By Carter B. Horsley
If the Marcel Breuer's Whitney Museum is the
box that Frank Lloyd Wright's Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum came
in, then Tod Williams Billie Tsien & Associates' new and rather
small American Folk Art Museum at 45 West 53rd Street is the origami
for the Whitney.
While no where near as flamboyant as Frank
O. Gehry's proposed new Guggenheim Museum for the East River downtown,
the American Folk Art Museum is a kindred spirit with its very
unusual metal alloy façade surfaces and its surprising
interior spaces. Indeed, its interiors are a marvel, offering
myriad spatial adventures. Given its small footprint and size,
the museum's design by Tod Williams Billie Tsien & Associates
is quite astonishing, both outside and inside. It recalls some
of the work of Carlo Scarpa, the Italian architect known for his
serene and almost poetic spaces. The architects have created a
charming, inviting, surprising and dramatic layout, quite a remarkable
feat given the city's restrictive zoning and building regulations
and the small scale of the museum.
The museum's front, shown above, consists of
angled planes of panels covered in pitted, grayish material that
conveys solidity and has an intriguing texture. Seen directly
from the front, it appears to be window-less but indentations
permit it to conceal windows that provide light and views of the
outside to the interior. It is the second recent building that
employs such angularity in its building wall: the LVMH Tower on
East 57th Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues, designed by
Christian Portzamparc, also is a major variation from the city's
traditional rectilinearity, although its facade is glass and it
has colored lighting. Both buildings are very intriguing, especially
in a city that has been for so long a backwater of architectural
This is the second new museum
to open in the 2001-2 winter in the city: The Neue Gallerie of
German Expressionist Art opened on the southeast corner of Fifth
Avenue and 86th Street less than a month before this one opened.
It, too, is quite small and both museums obviously are too small
for their popularity, but nonetheless extremely welcome additions
to city's cultural scene. The Neue Gallerie is housed in a very
elegant neo-Georgian-style mansion and its very fine interior
restoration has followed traditional mansion design standards.
The American Folk Art Museum, on the other
hand, is very original in its layouts and materials. Its inspiration
is clearly Marcel Breuer's Brutalist Whitney Museum of Art and
its great staircase. Whereas Breuer's elegant staircase was not
highly visible from exhibition spaces, Tod Williams and Billie
Tsien have employed several staircases that offer spectacular
views and occupy a fair bit of the small square footage in this
five-story building. As shown in the photograph above of a green
corrugated fiberglass wall unit, the building has a high-tech
"feel" that is sharp contrast to its handmade contents,
such as the bullet-riddled tall weathervane of an American Indian
that dominates one of the larger skylight atrium spaces, shown
While Breuer's 1966 Whitney, which was the
last new museum built in the city before the American Folk Art
Museum, is one of the great monuments of the "Brutalist"
style of modern architecture, it use of dark textured stone has
always softened its boldness as has the flexibility of its large
interior spaces. This museum makes similar use of texture, but
in a more intimate fashion because its spaces are so small, especially
since its narrow, 40-foot width is penetrated by two staircases.
Here concrete walls provide a fine textural backdrop to some spectacular
weathervanes as shown above and below.
This is a very compact but very workable museum
that provides visitors with alternate paths to discover its treasures.
One normally associates much folk art with cozy, paneled rooms,
but the rather rough and modern materials here work well in large
part the scale is domestic not institutional.
Tod Williams Bille Tsien Associates was selected
from 30 architects in 1997 for this project. The firm is best
known for a townhouse it designed for Jerry Speyer, the real estate
developer, on East 72nd Street, the Neurosciences Institute in
La Jolla across the street from the Salk Institute, an expansion
of the Phoenix Art Museum, and some buildings at the University
The 40-foot-wide, $21 million building now
is free-standing but only until the expansion of the Museum of
Modern Art is completed in a few years at which time MOMA structures
will surround it.
The building's facade consists of panels, all
different sizes, of cast tombasil, a whitish-bronze alloy that
is used in the manufacture of boat propellers and other industrial
objects. Most of the panels were poured in molds cast from smooth
steel but others have been cast from molds of irregular concrete.
An article by Raul Barrenche in the winter 2001-2 issue of "Folk
Art," the museum's publication, quotes Billie Tsien as describing
the panels as "a very moody material....We like how it will
change during the course of the day, and that it's so mysterious."
In his December 14, 2001 article in The
New York Times entitled "Fireside Intimacy for Folk Art
Museum," Herbert Muchamps wrote that "This temple's
giant 'doors' are two six-story trapezoidal walls," adding
that "The walls splay outward, as if hinged, from a glazed,
off-center seam that extends vertically across the facade."
"A triangular form, inserted between the trapezoids, flares
from the top of the seam to the roof line," he continued,
adding that "The architects have acknowledged that the form
created by the triangle atop the window is an etherealized humand
While the abstraction of the hand may be lost
on many pedestrians, they are sure to do double-takes as they
pass by for the structure's facade is certainly definite and sculpturally
quite subtle while also being very bold by New York City standards.
For a short while during construction, the facade was even more
spectacular before the panels were put in place, as shown by the
The new 30,000-square-foot building has been
a long time in the making. The museum acquired the land in 1979.
It first opened on this street in 1963 when it was known as the
Museum of Early American Folk Arts and rented about 1,000 square
feet of space in a townhouse near MOMA. The museum eventually
moved into a former carriage house on West 55th Street and then
relocated to Two Lincoln Square near the Lincoln Center for the
Performing Arts where it opened the Eva and Morris Feld Gallery.
The museum is keeping the two Lincoln Square facility as additional
The inaugural exhibitions at the museum including
selections from the Ralph Esmerian Collection, which has been
given to the museum by Mr. Esmerian, a former president and the
current chairman of the museum's board of trustees, and works
by Henry Darger, an "outsider" artist who lived from
1892-1973 and is known for his fantasy landscapes populated by
frolicking naked children.
The Esmerian collection has many very fine
examples of "classic" American folk art such as weathervanes,
painted chests, primitive paintings, carousel figures, decoys,
quilts, frakturs, walking sticks, scrimshaw and sculptures.
There is an elevator in its new building although
there probably should be more than one to alleviate waits. The
coat check is in the basement where there is also an auditorium,
a class room and a research library, and there is a very nice
small cafe on a mezzanine that overlooks 53rd Street. A bookstore/gift
shop has its own street entrance.
The institution's decision to create a "modern"
museum deserves great praise and its design by Tod Williams Billie
Tsien Associates is pretty sensational, a spectacular feat in