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Thread: American Folk Art Museum

  1. #1

    Default American Folk Art Museum

    American Folk Art Museum

    Address: 45 West 53rd Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues
    Architects: Tod Williams and Billie Tsien
    Opened: 11 December 2001.
    Website of the American Folk Art Museum at


    From Architectural Record

    Material Affairs
    By Clifford A. Pearson

    The works of Tod Williams, FAIA, and Billie Tsien beg to be touched. Walk up to their Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla, Calif., and you find yourself running a hand over the low-slung building’s long concrete walls, which have been softened by heavy sandblasting to expose their blue-green aggregate. Or go inside their addition to the Phoenix Art Museum and compare the smoothness of a grand limestone stair with that of its cast-in-place concrete mate. The architects bring out the timeless qualities of materials such as stone, concrete, steel, glass, and wood, and they experiment with newer ones such as Homasote, plastic laminates, and resins. Theirs is a tactile architecture.

    Having worked together since 1977 and been partners since 1986, Williams and Tsien (who are married to each other) have developed a practice known for its lyrical designs that bring out the humanity in institutional buildings and highlight the poetic in residential ones.

    Although many of their projects involve the arts, the architects have tackled a broad range of commissions. They have designed sets and costumes for the Elisa Monte Dance Company, an installation for Isamu Noguchi light sculptures, swimming pools for educational institutions, college dormitories, houses, lofts, and museums. They describe their work as emphasizing “the importance of place and explor[ing] the nature of materials.” The mission statement for their office states, “Whatever we design must be of use, but at the same time transcend its use. It must be rooted in time and site and client needs, but it must transcend time and site and client needs.”

    Early in his career Williams worked for Richard Meier, while Tsien spent several years as a painter before completing her architectural studies. Today, the couple is finishing work on the Museum of American Folk Art in New York City and the Student Arts Center at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, both of which will open this year. In 2000 the Monacelli Press published a monograph on Williams and Tsien, entitled Work/Life. record senior editor Clifford Pearson caught up with the architects recently and spoke to them about materials and architecture.
    Architectural Record: The cover of your new book has a close-up photo of the cast-metal panels that will clad the main facade of the Museum of American Folk Art on 53rd Street. The book cover and your buildings themselves send a message about the importance of materials. Could you explain how you go about selecting and using materials?

    Tod Williams: I’ve heard people say, “Oh, Williams and Tsien, they’re experimenting with materials.” They seem to think we go to the closet, set out a bunch of materials, and see what happens. We do almost the opposite. We try to hold the materials at bay for as long as possible. We keep asking ourselves what is the right material. And the right one is not found by going into a box and just picking something out.

    Billie Tsien: It comes slowly. And requires a lot of very boring problem solving. Someone in our office might say, “Let’s try fiberglass.” Tod and I will reply, “Okay, then you’d better figure out how to make it fire-retardant.” Once they make it fire-retardant, then it doesn’t look like fiberglass anymore. So people in our office will send things to fabricators, asking if they would make samples. Things go back and forth, back and forth. There’s a great deal of struggle. It’s not just picking stuff out of the storage room. Materials emerge from a particular place and from some very dull grunt work.

    TW: We think about materials for a building as much from the inside going out, as from the outside going in.

    BT: We start with what is particular to a problem. For example, with the folk art museum, which right now has a very strong presence, we tried to find a material that would be unique in a certain way and would have a sense of the human hand being involved in making it. Now it’s true that all manufactured materials have some hand involved, but it’s not always so visible. The challenge was to establish a direct relationship between what you see and how it was made, so you make a connection between the hand and the finished object.

    TW: And we’re going to display the material in such a way as to show how it’s connected to the building. When the museum opens in December, everyone in the press will talk about the panels because they’re out front. But the building will be important not because of the panels but because of the space-making inside.

    AR: But the material, Tombasil, is fascinating. And so is the process of fabricating the panels.

    BT: The material fabrication is connected to the meaning of the museum. This is a building that exhibits art by people who are not trained as artists. It’s about a direct translation of vision through hands.

    TW: We see the people at the foundry who made the panels, Peter Sylvester, Vinnie Nardone, and Peter Holmstead, as the artists, and we’re the ones who assembled their panels for the facade.

    AR: How did you arrive at the decision to use Tombasil?

