NEW YORK — As in any fight between longtime friends, there are raw emotions, tarnished memories, tears.
And now, silence.
Two celebrated architect couples, whose careers took off almost simultaneously in the hothouse of New York design and who supported each other’s successes, are barely on speaking terms.
One pair, Billie Tsien and Tod Williams, designed the former home of the American Folk Art Museum; the other, Liz Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, just recommended demolishing it as part of their plan to expand the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) next door.
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Both couples built reputations for sophisticated design and sensitive urban planning. Fate has led them to a personal and professional breaking point.
Architects say they cannot recall an instance when one set of architects took down another’s celebrated building just a few years after it went up.
Pennsylvania Station, Yankee Stadium and 2 Columbus Circle were all noteworthy buildings demolished by people re-envisioning the future. But the designers of those buildings were long dead.
“It’s been a subject of discussion among every single person who’s involved in architecture,” said Karen Stein, an architectural consultant. “It’s hard to think of an analogous situation.”
In architectural circles, the debate has gone beyond a discussion of the personal relationships to questions of design integrity, of form versus function and the conflicts that can arise when aesthetic concerns confront a client’s pragmatic interests.
Some say Diller, Scofidio and their partner, Charles Renfro, should have turned the commission down, or at least found a way to retain the Folk Art’s textured bronze facade. Others disdain that as “facadism,” suggest the building’s interior was too quirky to be repurposed and say few architects would have begged off a high-profile commission to help remake MoMA’s high church of contemporary and modern art.
“It’s a no-win situation,” said the architect Peter Eisenman, who had Williams as a student at Princeton. “Accepting the job made it difficult for them to do anything but what they did.”
That the two couples were friends, dined together, traveled to Africa together and shared similar histories — both pairs met their spouses through architecture and then became professional partners — only makes it that much more complicated.
“We’re all torn about this,” said architect Marc Kushner. “We don’t know which side to land on.”
Although the couples have occasionally competed for the same commissions, there had never been evidence of professional jealousy.
Both have prestigious projects on their résumés. Diller Scofidio & Renfro handled the overhaul of Lincoln Center, created a new home for the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston and collaborated on the High Line. Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects designed the new Barnes Foundation museum, Asia Society’s Hong Kong headquarters and the skating rink in Prospect Park, Brooklyn.
Designing the new Barnes was also controversial because the museum in Philadelphia replaced the original in Merion, Pa., a move that many said violated the wishes of the museum’s founder.
“It’s delicious irony that the architects who needlessly pressed their personalities onto the ‘re-creation’ of the building to house the Barnes Foundation collection now protest the decision to demolish their museum,” said Jay Raymond, a former teacher at the Barnes and a litigant against the move.
Many architects say they were shocked by Diller Scofidio’s demolition proposal, given the firm’s reputation for creative interventions with historic properties such as Lincoln Center.
“All of us who knew them thought this was going to be pretty much a slam dunk, that they would save the Folk Art Museum,” said Peter Wheelwright, a former chairman of the architecture program at Parsons The New School for Design. “I knew they were capable of doing it and that, because of their friendship, that they would make a sincere, genuine, wholehearted effort.”
MoMA acquired the Folk Art building in 2011 after that institution defaulted on its construction debt. The building, 10 years old at the time, had won its share of design awards. Last spring, MoMA announced plans to raze it, arguing that the existing design was unsuitable as a connection between MoMA’s original building and galleries in a Jean Nouvel-designed tower planned for the other side of the Folk Art building. Many objected, and MoMA then hired Diller Scofidio to re-examine the situation.
“I never thought it would be easy,” Diller said in an interview. “We stepped into harm’s way with the expectation that we would figure out a way of saving the day.”
But after six months of study, the firm came to the same conclusion as MoMA.
Any effort to reconfigure the existing building, Diller Scofidio determined, would require changing it beyond recognition and to preserve the facade alone would be an empty gesture. “In the end, we realized that the degree of disfigurement to the building would be of no good to the architects,” Diller said, “and the level of compromise to the program would be of no good to MoMA.”
Other architects balked at that reasoning.
“That building is a facade,” said architect Alexander Gorlin. “To say, ‘If you can’t save the whole building, you can’t save any part,’ is disingenuous.”
Diller and Scofidio told Tsien and Williams of their conclusions in a recent conference call. Diller would not discuss the conversation or the current rift.
Tsien and Williams similarly said they had nothing to add to a statement they released Jan. 8 objecting to MoMA’s decision.
Some architects say it would have been difficult for Diller and Scofidio to contradict a client that had already expressed an interest in demolishing the building or to refuse the assignment.
“Every architect would say, ‘I’d love to get my hands on that project,’” said architect Richard Gluckman. “I don’t think there’s a good architect in this world who wouldn’t take the challenge to investigate.”
Diller said the decision about what to do with the Folk Art building was never a fait accompli and her firm felt a responsibility to help MoMA rethink its future.
“To walk away would have been unethical,” she said. “You have to try to do something special with the site, something that contributes to the public good or the cultural good.”