Folk Finds a New Home ; the Bright New Home of the American Folk Art Museum in New York Features a Varied Collection of Both Traditional and Contemporary Works

Article excerpt

Make way, Museum of Modern Art and American Craft Museum! There's a new kid on the block. The block of West 53rd Street, that is, between Fifth Avenue and Avenue of the Americas.

The new arrival last month is the American Folk Art Museum. The building (the museum's first permanent home in its 40-year history) and the art it contains are spectacular, making the block even more important as a cultural destination.

The husband-and-wife team of Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects squeezed a mountain of surprises into a molehill site only 40 feet wide and 100 feet deep - the size of two townhouses. In a recent lecture to the Architectural League in New York, Mr. Williams said, "Even though we had a small site, we had a big ambition - to make something permanent that would be here longer than our lives."

The challenge, he said in an interview at the museum, was "to see how you can get more out of less and compound people's expectations."

Ms. Tsien told the Architectural League audience that their design started with the concept of "what makes the heart of a building." They wanted the building to feel rooted, but at the same time to soar. The solution: They would "pin the building to the ground," Williams said, "through a shaft of light."

The interior of the building comprises eight levels (two below ground), all illuminated by a slim slot of light that zooms from a roof skylight down to the lowest tier.

The whole building feels like an atrium, pierced by glass balconies and floors that jut out like shelves. Tsien cited the rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum in New York as an influence, saying, "We squished it into a shoebox."

The exterior packs a powerful punch. As open as the interior is, the facade looks opaque, heavy, solid.

Yet it's all about light, too. Composed of 63 white-bronze panels, the cladding is fiercely textured, each panel unique as a lava flow, pitted with holes. (The metal alloy was poured into concrete or steel forms, creating infinite variety in each.)

"We wanted a faceted facade," Tsien said, "to catch the light and change with the seasons."

A vertical strip of windows separates two tall trapezoids, capped by an upside-down triangle, making the exterior a play of abstracted geometry. The varying shades of color in the panels - fog, slate, silver, pewter - resemble a patchwork quilt worked in a Y-shape.

Once past the dramatic facade, there's plenty of excitement inside: Staggered cantilevered staircases, where light cascades down from above; a grand central staircase of bush-hammered concrete, polished to look like terrazzo; and a slender hidden staircase connecting the top two floors provide a plethora of choices for exploration.

Vistas appear on every level: up, down, across, and outside. As Williams put it, there are "a lot of tricks crammed in this little, bitty building."

In their sophisticated, complex composition, architects Williams and Tsien have combined opposites: smooth and rough, solid and void, machine-made and natural, warm and cool. The lean lines, industrial materials and technology, and geometric abstraction put the building in the camp of neo-modernism.

Its warm wood floors, benches, and handrails; sensuously detailed materials; and animating bolts of natural light invest the modernism with a heart. It's a humane building, rife with secrets, inner life, and joy. Like an origami swan, overlapping planes create a form that rises to the light.

Inside the building, the densely installed inaugural exhibitions show the dual facets of folk art today: traditional objects and contemporary Outsider art. …