Liz Diller offered apologetic real talk in the announcement that accompanied the final renderings of Diller Scofidio + Renfro's plans for the Museum of Modern Art's expansion into the contested site of the former American Folk Art Museum on 53rd Street in Midtown Manhattan. “It’s not for lack of trying that we find ourselves at the same pass,” the New York Times quoted Diller. “We can’t find a way to save the building . . . It’s very hard to make peace with yourself, to advocate for taking down a building that’s only 12 years old.”
Mismatched floorplates between the current MoMA site and the American Folk Art Museum became the bête noir for DS+R as they struggled to compromise and retain the contested site. "The decision to abandon the building was a matter of function, not aesthetics," Diller substantiated, adding, “To save the building, we had to lose too much of the building . . . You pass a tipping point where there’s not enough of the original structure to actually maintain its identity.”
The American Folk Art Museum
Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, the original architects of the 40-foot-wide Folk Art Museum, did not mince words in their reaction statement, lamenting, “This action represents a missed opportunity to find new life and purpose for a building that is meaningful to so many. The inability to experience the building firsthand and to appreciate its meaning from an historical perspective will be profoundly felt.”
Diller countered that Williams and Tsiens' effort will be remembered as “a bespoke building that was made specifically for the scale of the art that was going to be shown there.”
New MoMA site plan, via DS+R
Aside from the demolition of the Folk Art Museum, the final renderings reveal astonishing new strides in opening MoMA to the streetscape. In contrast to the somber facade of the preceding site, the expanded MoMA on 53rd Street will be defined by a retractable glass partition.
The resulting ground floor space will be christened the "Art Bay," a flexible space for performances and exhibitions akin to the courtyard at MoMA PS1. DS+R have also allotted for that entire level to be open, free to the public—including the museum's lionized sculpture garden.
Atop the Art Bay will reside the Gray Box, so named to reflect its fused function as both a white cube gallery space and black box theater. (Whether this was inspired by DJ Danger Mouse's The Grey Album, a mashup of the Beatles' White Album and Jay-Z's Black Album, is undetermined.) The Gray Box will cater to the growing taste for performance art, and the live works it hosts will also be visible from the street.
This sensibility for establishing a visual connection with the public realm has become a cornerstone of DS+R's body of work. The firm's most iconic urban intervention, the High Line, is punctuated by a sunken seating area with a glass screen that frames the street life of 10th Avenue.
And like the transparent facade of the future MoMA, DS+R's Alice Tully Hall at New York City's Lincoln Center and planned Broad Art Museum in downtown Los Angeles also utilize upturned frontage and broad glass surfaces to deconstruct the barrier between an art institution and the public:
Rendering of planned Broad Art Museum. Image courtesy DS+R
DS+R's plans will connect directly with 39,000 square feet of gallery space inserted into the Jean Nouvel-designed 82-story residential tower just west of the former Folk Art Museum site, perhaps furthering the ethos of making private space public.
Still, these triumphs are somewhat overshadowed by the air of hesitation expressed by Diller, as she told the Times of her studio's struggles to retain the Folk Art Museum, “It was just a kind of impossible task. We really, really tried for them.”