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AFAM: An Unpopular Perspective

The final fate of the American Folk Art Museum (AFAM) in New York has been in the headlines again. Just last week, MoMA began demolition of the AFAM’s heralded, heavy bronze façade. Many voices, both professional and public, have decried MoMA’s decision and actions, but I for one support their move. Here’s why:

The smaller museum was already a compromised, tight space when it was entirely its own entity. It is not possible to make narrow cramped spaces work with the program of the large gallery spaces MoMA needs, unless you’re a magician.

Was the AFAM really so good that it deserved to be saved? I just don’t see the merit in saving it for its own sake.

I visited AFAM when it first opened with my mother who loves all things crafted by hand. I recall thinking the confined spaces, colors, details, lighting, and materials had little if not nothing to do with the wonderful artifacts displayed in the museum. There was a skylight that spilled light down through the center, but all in the context of some early 2000’s aesthetic, and certainly not adequately. Movement through the building was awkward, and the design did not have the delicacy of the things that were inside it. The massive facade, which I thought was sculpturally beautiful, was a contrast to the collection, but not the kind of contrast that helps one appreciate the difference between unlike things. The building didn’t reflect the spirit of American folk art in any way. I think that was unfortunate, and ultimately it’s downfall. The façade-a beautiful architectural element on it’s own (and monument to the designers) was so severe it stifled the collection.
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Also, the façade was an obviously expensive gesture and that, too, didn’t strike the right note with the humble nature of the treasures within. In short, it felt like a bunker or a bank, and that’s exactly the opposite experience appropriate. The end result was the museum’s purpose could not be fulfilled.
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But there’s another aspect to this debacle that concerns me, and it has to do with the architects involved. Years ago, there was a panel discussion regarding what to do with the Huntington Hartford Museum on Columbus Circle, designed by Edward Durrell Stone and whether or not to landmark it with Landmarks Preservation. Billie Tsien spoke up and talked about what could be done to it in terms of additions or insertions and was very much in favor of completely altering the building—in my opinion almost as though interviewing for the position. She expressed little concern or appreciation for Stone’s design. We all saw what became of the iconic Hartford Museum, re-skinned to match its corporate neighbor, and made unrecognizable from its original design. Now I find it ironic that Ms. Tsien is one of the loudest voices when her AFAM was threatened with destruction. Todd Williams and Billie Tsien designed a Brutalist building for AFAM; it didn’t function very well, and like the Hartford Museum, it, too, became obsolete. Perhaps if the building had been truly inspired by the creativity and ingenuity of the collection within, the public would have swelled and decried its demise. Perhaps if the building were designed so that people could visit it and be inspired to craft…
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So I’m left wondering: Is the phrase “location, location, location…” always in the best interest of a small institution? The AFAM moved to be next door to MoMA hoping for visitors by adjacency. They hired a big name architect to give them a “product”. What they got was near bankruptcy, and nearly de-acquisitioning of the entire collection to the Smithsonian and no museum at all.

Palm Beach Modern

The Sun and Surf in Palm Beach.  Designed by Eugene Lawrence, it provides a striking contrast to the more traditional neighboring styles.

The Sun and Surf in Palm Beach. Designed by Eugene Lawrence, it provides a striking contrast to the more traditional neighboring styles.

We were recently commissioned to design a contemporary house in Palm Beach, a community well known for its Mediterranean style architecture – less known for its once celebrated modernist works. Although many examples were built throughout the 1950s and 1960s, including work by Edward Durrell Stone, they seldom make an appearance in books about the history of Palm Beach architecture.

Distinctive, pencil-thin columns define 400 South Ocean Boulevard, designed by Edward Durell Stone in the late 1950s.

Distinctive, pencil-thin columns define 400 South Ocean Boulevard, designed by Edward Durell Stone in the late 1950s.

Part of our process in designing a contemporary house is to research the modern tradition within the region so that our work respects its heritage while presenting a fresh iteration. In this case, we studied Palm Beach modernism.  Unfortunately, as conservative values and traditional styles took hold in the early nineteen-eighties, the value of modernism declined and the majority of these buildings were demolished.

La Ronda, an estate designed by Architect John Volk in 1969, was demolished in 2003

La Ronda, an estate designed by Architect John Volk in 1969, was demolished in 2003

During its heyday in the mid-20th century, Palm Beach modernism was a lively juxtaposition to the ubiquitous terra cotta tiled roofs and stucco walls.  Even Maurice Fatio, the Swiss born architect who became a legend for his Mediterranean Style homes, adopted a streamline sensibility to serve his client’s growing appetite for modernism.  In 1936 he produced one of the most elegant and earliest examples of Palm Beach modern design – The Reef, an 18,000 square foot beachfront estate.  Today it remains as one of the few, perhaps only, well preserved modern homes in Palm Beach.

An example of streamlined modern: The Reef by Maurice Fatio in 1936

An example of streamlined modern: The Reef by Maurice Fatio in 1936

However, the majority of modern homes have been demolished or poorly remodeled and we were left wondering how to imagine Palm Beach modern in its day.   We searched for remnants from the era. Leafing through local magazines from the 1950s and 60s, at the Society of the Four Arts Library, we discovered that Palm Beach had welcomed various waves of experimentation, imported styles, and mid-century modernism.

