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Here Now, a Short History of Destructive Museum Expansions

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When the Museum of Modern Art announced that it would store away and preserve the façade of the American Folk Art Museum after razing the building to make room for a new expansion, it struck most as a hollow concession to those in favor of preservation. Many of the archicritical sphere's major players cried foul over the reveal of the initial plan—New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman employed the most withering of built-world takedowns, comparing MoMA to a property developer—even as Elizabeth Diller, one of the architects behind the MoMA redesign, defended the plan as the "only option" when faced with two equally distasteful alternatives: reworking the interior to incorporate it into the expansion, which would take it past "the threshold of losing its identity," or the "façadism" of gutting it and preserving only the exterior. Instead, the plan for the new MoMA will move forward, and the copper-bronze façade of the Folk Art Museum, so easy to champion as solid and grounded when compared to the glassy, aloof look of the MoMA redesign, will be packed away pro forma and presumably forgotten, like the Ark of the Covenant at the end of Raiders.

Of course, controversy is a given with any museum expansion, where public interest, preservation politics, and starchitect cred make for especially intractable differences of opinion, but it's even more complicated when it requires the wholesale destruction of another structure. The seemingly unprecedented thing about the Folk Art kerfuffle is the fact that the museum was only built in 2001, and its designers, Billie Tsien and Tod Williams of Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, are still around to watch another pair of celebrated NYC architects undermine their work. To make matters worse, they were good friends with Diller and Ricardo Scofidio of the firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, who MoMA tapped to design the expansion, review the case, and make the tough decision. (Unsurprisingly, relations between the two couples have reportedly cooled.) In a statement released on January 8, Williams and Tsien called it a "missed opportunity to find new life and purpose for a building that is meaningful to so many."

Ironically, Williams and Tsien were on the opposite side of a similar dustup in 2011, when they were chosen to design the new home for the Barnes Foundation, when the collection moved from its original location in Merion, Penn., to a larger one in Philadelphia (↓). The institutional decisions leading up to the move, which were the center of the 2009 documentary film The Art of the Steal, were said to break with founder Albert Barnes' will and vision for his namesake. As Barnes student Carryl Platt put it, "It'll be a complete forgery. It will not be as it was intended to be seen. This was never intended to be a museum."

When the new Barnes opened in 2012, the reaction among critics was fairly positive. Inga Saffron, the Philadelphia Inquirer's architecture critic, went as far as to suggest that "the architects seem to have considered the philosophical implications of every joint." The situation was different from the one that Williams and Tsien find themselves in now with the Folk Art Museum, and the old Barnes building still stands, but the parallels are there: a large institution making a controversial decision in hopes of increasing its reach and exposure, a pair of architects going ahead with their design and making the best of a regrettable situation. (It seems that undermining original intent is all right as long as it's not you being undermined.) As Jay Raymond, a former teacher at the Barnes and a litigant against the move told the New York Times in mid-January, "It's delicious irony that the architects who needlessly pressed their personalities onto the 're-creation' of the building to house the Barnes Foundation collection now protest the decision to demolish their museum."

The 1992 expansion to Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim museum by Gwathmey Siegel & Associates Architects (↓) was similarly steeped in controversy, as any Wright revision must be. Like the MoMA's current plan, it also requiring the destruction of another architect's work. Building the rectangular annex that now serves as a backdrop for the Guggenheim required the demolition of an adjoining structure designed by Wright student William Wesley Peters and finished in 1968, with an exterior embellished with octagons and squares based on Wright's original drawings for the museum.

Writing for the New York Times at the time, Paul Goldberger curtly dismissed the previous annex: "And the much-maligned old annex, designed by Taliesin Associated Architects, the often misguided inheritors of Wright's practice, has been demolished, its foundation turned into the base of the new addition." The demolition provoked little public outcry, because the critical focus was on Gwathmey Seigel's revision of Wright's original plan, not on the loss of the old annex.

When Italian architect Renzo Piano designed a new addition to the Gardner Museum in Boston, he had a much thornier demolition on his hands: the task of eliminating a building influenced by the building's founder, art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner. New England architect Willard T. Sears designed the building, but Gardner had significant input on the nearby Carriage House (↓), which was used for storage and a visiting-artist apartment. Before Piano's design broke ground, debate ensued over whether the Carriage House, which was never open to the public, should be considered part of Gardner's will.

The back and forth was fueled by an essay by Renaissance art historian Robert Colby, which pointed out that the façade of the Carriage House was based on Altamura, a monastery in southern Italy where art was prized for its redemptive qualities. Colby argued that the idea of Altamura inspired Gardner's very conception of the larger museum that would take shape. To make matters worse for those in favor of demolition, Gardner's two dogs were buried nearby, their names painted onto a connecting wall. In the end, all this amounted to was critical hot air: the Carriage house was torn down in 2009. Gardner Museum director Anne Hawley noted that despite her "deep affection for that structure," architecturally, it's "not that interesting."

Even if it were, though, such is the nature of institutional expansion. It often happens, sentiment be damned, with updates to structures whose designers were unable to plan for changing demands, and at the expense of buildings that are in the way. As the to-do about the Folk Art Museum is still demonstrating, it's simply a lot messier when the original architects are around to comment. As to Kimmelman's museums-as-developers metaphor, it'd be funny if it weren't so true.

· All MoMA coverage [Curbed National]
· All American Folk Art Museum coverage. [Curbed NY]
· Building Faces Wrecking Ball. So Does Couples' Friendship. [NYT]