American Folk Art Museum

American Folk Art Museum in New York, NY by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Associates, 2001

The previous dose featured the design for the American Folk Art Museum, designed by New York's Tod Williams Billie Tsien Associates, in their words and images. Here we present images from the completed building (opened on Dec. 11, 2001, next to the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan) and my critique of the museum.

Only 40 feet wide, the Folk Art Museum has one primary facade, facing 53rd Street. The architects opted to design a facade that is simple in its composition yet complex in detail, as each tombasil panel that comprises the facade differs from the others through variations in pouring methods (some molds were smooth steel, some irregular concrete). An overcast sky greeted me as I visited the museum, effectively muting the panels into a flat, subdued facade. With the facade facing south, it is apparent the effect would be dramatically different on a sunny day, or any condition in between. More importantly the panels present the visitor with a handcrafted, yet industrious method, indicative of the inside, of both the architecture and the artwork.

The main entry, like the narrow windows created by the folding of the tombasil panels, is perpendicular to the street, hidden behind the facade. A 23-foot high lobby confronts the visitor, natural light filtered from the skylight at the top of the building, down through narrow openings at each floor. Immediately the visitor is given a means of orientation through the building, a frame of reference. A mezzanine spatially separates the lobby from the tall first floor gallery beyond, hinting at the voyeuristic aspects of the building as eyes above meet the gaze of visitors entering the museum. After purchasing tickets, one is immediately faced with multiple possibilities for moving through the building: take the elevator to the fifth floor and walk down, or walk up the stairs adjacent to the first floor gallery. Once upstairs it is apparent the museum was thought of as a house for art, both in its intimate scale and its circulation, the latter modeled on a house with main and ancillary vertical circulation. The analogy of a house for art is appropriate in a museum devoted to folk art, an art form suited to notions of comfort and domesticity.

Walking through the galleries, three main themes are evident in the layout of spaces and elements: scale, variety and views. Notions of scale were briefly touched upon, in the analogy of the museum as a house for art, where the scale of the spaces is similar to a house. Also, the spaces are scaled to the size of the artwork, which tends towards the small in the gallery spaces but large in the circulation below the skylight at the center of the building. Under this skylight an aspect of the second theme is apparent, in the variety of locating art objects. Typically segregated to gallery spaces, here the artwork is integrated into the rest of the museum. Variety is also present in the different stairs provided for vertical movement, which allow for multiple means to view the collection. The last theme is easily the most impressive; the provision for views through and across spaces. Walking through the four floors of gallery spaces I found myself peering through openings in walls and displays at other visitors, more than I gazed at the artwork on display. These distractions are obviously intentional, adding to the richness of experience.

The first "ground up" museum building in New York City since the Whitney Museum more than 30 years ago, hopefully the American Museum of Folk Art will not be overshadowed by the Museum of Modern Art expansion which is currently under construction on two sides of the small museum. The rich interior spaces should make up for its petite size, a situation addressed by the architects in the design of the facade: an opaque wall, folded to address its context. And as MOMA grows to surround the Folk Art Museum, the facade will be the only exterior trace, a hint of the wonders that it cloaks.