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The American Folk Art Museum

45 West 53rd Street

Museum viewed from the south


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.

Detail of south facade

Detail, looking upwards, of museum front

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 fašade 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 innovation.

Stairwell vitrines

One of stairwells has built-in vitrines

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.

Staircase at museum

Staircase atrium at museum

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 below.

View from above of stairwell weathervane   View of weathervane in stairwell from below

Views from above and below of large weathervane in stairwell

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.

Visitors have multilevel views   Weathervanes of stairwell wall

Weathervanes on wall of atrium

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 of Virginia.

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 hand."

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 photograph below.

Detail of museum facade under construction

Photograph of museum's facade under construction

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 exhibition space.

Folk Art Sculpture from the Esmerian Collection   Exhibits
Some fine folk art sculptures from the Esmerian Collection

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.

Figurehead model

Super small model of a figurehead model shares wall space with folk art paintings

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 New York.


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