MoMA Commences Demolition of Folk Art Museum Building

The razing of the Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects-designed building is expected to be completed by the summer.

The saga of the doomed American Folk Art Museum building reached another ignominious milestone this week, when scaffolding appeared in front of the building in anticipation of the dismantling of its famous facade. MoMA, in full damage control-mode, had previously announced that they would save the facade’s 63 copper-bronze panels, but that feeble half-gesture had very little to do with preservation. In an age when everyone is a photo journalist, the last thing the museum wants is an ugly and extended demolition scenario. So instead of reducing the building to rubble and carting the pieces away to the Meadowlands, they will instead take the facade apart and “preserve” it. (Perhaps once that’s trucked off site, they’ll loosen up and proceed with the rest of the building like the rapacious real estate developers/enablers they’ve sadly become.)

MoMA has conceded that it has no real plans for the panels, except for the preservation-via-storage approach. But, according to a recent account in the New York Times, Nina Libeskind (the chief business partner and wife of architect Daniel Libeskind) and Fredric M. Bell, the executive director of the New York chapter of the AIA, have approached the museum about somehow reusing the facade at MoMA’s P.S. 1 outpost. I’m not sure how feasible that idea is (the facade is 82 feet tall), unless it involves using pieces or portions of it, which isn’t a whole lot different than buying seats from the old Yankee Stadium. In the same piece, Tod Williams told Robin Pogrebin that “[t]he idea of installing a few panels somewhere doesn’t interest me.” I would agree, but I’m still curious about the idea anyway.

Except for a series of carefully crafted public statements, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, the architects for the Folk Art Museum, had not publicly spoken out about the impending demise of their building. In the Times report, Williams struck a mournful tone, which was both smart and totally in character. (“Yes, all buildings one day will turn to dust, but this building could have been reused. […] Unfortunately, the imagination and the will were not there.”) Until now, the architects had largely left the histrionics to others (like me). But I’d contend that there’s a good reason for our rage. We admire the building and, especially, the architects, but as so often happens in preservation battles, the Folk Art Museum has become a stand-in for much larger issues: the future of New York, MoMA’s turn away from cultural preservation, the colonization of Manhattan by the ultra rich, the widening gap between them and everyone else. That’s a lot of baggage for an obdurate little building to carry. And it certainly won’t make the rest of this story any easier for MoMA.

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