November 2017
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What Can the American Folk Art Museum Teach Us?

“Modest” and “Midtown Manhattan” are rarely joined together.  Architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien used the term “modest” to describe their six-story American Folk Art Museum. But with a façade of Tombasil, a white bronze alloy used architecturally for the first time, the building is truly unique, seemingly hand-hewed; there is no mistaking it for anything else. Acknowledging its distinctiveness and elegance, the building won a host of awards including our MAS Masterworks (2002) and honors from the American Institute of Architects.  While we understand the need for the Museum of Modern Art to expand, a happy problem to have stemming from its extraordinarily successful efforts to attract new audiences, we regret that it comes at this cost.

As Brandan Haw, senior Principal with Foster & Partners, said as part of our Next 100 Design initiative looking at East Midtown: “New York is a city of remarkable streets. They tell us the story of our city, and supply us with not only access but also, importantly, a context to ‘read’ our city.”  West 53rd Street was once filled with grand townhouses designed by the 19th-century’s best architects; in fact originally the American Folk Art Museum opened on a floor in one of them.  Times and needs change of course, and our buildings – and the streets that host them – adapt.

But one of the city’s joys is to happen on the unexpected, the unique, the unpredictable, clues that provide us with a richer understanding of who this city is.  And the American Folk Art Museum was one of those happy architectural surprises.  Amid midtown’s ever taller and glassier buildings, the Museum was an extraordinarily textured bronze treasure.   We are sorry to see it go and are disappointed that it can’t be retrofitted for whatever contemporary uses are required.  Stewart Brand taught us that buildings can learn: they have for centuries. What can this twelve year-old gem teach us about what is truly modern? Can we see?