    TW: Our first idea was to try to cast a concrete facade directly on the street, to use the imprint of 53rd Street as the facade. That would have been extremely interesting, but rather disruptive to traffic. We didn’t get a very positive response from the folk art board to the idea of making the facade of cast concrete. So we looked to other materials. We thought of aluminum because aluminum can have some sparkle and shine and it is ordinary enough to be affordable. But once we melted an ingot [of aluminum] and then cast it, it was no longer shiny. It became rather dull and didn’t look like aluminum. So we said, “Let’s look at something that’s not aluminum and not copper, but maybe a mix of the two.” Through a series of investigations, we learned about Tombasil, which is a form of white bronze.

    BT: It’s used for boat propellers and fire-hose nozzles, so it can deal with weather. We took the Tombasil to an art foundry because they’re used to dealing with . . .

    TW: Odd requests.

    BT: We had to work out a lot of technical difficulties because when Pete poured the Tombasil on the concrete floor, the air in the concrete and the moisture caused tiny explosions. We destroyed the floor, but we had some interesting panels. Eventually, we figured out how to pour and cast the material in a controlled way.

    AR: That’s a lot of work to get the right material. Is this something that a typical architect can afford to do?

    TW: Because this is a public, spectacular building, our process was perhaps more intense than usual. But I think in various ways, all architects can do it. And it doesn’t have to stop here with this project. It’s a baton that one carries and passes to the next architect. Just as titanium panels didn’t start with Frank Gehry and shouldn’t stop with Frank Gehry.

    AR: Are there certain materials you would like to work with that you haven’t yet?

    TW: Every one on the surface of the earth. They’re all interesting and we try to learn from other architects. We go down to Tucson and see Rick Joy’s house and we’re envious. We go to see Peter Zumthor’s work in Switzerland and we’re envious. And it’s not just the Tombasils and titaniums that are interesting. Something as common as house paint can be exciting when polished to a mirror finish—as we saw recently in a piece of art in the show Open Ends at MoMA.

    AR: You’ve said your work must be rooted in time and site. Explain how that relates to materials.

    TW: We feel that buildings in general should be connected to the ground, the earth. We think of buildings in terms of heavy and light. There is a notion these days that architecture is increasingly becoming lighter. But I don’t believe it one bit. It’s just an illusion of lightness. Buildings are heavy. I haven’t met a building I could lift.

    BT: I think what we’re always looking for is a weightiness—a pressing down—and then a release. We did this at the natatorium at Cranbrook [School of Art], which has a stone floor and is concrete block on the inside. The pool itself is excavated from a hillside. The materials are certainly about durability. But when you look up toward the ceiling, there is that very intense color and the oculus with light coming in, so you get a sort of flight. It’s both roots and wings. We know that materials can be evocative; they can bear emotional weight.

    TW: We’re doing something similar with our amphitheater in Guadalajara [june 1999, page 136], which is pushed into the land.

    BT: It has the sense of a giant earthwork with battered walls, which are rooted, of course, in the Aztec and Mayan traditions there. We’re trying to think about materials that make sense in the place where we’ll be building. This is the first time we’re working outside the U.S., so the architecture has to have a sense of the climate and be appropriate for the place.

    TW: The seating is ground-based, so it’s seen as a kind of land form. And there’s a very big roof that is both light and heavy. On the underside of the roof, we’re using an expanded-metal mesh that we’ve seen in Mexico as a fencing material.

    BT: The stuff is really cheap, very crude, and made in Mexico.

    TW: The material itself weighs seven pounds per square foot or so. If you look at it straight on, it’s maybe 85 percent transparent. But from an angle it looks almost solid. So is it light or is it heavy?

    BT: An important value for us is drawing together all of the various elements of architecture—materials, space, form, light, color—and producing a unified whole. We’re not at all interested in producing a collage. People’s lives are the collage and you don’t need a collage on top of a collage. You need to provide some sense of wholeness so the kaleidoscope can occur within it.

    TW: The issue of the hybrid is interesting. It’s not wrong to recognize that odd partners can come together. We’re a perfect example of that ourselves. But I think it’s very, very important that one show restraint in order to let certain things come to the fore and have some force and authority.


