On Institutions and Their Buildings

The hand wringing about the Folk Art Museum reached a climax today as the New York Times reported on the personal rift that the recommended demolition has created. It has, as one polled architect said, turned into a Greek tragedy, while I would say it is the closest thing I have ever seen to architecture as high school. Maybe soon it will be an off Broadway musical.

Has anyone written a serious analysis of how buildings (Cooper Union, Folk Art Museum, American Center in Paris, etc.) have taken on the new role of murdering institutions? To be fair these may be more institutional suicide than architectural homicide, but it’s interesting that the tragic loss of a credible home for the Folk Art Museum or the end of tuition-free Cooper Union becomes irrelevant compared to the fetishism of a single building. I feel caddish for even thinking it, but does it matter that the museum was so challenging to display a collection in? Maybe not in the context of choosing sides on the school playground, but here a serious discussion seems warranted, if only to unveil the real culprits.

The article did relish the irony that the same firm that participated in a very dubious relocation of the Barnes Collection (“forever” = 75 years, according to the court ruling permitting the move) has now suffered a similar shift in the mathematics of permanence. If “in perpetuity” is now 75 years, perhaps 12 years is “a suitable interval” or a “long and fruitful life”.

And while the Cooper Union building may not be dysfunctional it was commissioned and built without a successful capital campaign by a board of trustees bordering on criminal in their breach of fiduciary responsibility. The loss to the architectural world over the next 75 years because of this change may even exceed the loss of the Folk Art Museum. Think of the hundreds or thousands of talented students who can no longer attend a first rate architecture school because of the institutional and ethical collapse.

Recently the brilliant Manufacturers Bank by Gordon Bunshaft has been defiled, in an act of patricide, into a Joe Fresh, leaving even the iconic vault a mere decorative display. I don’t remember the outrage being quite so well reported as the current one. True, an alteration is not a demolition, but in this case the city has suffered an enormous desecration.

There are many arguments for why the Folk Art Museum should be saved; among the most convincing is what it does for the scale of the block and how well it shows very small works of art. And the facade material is simply divine; bronze poured onto concrete producing the closest thing to a molten tapestry.

But the argument has become one of personality, schadenfreude and the chance to publicly take sides in what is billed as a great debate. It has so overwhelmed the real issues of cultural hegemony, real estate as birthright, and civics & civility as to make a single building a Greek tragedy. Even the article today seemed to be an overeager opportunity to look respectful more than a thoughtful consideration. And while it is unfortunate that friends and colleagues clash, it is more unfortunate that the matter has such a distorting public airing.

As everyone can barely resist weighing in with their own ‘solution’ I will offer mine: move it (yes, move it) to any 40’ wide lot in the Manhattan grid and it would be the finest home, gallery, museum or store in the entire city.
And my guess is you can pick it up for a song.