Search View Archive
Critics Page

Modern Versus Modern

The decision of MoMA to tear down the American Folk Art Museum and the inability of Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R) to deter them through architecture have given rise to a robust and impassioned journalism that architecture has not seen for a long time. The brave essays of Michael Kimmelman, among others, have thrown off the harness of the taste-making role of MoMA and “let them have it.” While the immediate cause of this radical occurrence is the fate of Williams and Tsien’s building, the pushback has been brewing for a while, just as it had been in the mayoral campaign. As Mayor de Blasio’s “tale of two cities” shocked the Bloomberg administration out of their unquestioning belief in their own legacy, so the reaction to MoMA indicates that even those who gladly pay the $25 entry fee have had their doubts. Only the agenda of MoMA’s now former architecture curator Barry Bergdoll, which gracefully integrated ecology, poverty, and prefabrication with Mies, Labrouste, and Le Corbusier, kept the architectural masses somewhat somnolent. Hadn’t we all asked ourselves how MoMA could have pressed the refined Tanaguchi into designing a shopping mall atrium in the service of mobbed openings? In retrospect, they should have hired Rem Koolhaas, whose proposal for the 2004 expansion,” MoMA Inc.,” made evident art’s relation to money and power and got it right.

It seems that we have reached a tipping point; but it will take some thought for us to coherently formulate what we are rejecting—and precisely what we want. We can reject the unbridled capitalism that seems to motivate MoMA in their denigration of a building’s value to the real estate it sits on and quest for (literally) “westward” expansion; but that is only half the task, because we do not want a purely preservationist city either—one that takes us out of the ball game, contradicts our “delirious” history, and gets us UNESCO status. While we can argue for the great value of the Folk Art Museum as an artifact, what we really want is a discipline of city-making that can absorb and incorporate itself as it grows. We don’t want a client-driven system for the synchronized movement of people and their money—like the one that produced Walmart—to become one with all systems of space and design. Given the MoMA brief, the demands of the client, and our current disciplinary defaults, the Folk Art did not have a chance. We need to take back our role as thorny problem solvers and assert that the problem as conceived and understood by the architect, and not just the solution, counts. (Wasn’t it that “other” modernist, Wright, who quipped, “The more difficult the problem, the more interesting the solution”?) In a certain sense, the Folk Art Museum stands at one extreme of the modern—a building that makes problems in order to solve them through architecture, while the proposed scheme of DS+R stands at the other—a museum that obliterates problems in order to forget them.

That a crisis in our thinking about architecture and the city has come to a head in the context of the MoMA expansion is fitting, if not inevitable, in that the underlying subject is the modern itself. As one blogger on Kimmelman’s stream noted, the damn good Rizzoli building on 57th Street is about to be destroyed while no one in the architectural press has said “boo.” But the Museum of Modern Art is about the modern; and Williams and Tsien are, well, not modern in the way that DS+R almost are. The architectural legacy (dare I use the term) of MoMA is the International Style exhibit of 1932, which looms large in the museum’s consciousness. The present museum board conflates the idea that nothing stood in the way of the modernist city’s destruction of slums with their current assertion that nothing should get in the way of MoMA’s expansion; just as the term International Style conflates a modernist ideology of light, air, and greenery with a sleekly detailed curtain wall. But, if we look at all of MoMA’s collections, we get a much richer, compelling, and complex view of The Modern. Here, Atget’s Paris cavorts with Marina Abramović, Labrouste with S.L.U.M. Lab. Would MoMA dispose of the earlier to acquire the later? What belongs in The Modern and in what city does The Modern belong?

For us architects, it is unsettling to note that MoMA preserves the drawings of our dreams—radiant, surreal, and folksy—perhaps eventually even the crafted imaginings of Williams and Tsien (what a thought), not the buildings themselves. But what is the desired alternative? Do we want our buildings reduced to art objects any more than we would want them reduced to real estate? At this moment, because it is difficult to give voice to the complexity of our nascent desires for cultural and social overhaul, we argue in support of the artistic status of the Folk Art Museum or against its “un-Moderness,” in support of the modern flexibility of DS+R’s vision, or against its un-artistic complicity, rather than over larger urban strategies. Let’s hope that the big fight is in the offing.


Deborah Gans

Deborah Gans (FAIA) is an architect and principal of the Gans studio. She writes frequently for such publications as PLACES, Boundaries, and BOMB and has contributed to many books, most recently Architecture and Capitalism (Routledge 2013).


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2014

All Issues