American Folk Art Museum
Tod Williams Billie Tsien

March 03, 2003 /

New York, New York, USA

Photo courtesy American Folk Art Museum

The forty foot wide facade of the American Folk Art Museum is designed to make a strong but quiet statement of independence. It is sculptural in form, recalling an abstracted open hand. 

Generally solid, it is folded slightly inward creating a faceted plane. Metal panels of Tombasil, a form of white bronze, clad the building. Spaces between each panel reveal the darkened wall of the weather barrier behind.

These panels, that appear stonelike and metallic at the same time, catch the glow of the morning and early evening sun as it rises and sets, east and west along 53rd street. It is facade that changes with the light and the seasons.

Photo: arcspace

You do not have to look at it for long before you realize that this is as sensual a building as New York has seen in a very long time.

/Paul Goldberger

Photo: arcspace
The eight-level building devotes the four upper floors to gallery space for permanent and temporary exhibitions. You enter the building at a right angle behind the hanging facade panels.  The mezzanine level, with a view out to 53rd Street, houses a small coffee bar and looks back over the main hallway with a dramatic view of a two-story atrium. The Museum store is at the entrance level, with access during non-Museum hours via a separate street entrance.

Photo: arcspace
The Museum is capped by a by a thirty-foot-high  skylight  that allow natural light to filter into the galleries and through to the lower levels.

A single elevator and the primary stairwells are placed on the side allowing a maximum of open space for the galleries. The dimly lit main stair, which runs from bottom to top in the northwest corner of the building, is framed by a high panel of heavy, wavy green cast-resin fiberglass.

Photo: arcspace

The architects intended the visitor to experience the Museum as an architectural  journey, encouraging often surprising encounters with both new and familiar objects by using multiple and sometimes redundant paths of circulation. Art is integrated in a series of niches throughout the building. Low ceiling spaces alternate with longer balcony areas overlooking the central atrium.

Photo: arcspace
Photo: arcspace
A grand concrete staircase, placed in the middle of the space, connects the third and fourth floors. Dominating the space is a giant weathervane, in the form of a Native American chief, casting stark shadows on the concrete wall.

Photo: arcspace
Hidden behind a wall a narrow wooden staircase links the fourth and fifth floors. One level below ground contains a small auditorium and classroom facilities, while the lowest level houses Museum offices and a library and archive.

Photo: arcspace
Photo: arcspace
The materials are a combination of concrete and stone, metal and wood, "the common and the magical", according to Billie Tsien. Handrails are natural cherry acting as a warm tonal balance to the cooler material palette of concrete.  Natural cherry benches and tables, designed by the studio and fabricated by a Japanese American cabinetmaker also bring a sense of additional warmth.

Photo: arcspace
Much of the flooring is terrazzo ground concrete, the walls cast in place concrete using the same aggregate and in certain areas, bush hammered to achieve more texture. Gallery flooring is sawn from Ruby Lake fir logs. This flooring occurs in uncut boards ranging up to 16 feet in length. 

Discovered by scuba divers, this wood was cut more than a hundred years ago but sunk in place due to a glut in the market.  Salvaged and dried, this wood is exceptionally beautiful in the warmth of its color and the tightness of its grain, a result of its natural slow growth.

Tombasil is a commercially produced alloy, a white bronze with 57% copper content.  It is used for fire nozzles and ship propellers and has never been used for architectural purposes. It was cast at the Tallix Art Foundry in Beacon, New York.  The texture is achieved by using a steel surface and a concrete surface as the moulding formwork. The steel cast panels are on the east side of the building and the concrete cast panels are on the west side and top panel. The fissures are a natural consequence of the casting process.  As a result, each panel is slightly different.
Drawing courtesy TWBTAGround Level Plan
Drawing courtesy TWBTALevel 4/5 Plan
Among several awards the American Folk Art Museum was selected "Best New Building in the World for 2001"  and in October, 2002  the building was awarded the prestigious Brendan Gill Prize by the Municipal Art Society of New York.

Facts about American Folk Art Museum


30,000 ft2

Tod Williams Billie Tsien, Architects

Project Architect: 

Matthew Baird

Project Team:

Phillip Ryan
Jennifer Turner
Nina Hollein
Vivian Wang
Hana Kassem
Kyra Clarkson
Andy Kim
William Vincent
Leslie Hanson

Associate Architect:

Helfand Myerberg Guggenheimer Architects

Project Team:

Peter Guggenheimer
Jennifer Tulley
Jonathan Reo
Director: Gerard C. Wertkin

Deputy Director:

Riccardo Salmona

Project Manager:

Seamus Henchy & Associates
Seamus Henchy
Chris Norfleet
Kristen Solury

General Contractor:

Pavarini Construction

Acoustical Consultant:

Acoustic Dimensions

Structural Engineers:

Severud Associates

Mechanical Engineers: 

Ambrosino, DePinto & Schmeider

Curtainwall Consultant:

Gregory Romine

Lighting Design:

Renfro Design Group

Exhibition Design:

Ralph Appelbaum and Associates

Graphic Design:

Bronze Panel Foundry Tallix

Concrete Consultant:

Reginald Hough FAIA

Last updated: December 19, 2013

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