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2014 MCHAP

American Folk Art Museum

Tod Williams and Billie Tsien Architects

New York, NY, USA

December 2001


Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects


Helfand Myerberg Guggenheimer Architects (Associate Architect) Pavarini Construction Company (General Contractor) Seamus Henchy & Associates (Project Manager) ADS Engineers (MEP Engineer) Severud Associates (Structural Enigneer) Axis Group Limited (Curtainwall Consultant) Renfro Design Group, Inc. (Lighting Design) Acoustic Dimensions (Acoustical Consultant) Ralph Appelbaum Associates (Exhibition Design) Pentagram (Graphic Design) Tallix Foundry (Bronze Façade Panel Foundry) Reginald Hough FAIA (Concrete Consultant)


American Folk Art Museum


Michael Moran Giles Ashford


This building was designed to be specific to the work. Folk art is small. We created domestically scaled spaces so that the experience of the work was intimate. Four upper floors were devoted to gallery space. A small café faced 53rd street from the mezzanine and provided a view of the two story entrance. A skylight above a grand stair between the second and third floors fills the adjacent galleries with natural light. Apertures at each level allowed light to filter down to the lowest floor. Although diminutive in size, the space was soaring and dynamic. "Memory" pieces were permanently installed in niches so that certain objects would remain as touchstones. Visitors could choose different routes to move through the building and to walk from floor to floor. The kind of work shown here asked for spaces that were the antithesis of the white box space of MoMA which surrounds the building on three sides. This building tried to create a personal approach to the experience of art, rather than a separation between art and life. The interior of bush hammered concrete, old growth pine and terrazzo ground floor slab was both common and extraordinary. The exterior of the building tells a story about its contents and its emotional connection to the city. The metal shifts with the change of light - sometimes golden sometimes somber. The objective of this building is to make a mark in the city that expresses the connection of the heart to the hand.


The American Folk Art Museum is an idiosyncratic home for idiosyncratic art. Located on site 40 feet wide and 100 feet long, and completed in 2001 it was the first new museum built in New York in over three decades. The building adheres to the zoning height limit of 85 feet set by the existing brownstones and rather than glass presents a solid face made from white bronze. The façade was designed to be a tactile expression of the handmade work that was shown inside. The panels of the facade were cast one by one at an art foundry in Beacon New York using an open sand mold taken from the texture of concrete. They were meant to be variegated, to reveal and revere the irregularities that occurred during their making. The slightly canted planes create a sculptural effect, a symbol of the museum, an open hand.


The Museum was the site of compelling exhibitions ranging from the topic of baseball in the 1800’s to the strange drawings of the Amazonian Vivian Girls by Henry Darger to a celebration of African American identity. The intimacy of the space allowed the pieces shown to have great power. When it opened in December of 2001 Herbert Muschamp the architecture critic of the NY Times wrote “ It is a bighearted building. And its heart is in the right time as well as the right place. The design delves deeply into the meaning of continuity: the regeneration of streets and cities; the persistence and mingling of multiple memories in the changing polyglot metropolis; and the capacity of art to transcend cultural categories even as it helps define them.” This is a building that students study in architecture schools. It is a building that is enjoyed by people who know nothing about architecture. Until it is demolished the building stands on 53rd street in opposition to the increasing sense of homogeneity offering a sense of weight and texture and diversity.

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