The Design Observer Group

Posted 05.06.13

David Heymann

Please Save Modernism from the Modern

Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, American Folk Art Museum, 2001, sections looking west. [Courtesy of TWBTA] Click here and here to enlarge the sections.

Like many, I am dismayed by the Museum of Modern Art’s intention to tear down the American Folk Art Museum. I feel for Tod and Billie, who have held out against the marketplace compromises architects today so often emptily trumpet as justifications of inevitability. Having worked for them (though before the AFAM came into the office), I can attest to the parental concern they bring to their beautifully conceived and exquisitely constructed buildings.

But I’ve been trying to separate my sympathies for the architects from my thoughts about the decision. There are certainly critical voices that doubt the building’s value. These begin with that of MoMA itself, to which it hardly seems fair to be a friend only when we agree. While others claim the AFAM should be preserved because it’s a great Modernist building, and therefore part of the MoMA collection, rather than its campus, no one has unequivocally answered the question of why it is so. The discourse as yet remains one of opinions asserted as imperatives: I love it / I never liked it / it must be saved / tear it down.

So I think it’s an important question. Here is why I think the American Folk Art Museum is a great Modernist building.

All the many Modernisms, ranging from the hyper-rational to the entirely surreal, share a desire to recover meaning by liberating experience from convention. This core ideological impulse — to overturn existing unquestioned norms — always comes first in great Modernist works. Yes, it has some consistent aesthetic consequences, but the truly unprecedented characteristic of Modernism is the startling array of objects the impulse has produced, which remain related despite their variety.

As designed objects, for example, a Rietveld chair and an Oppenheim fur-lined teacup have nothing in common, aside from discreteness. They hardly seem related aesthetically. Yet they are kin. What they share is a perceptible intent to rediscover, through free consideration, why any thing we accept as normal — a chair, a cup — has value. We recognize their bond in the similar discomfort each generates.

It is easy to confuse the formal consequence for the radical intent. The best example of this in Modernist architecture may be the plan for the Brick Country House by Mies. It’s possible to consider the building’s extraordinary plan as only a proposal for a new aesthetic experience through the abstract composition of walls redirecting a continuous space as if water through rapids. But the composition is, more fundamentally, an ideological reconsideration of property and identity, and of the relationship between legal and communal boundaries.

Top: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Brick Country House, 1964, unbuilt. Bottom: Mies's plan repeated to form a neighborhood. [Illustrations by David Heymann] Click images to enlarge.

You can see this easily if you repeat the plan to form a neighborhood. What is remarkable, and entirely new, is how the architecture establishes a perceptual dissonance between what is owned (shown in red) and what is shared. It’s the exact opposite of the norm, of private property isolated by a bounding wall, with the villa in the center. In structured space, the house sits exactly where walls separate shared yards, and inhabitation, as in all Mies houses, becomes a demanding compact between private vulnerability and the public realm.

At the Brick Country House, Mies first posited the private house at the junction between perceived ownerships. It may have been possible for Mies to derive this concept retroactively, from the composition. But most architects would — aware of the problem of infinite formal possibilities and therefore the primacy of concept driving form — concede that here the radical ideology precedes a burgeoning Modernist aesthetic. The evidence is in the challenge you sense when you imagine living that way.

So, as much as people have argued that the Folk Art Museum should be saved because it is a striking form, a lesson in sophisticated abstraction and the material realization thereof, for me those characteristics, while true, are secondary. What is primarily consequent about the AFAM — what makes it Modernist, and what makes it great — is its impulse to upend an existing architectural norm.

Like the Brick Country House, that norm has to do with how publicity and privacy are encoded and embedded in the spatial patterns of a city. The AFAM is invariably described as having an unusual site, a 40-foot wide, half-block-deep slot of space along 53rd Street. But there’s nothing unusual about such sites in New York City. They are (or were) the norm for private houses along the east/west running streets. What is unusual is considering such a site for a public institutional program, historically associated with the north/south avenues.

American Folk Art Museum. [Photo by Dan Nguyen]

In the city’s memory of land use, sites like this are (by a complex causality) associated with acculturated typological patterns of form that dictate meaningful inhabitation. That pattern of residential form is the shotgun townhouse: a series of repeating isolated floor plates — each divided from the one above or below — organized often about a central stair, with weak glaring light coming in from planar facades at the extreme front and back, and salon-like rooms enfilade in between, these sometimes illuminated by narrow light wells or skylights.