One Royal Palm Way Condominium, designed by Architect Howard Chilton

One Royal Palm Way Condominium, designed by Architect Howard Chilton

One image we collected catches an elegant couple emerging from a gleaming Rolls Royce.  It’s the early 1960s. They stand, impeccably dressed, against a background of steel mullions, concrete columns and flared capitols. Paper lanterns hang from an undulating roof edge and sway in the evening breeze.  The scene conveys “worldly elegance” and the ease of 1960’s modernity.  Sadly, this part of the fabled Colony Hotel was long ago demolished.

The Colony

Looking at the surviving example below – a series of sculpted sunshade screens add rhythm to the gracefully contoured building. The condominium, designed by Howard Chilton in the late 1960s, stands to this day as a mid-century gem.  Even 43 years after completion, the screens impart a lively, eye-catching quality.  Recently, the building’s owners wanted to permanently remove the screens to facilitate window replacement, but the Palm Beach Architectural Review Commission rejected the proposal siting the need to preserve the few remaining works of modern architecture.  That’s good news because it’s by looking back on historic examples like these that our future vision for a Palm Beach residence has been enlivened by its modern legacy.

Screens create character and shading for 389 South Lake Drive, designed by Howard Chilton

Screens create character and shading for 389 South Lake Drive, designed by Howard Chilton

Whisper Raum

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For Stone Fox Architects’ debut blog, we explore the
inspiration and genesis of Chris and David’s
particularly special creation… namely, the Whisper
Raum. Donated to the December 2013 Winter
Auction benefitting the Aspen Art Museum (AAM),
Whisper Raum is a free-standing, six-foot-tall object
d’art. Designed to accommodate two seated adults,
the almost-emerald green, multi-angled volume is
hinged along one side to permit entry and exit via a
handsome, handcrafted leather strap.
Here is their discussion:
Q. What was your inspiration for Whisper Raum?
Chris: In a world where everything is being watched
and monitored, how do we get away from it all, even if
only for a moment? I wanted to create that space.
David: I see the Whisper Raum as a place for telling
a story, perhaps a secret. It was to be a private
retreat, offering a way of disconnecting from the
surroundings.
Q. Where does the name for this piece come from?
David: “Raum” is the German word for space. I was
in Germany for a while, attended the University of
Stuttgart, and worked as an intern for HOK. I wanted
our creation to have an air of curiosity, even a bit of
mystery. So Whisper Raum is a play and contrast of
both familiar and unknown words.
Chris: “Whisper” seemed obvious from the start, as
it’s an enclosed space, one where you enter to have
an offline, quiet conversation. I wanted people to
think about how they might use such a place.

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Q. You mentioned a recent trip to London, specifically
visiting the Sir John Soane Museum and about seeing
– entirely by chance – the remarkable Cheapside
Hoard. How did the museum and the jewels affect
you?
Chris: Sir John Soane wore many hats in his lifetime
as an architect, designer, and art collector. The result
is evident in the museum; his three town homes all
combined where one can walk through a large
opening only to end up in a very small, very intimate
space filled with fascinating details. I liked that sense
of intrigue, delight and playfulness.
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David: On that same trip, we happened upon the
Cheapside Hoard Exhibition at the Museum of
London, which included a giant emerald with a
carved-out space where a watch was inserted. This
emerald contained the unexpected. And that’s what
we wanted Whisper Raum to be and do: to fascinate
and to surprise. To see the Hoard, one often had to
use a magnifying glass and in doing so one could
witness an other-worldly detachment. All of these
elements came together for the Whisper Raum.

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Q. Clearly, this was custom-fabrication. What went
into making the Whisper Raum?
David: We turned to Aucapina Cabinets, an oldschool
crafting shop in Queens run by three brothers
from Ecuador, whom we’ve used before on very
special projects. They have a 10,000 square-foot
facility with a staff of 30 and do the best-quality work.
It took six weeks.

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Chris: We had to figure out how it would be built,
materially. To create that contrast and surprise we
spoke of earlier, we wanted the exterior to be high
gloss, while the interior would be plush and seductive.
The shell is made of quarter-inch MDF covered in
many layers of hand-finished lacquer. You’ll notice
the green is deliberately just a little bit off. People
question the hue, and our answer is: “it’s the right
color.” It reminds me of what Frank Lloyd Wright said
to a client about a color decision; “You’ll learn to like
it,” [laughing].
David: The inside is clad in meticulously cut
American walnut; each piece has its own unique
shape. The two seats are covered in green mohair
velvet. A classic 1960’s Italian wall sconce and a cut
crystal Czechoslovakian decanter and glass set are
the only ornaments within. Finally, there is a two-way
mirror, which permits a view outside but only the
faintest glimpse of the interior when the sconce is on.

Chris: The wall sconce is somewhat reminiscent of a
brooch that a fashionable lady from the 1960s might
have worn. It reminds me of the jewelry show we saw
in London. The result is a subdued world, a place you
can share secrets or gossip, and to feel close to
another person. We love it.

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Q. So, what is the experience?
Chris: People ask us, “What does it do?” The
answer is, “Nothing.” It’s what you do when you’re
inside that defines the function of the Whisper Raum.
It’s like a telephone booth for a private conversation,
only that the other person is there, with you.
David: In this ultra-tech era, one might expect hidden
speakers inside, or a plug-in to the internet. But we
didn’t want that; in fact, it’s just the opposite. Take a
moment… retreat, relax, contemplate, but at the same
time enjoy a bit of whimsy.

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