The recent flurry of critical missives and tweets over MoMA’s decision to demolish the next-door American Folk Art Museum (AFAM), designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, has got me thinking about Harley Earl. The square-shouldered vice president and head of design at General Motors introduced stylised curves, chrome, and sex appeal into an industry driven by function. His most significant contribution to American culture, however, may be not the tail fin but planned obsolescence.
The idea that a manufacturer builds the death (by uselessness or tastelessness) into the birth of an object was once radical. It transferred the decision about when a product reaches the end of its life from the producer to the consumer. Could your sense of self-worth – your Cadillac, your iPhone – weather one more season before becoming démodé? Today, upgrading is a function of Moore’s law, the observation that technology gets exponentially smaller and more powerful every two years. It’s like breathing: one inhale, one exhale.
Architecture — or really I should say buildings, excusing for the moment the theoretical or speculative options — has largely been spared the frequency of model changes. This slower epochal cycle owes less to a belief in Vitruvius’ firmitas, utilitas, venustas than to the economic fact that buildings cost more than a Chevy. Then there’s the social contract that buildings, even not exactly great buildings, should stick around awhile.
Yet MoMA‘s decision to follow Diller Scofidio + Renfro‘s recommendation to start fresh on 53rd Street, just thirteen years after the AFAM‘s celebrated opening, leads us to reconsider architecture’s obsolescence. Perhaps we need to steel ourselves for more rapid architectural cycle. Harvey Earl introduced new auto body models every three to five years. Too slow. Our era trades on the pop-up, the art-fair tent and the pavilion. The breathless pace of the internet only underscores design as a temporary, consumable product to be traded over mobile devices. To know the American Folk Art Museum is to Instagram the American Folk Art Museum.
Yet in all this churning through history, we have to remind ourselves that Williams and Tsien’s museum is considered the first new significant piece of architecture built after 9/11. You could even say that its facade of alloyed bronze panels, pockmarked from pouring hot metal onto bare concrete in the casting process, represented New York City’s toughness, resiliency, and belief in art, folk art, and art of the people in the face of adversity.
In his 14 December 2001 review, New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp lauded the building, writing:
“We can stop waiting for state officials to produce plans for redeveloping the city’s financial district. The rebuilding of New York has already begun. The new American Folk Art Museum in Midtown, designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, is a bighearted building. And its heart is in the right time as well as the right place. The design delves deeply into the meaning of continuity: the regeneration of streets and cities; the persistence and mingling of multiple memories in the changing polyglot metropolis; and the capacity of art to transcend cultural categories even as it helps define them.”
In retrospect, Muschamp’s effusive wordsmithing borders on hyperbole. Yet in focussing on the cultural context in which the building was born, it captures much of what is missing from current discussion (which tends to be markedly concentrated on functionality and new square footage). If we practice the rules of obsolescence, the death of this signature piece of architecture was designed in at the beginning.
As much as I would want to praise the American Folk Art Museum for pointing a way forward out of that dark time, the structure is no phoenix. From the beginning it was anachronistic. This is its downfall.
Although completed in the new millennium, it is an artefact from the 1990s, or to crib from Portlandia, an artefact from the 1890s. Muschamp’s title suggests as much: Fireside Intimacy for Folk Art Museum. “Our builders have largely dedicated themselves to turning back the clock,” he writes of Williams and Tsien’s obsessive attention to materiality.
The museum is a little too West Coast for midtown – too much like somethign from the Southern California Institute of Architecture, before computation took command. Its design values everything the current art and real estate markets reject: hominess, idiosyncrasy, craft. By contrast, Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s scheme emphasises visibility and publicness. The same could be said for an Apple store.
A message from MoMA director Glenn D. Lowry posted on the museum’s website touts that the new design will “transform the current lobby and ground-floor areas into an expansive public gathering space.” Indeed, the much talked-about Art Bay, the 15,500-square-foot, double-height hall in the scheme, walks a fine line between public space and gallery. Fronted with a retractable glass wall and designed for flexibility, the Art Bay is so perfectly attuned to the performance zeitgeist, that it makes Marina Abramović want to twerk.
When the plans to demolish AFAM first surfaced in the spring of 2013 and the efficacy of its galleries to support MoMA collections came into question, I rebutted the suggestion that the cramped layout was flawed, suggesting instead that we see it within the legacy of the house museum, akin to Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, where the architect spent his later years arranging and rearranging his antiquities. Or even a sibling of 101 Spring Street, Donald Judd’s SoHo studio and residence now preserved as an artefact of contemporary art history and an exemplary piece of cast iron architecture. Fiscally rescued from obsolescence, these are zombie edifices: institutions frozen in time and largely immune from market ebbs and flows.
The sad fate of the American Folk Art Museum comes on the heels of a rough year. Cries of #saveprentice, although loud in the Twittersphere, ultimately fell on deaf ears so Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital (1970) in Chicago fell to the wreaking crews this past autumn. Richard Neutra’s Cyclorama Building (1962) in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, was also deemed defunct and unfashionable. Michael Graves’ Portland Building (1982) might be next, given reports of the cost to maintain the postmodern icon.
Past preservation movements grew out of grassroots efforts such as the Miami Design Preservation League, which formed in 1976 to save what would become the city’s Art Deco district, or the Los Angeles Conservancy, galvanising two years later to save the Los Angeles Central Library. Is the future of preservation advocacy or apathy?
The Tumblr #FolkMoMA, initiated and curated by Ana María León and Quilian Riano, dragged the fate of AFAM – a pre-internet building – into the age of social media. The hashtag set the stage for a robust dialogue on the subject and a much-needed commons for debate, but failed to save architecture from capital forces.
In weighing in to protest or eulogise the passing of the American Folk Art Museum, perhaps what we mourn is not the building per se, but a lingering sentimental belief that architecture is an exception to the rules of obsolescence. This building strived to represent so many intimacies, but ultimately its finely crafted meaning was deemed disposable.
Fingers may point at the ethics of Diller Scofidio + Renfo’s decision to take on the project or wag fingers at MoMA’s expansionist vision, but the lesson here cuts deeper into our psyche. Architecture, as written in long form, exceeds our own life spans and operates in a time frame of historical continuity. Architecture writ short reminds us of our own mortality, coloured by mercurial taste.