Almost anyone living in New York is intimate with this genetic architectonic framework (or its subdivided-into-apartments offspring) of squeezed slats of laterally extending private rooms set perpendicular to the public street in plan — a defined horizontal extension in contrast with the vertical space of the street. This is what you know to expect.

That said, large townhouses have been used before in the city to exhibit artwork: the Museum of Modern Art itself began in precisely this way. What was interesting, eight decades ago, about that initial arrival of a revolutionary (and arguably if problematically populist) Modernist art into a pre-Modernist exclusive private space was the safe simulacrum of revolt. The long strange story of the association between Modernism and power is in some ways predicated on the titillating, willfully half-blind, but mutually agreeable relationship between those who finance and institutionalize the work itself, and those who in their work comment on that very institutional-financial power structure in a series of false complaints.

The brilliance of the AFAM is how the architects turn one’s assumption about such a space on its head. After the foreboding and inscrutable façade — the unmistakably marked dimension of which re-establishes the presence of townhouse (it’s like the cup part of that Oppenheim piece) — the abrupt vertical court carving up and through the building is stunningly public in its ridiculous generosity. I think most visitors’ initial reaction to that large space confined in its small perimeter is the same as when they first see the fur in that teacup: that is just wrong.

Interior, American Folk Art Museum. [Photos by Michael Moran Studio / Otto Archive]

And it is even more wrong for being filled with natural light, which seems to enter, impossibly, from the sides — a brilliant consequence of the façade, which appears to entirely cover the available frontage of the site, while in fact sneaking light in around its edges (readily apparent in plan), and of the suspended amphitheater stair, which (mostly) obscures your view of the vast north facing skylight monitor.

But it is absolutely right. Having established public-ness in the vertical dimension, the architects then embed two more improbable large public rooms along the various paths up and through the building, beginning with an informal landscape-like studio where the garden should have been on the ground floor, and ending at the complete surprise of the monumental public stair amphitheater (I think one of the most beautiful interiors in New York City) connecting the fourth and fifth floors below the great skylight, which, in its relatively traditional form, again re-establishes the townhouse as the model being acted against.

These great rooms are public arenas, rather than salons (the public-ness of the upper stair is verified by a narrow adjacent companion stair, just over one person wide). They favor the act of collective attendance as the unit of meaningfulness. In such an arrangement, seeing the artwork is neither exclusive nor fetishistic. To further sharpen the friction of the exclusive townhouse and its inclusive space, the individual artworks were correctly hung or placed in a manner that could only be called domestic, except that the walls are concrete. The townhouse here is the city inverted, rather than the city excluded.

The experience so conceived begins with the bizarre Tombasil panel façade. Antagonistically vertical against the horizontal expanse of MoMA, opaque against its transparency, and singular against its anonymity, it is both experiential, misdirecting what you think will occur inside, and, by its demanding strangeness, a mask. Its few precedents — the Golden Door, the Open Hand — occur in that lineage of Modernism that refuses to admit that all things are ultimately distillable.

American Folk Art Museum. [Left photo by Lauren Manning; right photo by Jy Chen]

Several of the letters to the editor posted to the website of The New York Times when the MoMA decision was first reported suggested the Museum should at least retain this extraordinary façade. I can’t actually imagine a more miserably degrading demise. It’s like displaying someone’s head on a stick. MoMA has missed the point on masks before: now would probably be the right time to reread Thomas McEvilley’s incisive autopsy of MoMA’s 1984 exhibition Primitivism in 20th Century Art. [1]

What McEvilley made clear in that seminal essay was MoMA’s blindness to the schism in Modernism between liberative appearances and liberative ideologies — between an aesthetic and its origination. That would still seem to be the case. According to the Times: “MoMA officials said the building’s design did not fit their plans because the opaque facade is not in keeping with the glass aesthetic of the rest of the museum.” MoMA’s sight has not yet returned. Modernism in the architecture of the Modern is just another sad Historical Revival Style, the very thing Modernism as an ideology set out so intently to destroy.

Modernism cannot be that Braun figured out the perfect alarm clock, that Breuer figured out the perfect country home, that Bertoia figured out the perfect wire chair, and that we are going to have to continue applauding ourselves forever for approximating their superior efforts. No, the Modernism worth pursuing — worth protecting — is the one where Gregor Samsa wakes up transformed into a large insect, and ends up with an apple embedded in his carapace, which is exactly what the Folk Art Museum is to the Museum of Modern Art, right now, right where it is.

American Folk Art Museum, sections looking south and north. [Courtesy of TWBTA] Click image to enlarge.