MOMA, the vatican of modernism, was supposed to cut the architectural edge with its new building on 53rd Street, but instead, the blandissimo design now rising will, ironically, wrap around the new American Folk Art Museum like a neutral backdrop, setting off the brilliant, just-completed boutique museum as though it were the biggest architectural model in the MOMA collection. Designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, the Folk Art museum has usurped MOMA’s avant-garde role in architecture.
The façade looks detonated, with fissures heaving the front wall into angled planes, filtering natural light through tall cracks. Panels of white bronze alloy sheath the façade, its texture crazed with volcanic accidents left from the molten pour.
Inside, a seven-story slot rises vertiginously through the 30,000-square-foot building to an angled skylight next to a sloped wall, with spaces and floors pushing and pulling in puzzled overlaps that invite visitors to bypass the elevator in favor of the stairs. Curiosity guides you to light.
To make a small space look bigger, the Chinese divide and subdivide space, and the Japanese borrow distant views. Here, Williams and Tsien do both, expanding space by layering wide and narrow planes horizontally and vertically, creating big rooms as well as cubbies, all porous to each other. The path – up an open, beautifully crafted concrete staircase – shifts mid-building to a monumental flight. White walls slip over the exposed concrete, a collage of alternating dark and light surfaces. Impatient visitors find themselves slowing up, absorbed by changes in materials and details.
Williams and Tsien, like miniaturists, expand space by creating an interior world. If MOMA is the official headquarters of the white gallery box, this interior offers emotive, even moody modernist ambience. The gentle revolution here is the shift from universal to particular space, where works of art prosper in individuated environments. With pathways that wend through spaces that expand and contract in endless variety, the architects wanted visitors to create their own itineraries. The same is true of the designers, who have found their own voice in today’s smorgasbord. In a city that resists unconventional architectural talent, they are outsider artists, but their debut here proves that architects with a vision can prevail over bottom-line thinking. This is a tour de force. And the weather vanes, portraits, and samplers have never looked better.