American Folk Art MuseumPosted: February 11, 2011
Having just celebrated its tenth birthday, the bronze-clad home of the American Folk Art Museum remains provocative, itself a work of art. Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s unconventional building not only enlivens 53rd street but also provides a counterpoint to the clean-lined anonymity of the Yoshio Taniguchi-designed Museum of Modern Art next door. Like no other Manhattan architecture, the AFAM building is a combination of daring and human-scaled approachability.
Designed by architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, the seemingly windowless geometric façade of the American Folk Art Museum adds character to the block with its dash of edginess. It features a fortress-like exterior composed of bronze panels hung on three planes to create a concave “Y-shaped” crease, evoking origami . The bronze panels appear to change color with the light yet have a solid stone-like texture missing from the slick glass and metal curtain wall of the Museum of Modern Art next door. The dark cladding would be foreboding if it stretched uninterrupted for half a block like MoMA’s, or rose to the height of the CBS building across the street. But as it is, the structure induces curiosity from passersby.
The edifice replaced three townhouses probably built in the 19th century which were fair representatives of their species but not otherwise remarkable. If they hadn’t been torn down to make way for the AFAM, the three story buildings would have been dwarfed by the modern structures surrounding them or eventually gobbled up in another MoMA expansion. The AFAM building echoes the solidity of other structures on the block, including its Eero Saarinen-designed neighbor across the street, The CBS building, but on a human scale. For all of its solidity, the building is strangely gnomish. Standing only five stories tall and 40 feet wide, it functions as a jewel box, concealing treasures within.
As architecture, the building is risky without being ugly, and folksy without being cute. As a museum, the Williams/Tsien-designed building is superior to the institution’s original home on the parlor floor of one of the townhouses. The relationship of its galleries to its external architecture is a strong one; when walking through the museum, rough concrete walls and flecked concrete banding around the wooden floors are a constant reminder of the structure and external shell. An open core spanning the height of the building provides glimpses into galleries on other floors while angled walls break exhibit space out of the conventional orthogonal box. Galleries at the Museum of Modern Art are designed not to be noticed, engage with, or take attention from the art. These chicly bland boxes bear little relationship to the glassy exterior except that both are as unobtrusive as possible. The architecture of the American Folk Art Museum engages the art within it while MoMA is an anonymous container.
On a block dominated by glass curtain walls and looming towers, the American Folk Art Museum is as quirky as it is strong. The Folk Art Museum’s uniqueness is both engaging and challenging. Not just a cry against convention, the building illustrates that a museum need not be an objective, anonymous container but can itself be sculpture.