Fred A. Bernstein

City Folk

A review of the new American Folk Art Museum, designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.

Published in World Architecture, February 22, 2002

The American Folk Art Museum was designed to be squeezed into the slot between two midtown Manhattan buildings, with only its street side visible. But then, the Museum of Modern Art, preparing to construct Yoshio Taniguchi's vast complex next door, razed practically everything on the block -- leaving the Folk Art Museum exposed on all four sides. At its debut in December, the eight-story, 30,000-square-foot building by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien arrived unchaperoned, seeming both bereft and giddy with the freedom.

Adrift in MoMA's construction site, the Folk Art Museum seems diminutive, not much bigger, from some angles, than the trucks crowding West 53rd Street. The facade offers few clues to the size of the building, covered as it is in metal panels that resemble topographic maps and -- ironically -- the scarred earth of the MoMA excavation. The panels are made of Tombasil (an alloy of copper, zinc, manganese, and nickel) that was allowed to harden against deeply rutted planes of steel and concrete, and no two are alike. To Tsien and Williams, that means the foundry workers -- rather than the architects -- created the facade. "We conceptualized how it would be made, then embraced the results," says Williams. According to Tsien, one of the challenges of designing a museum for folk art was finding a way to acknowledge that "the hand is still the most important tool."

Try telling that to the designers of most of the buildings in midtown Manhattan. Down the block, the Tishman Building (666 Fifth Avenue) is covered with hundreds of identical stamped-aluminum panels. Williams and Tsien have abandoned the repetition-compulsion that has dominated curtain wall design for decades. (Like clinker bricks that were used to "rusticate" facades in the Arts & Crafts era, the bronze panels resemble rejects from the manufacture of the Tishman Building.) The result may be one of the most significant facades since Jean Nouvel installed electronic version of mashrabiyas -- the carved wooden screens found throughout the Middle East -- at his Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris. Like Nouvel, Williams and Tsien use high-technology to hark back to a low-tech era.

The facade conceals six floors of galleries. (Two more levels are underground.) Except for a single setback in the rear, and several gentle folds in the facade (comparable to the folds of Christian de Portzamparc's LVMH tower a few blocks away), the perimeter barely changes from floor to floor. Yet within the mundane template, Tsien and Williams have created a tapestry of rich and varied spaces. A rectangular opening (topped by a large skylight) nearly bisects the building. Hanging in the opening is a "floating" wall of blue-green resin, which stands out sharply from the otherwise grey-heavy palette, and becomes a kind of locating device, beckoning visitors back to the center of each floor.

That's the centripetal device; there's also a centrifugal one. "We wanted people to be drawn to the edges," says Tsien, explaining why the building's 53rd Street windows (vertical strips that run, more or less, the full height of the building) are relegated to the corners. One window looks out on the aluminum Tishman Building; another, on Eero Saarinen's astonishing Black Rock, the CBS headquarters that -- with its deliberate lack of differentiation between base, shaft and crown -- may have been the first skyscraper as extrusion. The Rock, not really black, is similar in tone to the gray used throughout the Williams and Tsien building.

At the Folk Art Museum, visitors take elevators to the top floor, then work their way down, Guggenheim-style, via three highly architectonic stairways. In plan, those three, plus the emergency stair, give the impression that half the building is devoted to vertical circulation -- an indication of the importance of unimpeded movement to the scheme, and also of the challenge Tsien and Williams faced in creating safe, usable spaces within what is essentially a townhouse footprint. In contrast to the Guggenheim's ramp, which permits only one route, the Folk Art Museum's three stairways offer myriad itineraries. That makes the building seem larger -- and more varied -- than it is. Says Williams: "Knowing that there are routes other than the one you've taken should make you want to come back." The smallest of the stairways darts behind partitions. "We'd like you to remember it," says Tsien, "but not be able to recall exactly where it is."

Moving through the complex spaces, it's easy to forget that they are squeezed between windowless walls a mere 40 feet apart. Among the attention-getters are the exposed concrete slabs visible overhead, underfoot, and -- where stairs cut through them -- in section. As the slabs were poured, bits of aggregate -- black stones in the largest size the architects could get -- were added to the mix. The tops of the slabs were then polished, creating a floor surface that is reminiscent of terrazzo, but less slick. (This was no easy task, since unwanted imperfections in the slabs couldn't be covered over.) The bottoms of the slabs are also exposed; pipes and wires are carried through aluminum "raceways" that are themselves significant architectural elements. The decision to expose structural concrete makes the building feel solid and comforting. Unlike Elizabeth Diller & Ricardo Scofidio's Brasserie, just a few hundred yards away, which is intentionally discomfiting, this building embraces and reassures. Perhaps the press release claiming the Folk Art Museum is an important part of New York's healing process, post September 11, isn't so far off.

The richness of the architecture is a product, Tsien points out, of the relatively small size of the paintings and objects on display here. (Contemporary art would have required larger rooms with far less architecture.)

Gallery walls are painted white. Cleverly, installation designer Ralph Appelbaum mounted a giant metal weathervane in one stairwell, then lit it so that its shadows fall onto surrounding walls -- the result is that those walls display folk art (indeed, make visitors take a fresh look at folk art) without any tangible adornment.

Tsien and Williams haven't done a pubic building in New York before. Their best-known projects to date are the Neuroscience Institute in La Jolla, near San Diego (1995), and a swimming pool at the Cranbrook Institute, outside Detroit (1999). In the meantime, their teaching -- both at a number of universities, and by example -- has inspired a generation of younger architects.

The Folk Art Museum couldn't be better positioned to propel them into the category of Pritzker Prize contenders. With MoMA all around it, pedestrian traffic past the building will be heavy. "I hope it looks as good when it has neighbors," says Williams, jokingly. Tsien notes that the couple's earlier buildings have had "relatively quiet facades." But here, the building only has one chance to attract attention. The street facade needed to dazzle, and it does.

The building might not have turned out as well had it not been bookended by MoMA. The tightness of the site means the museum will never be able to expand (not at this location, anyway). And that, paradoxically, freed Williams and Tsien to create a fully realized work of architecture -- not a "phase" in a multi-decade development scheme. The requirement that museum buildings allow for expansion may make sense practically, but it produces buildings that are never quite finished, never quite aesthetically coherent. It can't be coincidence that the best museums -- Kahn's Kimbell, Gehry's and Wright's Guggenheims, and Mies' New National Gallery in Berlin -- are virtually expansion-proof. And some of the worst (Pelli's 1980's MoMA) were little more than stopgaps.

The Folk Art Museum wanted a building, not a 50-year-plan, and it got it. That hundreds of works by of untrained artists should be enveloped not only in the highly evolved architecture of Tsien and Williams, but -- soon -- by the huge Zen masterwork of Taniguchi, is an irony wrapped in an irony, and the kind of layering a great city deserves.