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One Small Move

An engineer suggests that the Museum of Modern Art could move the American Folk Art Museum building, rather than raze it to make room for its expansion.

By Fred A. Bernstein
February 25, 2014
moma folk art
Image © 2014 Diller Scofidio + Renfro
Concept sketch showing Diller Scofidio + Renfro's plan for the Museum of Modern Art. View of the lobby, looking west.

In 1998, the Empire Theater, a 7.4-million-pound building on Manhattan's West 42nd Street, was moved 170 feet. The move (which can be seen on YouTube) was engineered, in part, by Robert Silman Associates. Now Nat Oppenheimer, a principal at Silman, is wondering why the smaller American Folk Art Museum building—which the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), its neighbor and owner, says it will demolish—can’t also be moved. "For enough money, you can do anything in New York,” he says. In a letter to Folk Art Museum architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, Oppenheimer suggested moving the building off 53rd Street, which, he says, would be difficult but not impossible, as an alternative to tearing it down.

moma folk art
Photo © Michael Moran
The former home of the American Folk Art Museum, designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien.
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But why go to even that much trouble? Transporting the building 88 feet west (to the edge of the lot on which Hines plans to build a new tower by Jean Nouvel) would be relatively easy, following the Empire Theater playbook (jacking the building up and sliding it on rails).  That kind of move, Oppenheimer says, is “eminently feasible.”

And it would be a win-win-win. Right now, the Folk Art Museum building stands between MoMA and the Nouvel tower, in which MoMA plans to occupy three floors. Moving the small building out of the way would eliminate the circulation problems that MoMA says are the reason it must be demolished. The wrinkle is that Nouvel would have to redesign the base of the building, sometimes called MoMA Tower and sometimes called Tower Verre (Hines has not yet settled on a name, according to a spokesman) to account for the slight change in configuration.

But Nouvel has been working with the existing site since 2007 and Toronto-based Adamson Associates, the architect of record, is “completing the construction documents with Jean Nouvel’s input,” according to Nick Zigomanis, who runs Adamson’s New York office.  David Penick, Hines’s managing partner for the project, says the approval process—which concluded in 2011—was "complicated." "It took a long time and involved a lot of pieces,” he says. And Hines has no plans to revisit it. Not that Hines is pushing for the demolition of the tower’s diminutive neighbor. "We designed the building assuming that the Folk Art Museum would be there, and from our perspective there's no change,” says Penick, who adds that groundbreaking is scheduled for June. MoMA's director Glenn Lowry has said that the Folk Art building will be gone by summer.

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