Power and greed may be at the root of why New York’s Museum of Modern Art is expanding its cultural conquest along West 53rd Street, demolishing, and delivering into the maw of its glassy gallery mall, the apparently offensive opaque jewel of architecture where the American Folk Art Museum bravely lived for a decade until 2011.
Bulldozing or abandoning the exquisite architectural difference that makes a city unique. That’s how low some big public art institutions – including, most recently, the Vancouver Art Gallery – have sunk. Granted, in the case of MoMA, we saw it coming: The megacultural starship has become an increasingly predictable project about the housing of art – not the delicate, generous art of city-building.
MoMA’s decision to demolish the Folk Art Museum, designed by the uniquely talented husband-and-wife firm of Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, diminishes the MoMA’s global reputation. Sadly, like Saturn, it is devouring its own children, the very ones we thought big daddy would protect.
Consider that the folk museum was rendered as an urban sliver of sculpted architecture. Its kinked front facade is a powerful mask constructed of panels of white bronze cast in an art foundry. From a distance, the entrance appears as an abstract landscape – the Twilight successor to Ghiberti’s Bronze Doors in Florence – becoming more scarred and haunting as you come close. Next door, the MoMA glass facade exposes all to the consumer, eliminating any mystery or chance operations – a pity, given that the millennial generation scours the city in search of undiscovered, unpolished instances of forgotten space.
When, back in 2011, the Folk Art Museum decided to return to its previous home on the Upper West Side in order to get its financial house in order, the MoMA was given first right of refusal on the property. It purchased the 53rd Street facility, originally constructed for $18.4-million.
But rather than consider the building as an art house whose narrow, 12-metre frontage is perfectly suited to intimate exhibitions or art-music salons, or even, heck, artfully arranged urban sleepovers, the MoMA appalled the architecture community when it recently announced that this exquisite little Folk Art Museum, complete with its quirky and sometimes disjointed interiors, would be demolished. Spoken like the brashest of developers, not like a museum endowed with an architecture-and-design department of tremendous renown.
The art of city-building allows for the creative human spirit. If it doesn’t, architecture flatlines, streetscapes become samescapes, and anybody interested in wonky variations in scale and urban texture hightails it to Sao Paulo or Istanbul – cities of wild design difference – instead.
The edifice complex, by which museums and public art galleries hire starchitects to rebrand their institutions for huge sums of money has, for the most part, come and gone. It was a hot trend about 10 years ago. And yes, some American cities grasping at economic straws are still banking on the epic edifice. Cleveland, with its declining population and high levels of urban violence, is spending $350-million on the Cleveland Museum of Art expansion by Rafael Vinoly. St. Louis has invested in a sweet but predictable glass-box expansion of its art museum by British architect David Chipperfield.
Although their collections are worlds apart in depth and ambition, the MoMA and the Vancouver Art Gallery labour under the same spell of self-aggrandizement. The VAG continues to ho-hum that tedious dirge about building a spanking new $300-million cathedral for art on a new, unfortunate site. (By the way, that’s more than the Art Gallery of Ontario spent on its Frank Gehry transformation project, despite having more than twice the annual visitors of the VAG.)
The 1960s anti-monument sentiment is being seen in pop-up architecture and in anti-institutional street parties. But VAG director Kathleen Bartels is keen to flog an idea whose best-before date has come and gone, insisting that spending $300-million on a building by a fabulously famous architect will create a superior experience of art. How? The marketing document presented at city council this week spouted such platitudes as “Embrace the past and own the future” and “Mobilize the power of the public.” Sorry, no comprendo.
Vancouver needs to believe in its own urban personality and architectural scale. There’s a century of collective memory that flows in and around the Vancouver Art Gallery. It resides in a splendid 1912 beaux-arts building, originally designed by the exceptionally gifted (if love-crazed) architect Francis Rattenbury. It looks over a rare ceremonial civic plaza and public-gathering stairs that engage with Georgia Street the way many of the historic museums and monuments do in Washington, Paris and London. That is, with civic grace. It book-ends Robson Square, the mystical landscape of waterfalls, reflecting pools and stramps – designed by the late Arthur Erickson and Cornelia Hahn Oberlander – that climb up a man-made mountain toward the Provincial Law Courts. Food carts and street lounges are making Robson’s 800 block directly south of VAG a magnetic, car-free public space.
If that’s not enough, the sun shines brightly on Georgia Street, certainly brighter than it does on Cambie Street, where Vancouver City Council agreed this week to grant the VAG a 99-year lease to an ungracious corner of the downtown where the Greyhound bus station once hunkered down.
The condition imposed by the council – and this is surely a time-delaying ruse – is that Bartels has two years to raise roughly half of that $300-million from government. Where’s the money? Federal Minister of Canadian Heritage James Moore peered into his wallet at a recent fundraiser in Vancouver and said there was simply no money to give. B.C. has already given $50-million to the cause, and next month’s provincial election is all about fiscal responsibility. Unless you have a Rockefeller or a Jeffrey Skoll on your board, it ain’t gonna happen.
Little has been made, during Bartels’s 12-year tenure, of the VAG’s great civic forecourt – apart from delightful hangings of floral tapestry by Michael Lin back in 2010. If reinvention and expansion are what’s required, they’re waiting to happen on the Georgia Street plaza.
Consider, for inspiration, Norman Foster’s sublime glass cube, Carré d’art (1994), exquisitely set next to the 2,000-year-old Roman temple, Maison Carrée, in Nimes, France. For tens of millions rather than hundreds of millions of dollars, there are also ideas worth exploring for sinking the VAG’s famous light-sensitive photography collection underground; a similar idea was explored, but never built, at the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto.
Once the VAG starts to feel good in its own skin, there are endless possibilities for its reinvention. As for the MoMA, the one-time doyenne of cultural sophistication has now, much like the VAG, become known for its insatiable urban appetite. Wielding shards of difference and blades of history may be complex to imagine for cultural institutions big and small; but in the end, they produce the enduring collages of urban art.