flickr.

The bronze facade of the building formerly known as the American Folk Art Museum in New York. Image via Detlef Schobert / Flickr.

The doomed structure, built in 2001 from a design by architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, was originally home to the American Folk Art Museum on West 53rd Street in Manhattan. The large bronze panels on the façade were a deliberate contrast to the glazing on the skin of the much larger MoMA building that engulfed it on three sides. At the time of its opening, the Folk Art Museum was the first new museum to be built in New York in nearly 30 years and was lavishly praised for its ability to squeeze so much into a narrow 40-foot by 100-foot space.

The museum, however, foundered and was unable to pay for the $32 million debt incurred during construction. In 2009, the museum defaulted and eventually moved to a new space in New York’s Lincoln Square on West 66th Street. Now, MoMA wants to build an 82-story expansion tower on the site to match its current floor plan and style of glazing. The bronze façade of the 2001 building, MoMA said, was simply “too opaque” to fit into the design, so it has decided to turn it into tons of rubble instead.

The doomed building, as it appeared soon after it opened. Image via arcticpenguin / Flickr.

The doomed building, as it appeared soon after it opened. Image via arcticpenguin / Flickr.

In the weeks following the April 10 announcement, a petition from the Architectural League of New York has been circulating, asking MoMA to reconsider and make some modifications to keep the Williams and Tsien design intact. In another form of protest, a new meme was created on Tumblr at #FolkMoMA depicting various suggestions for how the bronze façade could be worked into MoMA’s plans — some more tongue-in-cheek than others.

“The public has a substantial and legitimate interest in this decision,” the Architectural League petition reads. “The Museum of Modern Art has not yet offered a compelling justification for the cultural and environmental waste of destroying this much-admired, highly distinctive 12-year-old building.”

MoMA explained that, because the former museum is set back too far on the footprint, the floors of the planned expansion won’t line up evenly with the existing building. While this would pose a challenge, it is one that can be overcome with a little creativity, said architecture critic Justin Davidson in a recent Vulture magazine article. A 1980 project by the Metropolitan Museum, Davidson wrote, managed to incorporate a smaller free-standing, offset building into its exhibit space.

Surely there is a better — and much greener — compromise than throwing away $32 million of investment and creating another enormous pile of demolition waste out of something that only a dozen years ago was considered a reputation-setting masterwork by Williams and Tsien, winners of the 2013 AIA Architecture Firm Award.

As Cathleen McGuigan wrote so bitterly and eloquently in her Architectural Record editorial last month, “MoMA was the first museum to establish a department of architecture and design, and is now both judge and executioner of an acclaimed modern building by one of America’s most distinguished practices.”

Randy Woods is a Seattle-based writer and editor with 20+ years of experience in the business publishing world. A former managing editor of Seattle Business, iSixSigma, Claims and Waste Age magazines, he has covered topics that include newspaper publishing, entrepreneurism, green businesses, insurance, environmental protection and garbage hauling (yes, really). He also contributes to the Career Center Blog for The Seattle Times and edits a photography magazine called PhotoMedia. When not working, he likes to hide out in Seattle movie theaters and attend film festivals—even on sunny days.

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