(an earlier version of this article appeared in the March 2014 issue of the Brooklyn Rail)

In January 2014, The Museum of Modern Art presented its design plans for its latest growth spurt along 53rd St. in New York City. The hue and cry that has ensued since the presentation has been significant for not only questioning the museum’s obligation to artistic practice, but, more importantly, its responsibility to the cultural life of the city.

The controversy surrounding MoMA’s plans to expand its real estate in mid-town Manhattan set root in April 2013 when MoMA announced its intention to demolish the former American Folk Art Museum (AFAM) building which it had purchased two years before. At the time, the idiosyncratic but popular AFAM building was only ten years old; the client had moved on, but the unused building was still considered by many to be one of New York City’s finest examples of contemporary architecture. Seemingly stunned by the extent of the unhappy responses to its demolition intentions, MoMA granted a reprieve for AFAM a month later, and promised to go back to the drawing board.

When MoMA’s announcement came this January that, despite sincere efforts, AFAM must indeed go, it was unexpected. Besides upsetting the architecture community for having turned its back on a significant piece of design, the museum also raised the hackles of many in the art world for its own selective architectural vision of artistic practice. Above all, the announcement, inadvertently, brought further unwanted scrutiny on the venerable art and design museum’s role in the cultural life of the city.

Now, by cultural life, I mean the social space within which we New Yorkers conduct our varied affairs. Social space is as much a matter of design as the artifacts – buildings, streets, landscapes – that provide its material space. And the two spaces are inextricably linked. The design of public space is a reflection of who we are, where our values lie, and how we wish our social life to be seen by others.

In its mission statement, The Museum of Modern Art makes a number of very strong claims: “the foremost museum of modern art in the world”; “…the world’s finest collection of modern and contemporary art”; “…a permanent collection of the highest order”; “…presenting exhibitions of unparalleled significance”, and “…supporting scholarship and publications of preeminent intellectual merit.”

With such a brocade of superlatives to maintain, it would seem that MoMA has a great responsibility, greater than most, to both represent and safeguard the ideals of the demos. One of which is to ensure, where it can, that our spatial configurations and the consequent social effects will continue to make our experience of the city and its achievements more rich, resourceful, and…well, “unparalleled”.

At least, so it would seem.

Regardless of where one stands in the controversy over MoMA’s expansion plans, no one can discount how sharp the negative reactions have been. A good number of them have been jabbed into the side of MoMA’s architect, Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R), and 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).

As mentioned above, some of the criticism has come from within the art community, which has been made uneasy by the museum’s imperious vision and unseemly muscle flexing that violates Pablo 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 that has knocked out, once and for all, Tod Williams’ 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 an architecture 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, AFAM’s magnetic folded facade 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 no different. MoMA’s Director has consistently played the functionalist, noting the difficult alignment of AFAM’s floor plates, 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. From the aesthetic perspective, 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 thirteen-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 AFAM 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 AFAM – with its hammered bronze facade 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 AFAM came, curatorial judgment necessarily followed. How could it not?

To keep the AFAM 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 AFAM facade have missed this point – incorporating the facade as part of MoMA’s 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 AFAM 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 the 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 most important holdings for public display is MoMA itself.

At a recent panel discussion hosted jointly by the Architectural League, the Municipal Art Society, and the AIA’s 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.”

* Since this article was originally published, MoMA’s Director has announced to the NY Times that, in fact, the museum will keep the AFAM facade: “We will take the facade down, piece by piece, and we will store it. We have made no decision about what happens subsequently, other than the fact that we’ll have it and it will be preserved.”… just not in the light of day.

Further Readings:

For more academic material on the design of “material and social space”, see, among others:

Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space; Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish; Michel De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life

by Peter M. Wheelwright

Image Credits: sam iv via Wikimedia Commons; hibino via flickr

About The Author

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Writer, Architect, and Associate Professor at Parsons the New School for Design

Peter Wheelwright is an architect, educator, and writer. He is currently Associate Professor and full-time faculty member in The School of Constructed Environments where he was Chair from 1998-2006. The principal of PMW Architects in New York City, his work has been widely published in Architecture , Metropolitan Home, Metropolis , New York Times , Ottagono, Architectural Record , the Journal of Architectural Education , and the ACSA Journal. The Kaleidoscope Dollhouse and Poolhouse, designed in 2001, is in The Permanent Collection of Art and Design at the Museum of Modern Art. His writing and academic work focuses on environmental philosophy and history, natural and technological issues in architecture, and sustainable practices. His novel, As It Is On Earth, received a PEN/Hemingway Honorable Mention for Literary Excellence in Debut Fiction.