    December 14, 2001 (NEW YORK TIMES)

    Fireside Intimacy for American Folk Art Museum


    WE can stop waiting for state officials to produce plans for redeveloping the city's Financial District. The Rebuilding of New York has already begun. The new American Folk Art Museum in Midtown, designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, 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.

    Folk art denotes point of view: this is the design's understated message. History, aesthetics, anthropology, religion, psychology, politics, authorial intention: the works on view will try on as many interpretive frames as we care to toss around them. Not all will fit. But the building enshrines the desire to comprehend as an American freedom.

    A wonderful painting hangs in the museum: an 1813 sign from a Connecticut tavern. Displaying a stagecoach and pair, the sign advertises "Entertainment for Teams." I asked Stacy Hollander, the museum's chief curator, what the entertainment might consist of. "Drink," she replied, "and maybe music, sitting by the fire, talking, companionship — drinking." What a world. Europe gave us the tavern. We gave them EuroDisney. That's entertainment!

    There is a category of building now called "entertainment architecture." Disney virtually invented the genre by reinventing the Victorian resort. Michael Graves, Robert A. M. Stern and John Jerde are among its most successful practitioners.

    Mr. Williams and Ms. Tsien entertain in the archaic fireside tradition. These modern architects have made values associated with folk art — intimacy, companionship, aspiration — accessible to modern audiences. They do not crib folk-art forms. They do not draw upon pop-culture kitsch. Rather they turned modern architecture inside out. In place of modernism's aesthetic of objective norms, they use abstract form to explore the emotional content of public space.

    The two inject themselves into the work, not to express their egos but to create rooms where our empathic powers — including the power to be moved by art — rise naturally into a conscious frame of mind. That's entertainment for grown-ups.

    The museum's facade is already a Midtown icon. Like that of the Austrian Cultural Institute, now nearing completion two blocks away, it demonstrates the capacity to project a powerful urban presence at town-house scale. For the best view, approach the museum head on, from the mid- block arcade between the CBS and the Deutsche Bank Buildings on the south side of West 53rd Street.

    These two towers make a frame of time as well as space. CBS, designed by Eero Saarinen, is one of the last New York skyscrapers of serious ambition. Deutsche Bank, designed by Kevin Roche (who completed the design of CBS after Saarinen's death), is a sad relic of postmodern confusion. An outdoor sculpture in the public space aggravates the disarray. But that's New York, a city whose landmarks are often accidentally framed.

    Viewed from this approach the museum's facade resembles a flip-flop version of the classical aedicule: a shrine within a temple in the form of a temple front. This temple's giant "doors" are two six-story trapezoidal walls. 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.

    The three forms are made from panels of alloyed bronze. Each panel was produced individually by pouring the molten metal onto two kinds of surface: bare concrete or stainless steel. Gases escaping from the materials formed irregularities in the color and texture of the panels, which are themselves individually sized. The results look like travertine marble alchemically rendered into bronze. (Compared with this radiant effect, the marble miracle mile of the Getty Center in Los Angeles looks produced by reverse alchemy. Travertine in, chip board out.)

    The architects have acknowledged that the form created by the triangle atop the window is an etherealized human hand. The image establishes the building in relationship to the craft tradition and also to the continuity of modernism as epitomized by the French architect Le Corbusier. That 20th-century pioneer inscribed hand forms into his poured-concrete buildings to symbolize humanity's mastery of tools. This is the common theme Mr. Williams and Ms. Tsien have uncovered for their building and the art inside it.

    The museum's interior is an atrium of domestic proportions, slightly stretched. Even without a fireplace and rum punch, the place is companionable. The intimacy is also an alchemical operation, because visitors will be moving around and atop the building's exposed concrete structure. At first you may not notice this Brutalist proposition. In the galleries the concrete has been polished to reveal the terrazzolike aggregate within it. The 19th-century philosophy of "truth to materials" is applied more consistently here than in buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright.

    Most of the art is displayed in a compact stack of four gallery floors that rise from the second story to a skylight on the roof. Elevators serve the galleries, but staircases offer a better way to experience the spatial continuity. A wide main staircase is complemented by narrower flights along the side walls. Designed on the scale of backstairs in a mansion, the latter encourage visitors to find individual paths through the museum.

