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ArchDaily, Folk Art and Moore’s Law

January 17, 2014

450px-Folk_art_museumIts a rare thing to combine these three seemingly unrelated topics into one post, but today’s ArchDaily article on the upcoming demise of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s beautiful American Folk Art Museum in NYC does just that. It compares architectural obsolescence to Moore’s Law, Intel founder Gordon Moore’s statement about projecting technology growth. Like all who love architecture, I also have opinions about the museum; but it’s as a computer scientist that I am jumping in with a response.

The importance of the Moore’s Law premise that technology doubles in density approximately every two years is that it identifies an exponential growth rate. Amazingly enough, Moore’s projection has held true in high-tech for over four decades, although his law is so ubiquitously used in planning for high tech growth, it may be guiding, as much as measuring it. Nevertheless, exponential growth is a scary thing to deal with. Witness, for example, our fears about population growth. Such growth rates are typically not sustainable in nature, as factors such as global food supplies kick-in to limit the earth’s carrying capacity for human beings.

How is this related to the Folk Art Museum? ArchDaily references Mimi Zeiger’s DeZeen op-ed where she opines that the high-tech growth curve has a direct impact on our society. This year I upgraded my iPhone immediately when my 2-year contract expired, not because I was unhappy with the hardware, but because experience told me that I would soon become unhappy as apps and operating systems moved forward to take advantage of the ever increasing hardware capacity available in the new phones. That hardware capacity is the subject of Moore’s Law. Everything else is cultural fallout.

ArchDaily extends Zeiger’s statement about technology’s impact:

“But in the case of architecture it seems there may be a variant of Moore’s Law at work. When one architecture is swapped out for another architecture, what replaces the original can be larger and more dissipated. It is the Folk that is smaller and more powerful…though not powerful enough to alter the course of MoMA’s board and DS+R’s mouse clicks.”

Okay, hold the presses. Let’s be careful with pushing analogies too far. Architecture is not growing at an exponential rate and even the rate of cultural change imposed by technology growth cannot begin to justify demolishing the Folk Art Museum after a mere dozen years of existence. This is not a variant of Moore’s Law, this is a function of the economics of the New York real estate market and a world-class museum powerhouse such as MOMA steamrolling ahead despite the admitted cost.

I cannot second guess MOMA’s decision, but neither will I excuse it with a loose application of a measure best left to describing decreasing transistor line width. We are fortunate that construction and demolition is not an exponential growth process and that even in our deadline-driven industry there is still time for thoughtful approaches to design and planning. Edward Mazria’s 2030 Challenge tells us of the great opportunity to create a sustainable future by improving our design processes and standards. Critics of unthoughtful green design such Sim Van der Ryn and his Design for an Empathic World: Reconnecting People, Nature, and Self provide additional arguments for the unsustainability of embodied culture on top of embodied energy. Whether or not it makes economic sense, the tragedy of the demise of the Folk Art Museum is that MOMA, a museum honoring modern design and culture, could not find a way to honor one of the finest examples of that culture found just across the street from its own front door.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 18, 2014 9:56 pm

    Very well put. And a good reality check on clumsy metaphor/analogy.

  2. Lorraine permalink
    January 21, 2014 7:26 am

    My trip to the Folk Art Museum was quite a few years ago but was one I will never forget. Such a beautiful space that actually makes you pause and be quiet. I am heartbroken that this brilliant piece of architecture (and work of art, really) is going to be flattened. I hope that whatever goes in its place exceeds the impact it made of all those who visited.

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