    The arrangement of galleries recalls Mr. Williams and Ms. Tsien's design for an art collector's private house in Manhattan, completed in 1995. Low-ceiling spaces of roughly rectangular shape alternate with longer balcony areas overlooking the central atrium. What is the opposite of museum fatigue? This arrangement embodies it.

    A giant weathervane of yellow metal dominates the atrium's thin slot of a void. Designed in the form of a Native American chief, this haunting figure is pierced by bullet holes made by the American pastime target practice, a post-tavern amusement, perhaps. The weathervane dominates the space not only by virtue of scale, but also by suggesting that the museum's view of folk art is not naďve. Folks can be quite mad. As both cowboy and Indian, Charlton Heston is folk art, too.

    Materiality always pulls Mr. Williams and Ms. Tsien back from the brink of pure abstraction. They treat pieces of translucent corrugated plastic, steel supports on a stair, and panels of polyurethane foam like artifacts of incalculable value, as if the building were the private scrapbook of industrial culture. Now and then you want to swat the architects for coming on so Zen. Yeah, we're a wasteful society, we treat everything like junk, so what?

    At this moment in American history, however, we'd do well to take our technology and its products less for granted. Or at least architecture is a field in which it is still possible to embody our technology in humanist form. This is the concept on which the tradition of progressive architecture was established.

    In New York we've been wasteful of that tradition for more than a generation. Architects like Mr. Williams and Ms. Tsien, who are among its leading exemplars today, have not previously been favored with commissions commensurate with their talent. Our builders have largely dedicated themselves to turning back the clock. With few exceptions they have treated the city's postwar architecture as if it were that yellow weathervane. Let's kill off the present! Bang, bang!

    But a city whose thoughts have turned to rebuilding has an opportunity to restore its eroded sense of optimism about the urban future. Mr. Williams and Ms. Tsien have made a magnificent contribution to this project. I see their building's flaring facade as the wings of my personal holiday angel. It tops my New York tree.

  2. #2

    Default American Folk Art Museum

    The inside of the building is at least as interesting as museum's collection. Unfortunately, they do not allow taking any photographs inside.

  3. #3

    Default American Folk Art Museum


    MOMA, the vatican of modernism, was supposed to cut the architectural edge with its new building on 53rd Street, but instead, the blandissimo design now rising will, ironically, wrap around the new American Folk Art Museum like a neutral backdrop, setting off the brilliant, just-completed boutique museum as though it were the biggest architectural model in the MOMA collection. Designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, the Folk Art museum has usurped MOMA's avant-garde role in architecture.

    The façade looks detonated, with fissures heaving the front wall into angled planes, filtering natural light through tall cracks. Panels of white bronze alloy sheath the façade, its texture crazed with volcanic accidents left from the molten pour.

    Inside, a seven-story slot rises vertiginously through the 30,000-square-foot building to an angled skylight next to a sloped wall, with spaces and floors pushing and pulling in puzzled overlaps that invite visitors to bypass the elevator in favor of the stairs. Curiosity guides you to light.

    To make a small space look bigger, the Chinese divide and subdivide space, and the Japanese borrow distant views. Here, Williams and Tsien do both, expanding space by layering wide and narrow planes horizontally and vertically, creating big rooms as well as cubbies, all porous to each other. The path -- up an open, beautifully crafted concrete staircase -- shifts mid-building to a monumental flight. White walls slip over the exposed concrete, a collage of alternating dark and light surfaces. Impatient visitors find themselves slowing up, absorbed by changes in materials and details.

    Williams and Tsien, like miniaturists, expand space by creating an interior world. If MOMA is the official headquarters of the white gallery box, this interior offers emotive, even moody modernist ambience. The gentle revolution here is the shift from universal to particular space, where works of art prosper in individuated environments. With pathways that wend through spaces that expand and contract in endless variety, the architects wanted visitors to create their own itineraries. The same is true of the designers, who have found their own voice in today's smorgasbord. In a city that resists unconventional architectural talent, they are outsider artists, but their debut here proves that architects with a vision can prevail over bottom-line thinking. This is a tour de force. And the weather vanes, portraits, and samplers have never looked better.

    From the December 24, 2001 issue of New York Magazine.

  4. #4

    Default American Folk Art Museum

    More interior views and a commentary:

  5. #5


    American Folk Art Museum. 25 April 2004.

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