For years we have been hearing dire warnings about the decay of “infrastructure,” not only in the U.S. but in much of the developed world. It is easy to dismiss these shrill alarms by blaming our governments for their intransigence in fixing bridges, water systems, and other public amenities that we take for granted. Henry Petroski, Professor of Engineering at Duke, will have none of this. He says we ought to look at our own broken down houses before casting aspersion on politicians.

Yesterday’s New York Times carried a trenchant Op Ed piece by Petroski, best known for his popular books about paperclips, staplers, nails and other miracles of technology. He is also one of the most esteemed engineers in the world, and what he says ought to matter to any educated citizen: “They don’t make them like they used to.” And, he adds, they way they are making building products today will not only render new buildings obsolete in a short time, it may also destroy the quality of the existing built environment.

Pressing for cheaper and quicker solutions to every problem (most also more profitable in the short term), our business leaders have created a system of mediocrity that threatens the fabric of our society. The housing industry, which I know well as an architect and preservationist, has pushed Americans to forsake good old neighborhoods for sprawling McMansion developments. This creates a bias against saving what is good and lasting in our built environment in favor of untried technology that may be far worse than old building methods.

Petrowski knows, as I and my colleagues do, that many old building materials and craft traditions are indeed better than new ones. And, while he respects innovation, he understands how real innovation works–slowly, after many failures, on the shoulders of previous giants. In our throw-away society, we provide little time for the evaluation of new solutions, and give short shrift to the contributions of our ancestors.

One of the lessons we can learn from our houses is that, when it comes to providing good shelter, the best solutions are often centuries old: pitched roofs, slate, copper gutters, brick chimneys, Franklin fireboxes, cedar shingles, porches for ventilation. The list goes on. And when it comes to big things like infrastructure, the achievements of the industrial revolution (also often more than a century old) provided the benchmarks. Let’s get down to the job of repairing the leaky roofs in our public infrastructure before the next flood washes us away.

The CLP Is Dead!

May 7, 2014

Today’s New York Times reported what many of us thought would never happen–Tony Marx and the NYPL have abandoned their preposterous Central Library Plan. Let no one doubt that several years of hard work by many individuals, most importantly Charles Warren and the Committee To Save the NYPL, caused the library to retreat and finally capitulate on this very public scam.

There Is Some History There

January 27, 2014

Those of us who make an effort to preserve the best historic buildings, structures, and landscapes in the U.S. get a little tired of the naysayers who can’t see value in artifacts from the past. And they get tired of our protests about lack of funding and political support from our lawmakers.

It’s particularly vexing when a politician can’t even acknowledge the value of a building in his home county, and one that nearly everybody reveres because of its association with an icon of the American folk revival. When asked about the prospect of saving Greystone Hospital, the home of Woody Guthrie during the last decade of his life, New Jersey Assemblyman Anthony M. Bucco could only say, “There is some history there,” but “the taxpayers” should not be “saddled with” the cost of preserving the building and maintaining it.

Who but the residents of Morris County, and New Jersey, should take responsibility for buildings that have been compared in significance to Ellis Island as repositories of 20th century history? Only the Federal government, with its National Register program, might have the wherewithal to create a park or historic site at Greystone. Such a prospect is not inconceivable, but not without the support of local residents.

Mr. Bucco not only shows his ignorance of our national heritage, but also a disregard for the intelligence and commitment of his constituents, when he makes lukewarm statements about a historic site that even Governor Chris Christie believes is worth saving.

A Shot Across the Bow

June 28, 2013

Today’s Kellner hearing on library funding brought out dozens of critics and one defender of the Central Library Plan–none other than Tony Marx, the NYPL’s battered president.

Marx offered more lies and excuses for why the NYPL continues with its hair-brained scheme to destroy two branch libraries and remove the books in one of the world’s greatest research libraries in the name of modernization.

Tomorrow’s NYT will have a report by Robin Pogrebin, perhaps with only Marx’s remarks. Let us hope that someone notices and checks the public record for what the critics said.

It has been some time since I wrote anything on the NYPL controversy. Much has happened in the interim–most importantly the formation of the Committee to Save the New York Public Library, of which I am a member.

The NYPL administration continues to prosecute its plan to remove the stacks, but forces are turning in our direction as the public becomes more aware of the larger strategy of the Bloomberg administration to sell off public library properties to wealthy developers. Brooklyn residents in particular have resisted this terrible “policy” and more an more New Yorkers are concerned about the loss of libraries, books, and treasured landmarks in their neighborhoods. Yesterday protesters gathered in front of the 42nd Street building to greet trustees entering a fundraising event.

More important, the New York State Preservation Office, and even Manhattan legislators, have begun to investigate the lies and subterfuge underlying the Central Library Plan. On June 27 the first public hearing will be held at 250 Broadway to discuss the controversy. Watch this space for more information.

Kimmelman Skewers Foster

January 30, 2013

Ada Louise Huxtable would be proud of her successor’s critique of the Foster NYPL design in today’s NYT. Read it and cheer.

NYC Landmarks Law on Trial

January 21, 2013

Tomorrow at 2:00 PM the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission will begin deliberations on the Central Library Plan. Its final decision on whether to accept this destructive scheme will hinge on whether commissioners under Robert Tierney are courageous enough to oppose Mayor Bloomberg and admit that the NYC Landmarks Law is inadequate as protection for the city’s greatest public building.

New Yorkers are largely unaware of the limitations of the law passed in the wake of the Penn Station demolition during the 1960s. Most buildings are protected only for alterations to their exterior construction; a few get additional designation for specific interiors such as the Astor Stair Hall at NYPL. Even when significant structural alterations are proposed, such as the removal of book stacks that hold up a major space, the Commission is powerless to save a building from permanent defacement. What if a law does not function as intended? Should it be amended? Ignored?

Opponents of the Central Library Plan will argue tomorrow that Commissioners should go beyond the letter of the law in order to uphold its real mandate: avoidance of disasters such as the destruction of Penn Station. Will any of these public officials stand up to moneyed interests and vote no? Watch this space and see.

At last night’s meeting of the Landmarks Committee of Community Board 5, Tony Marx told me that the NYPL was following the “normal” schedule of approvals for the controversial Central Library Plan. If he is correct, New Yorkers should be very worried about the fate of their most cherished buildings. You see, by cleverly delaying its unveiling of architectural drawings of the CPL, the board of this important public institution has made it impossible for any concerned preservationist to analyze the scheme, evaluate its efficacy, or create a more rational counter proposal. It will hardly be possible for journalists to publish criticism of the plan in the short window between Christmas and final Landmarks approval on January 22. This means that the historic stacks could be under demolition by February. What will happen next time your public officials want to tear down a National Register building?

Perhaps even more troubling was the way in which Mr. Marx continued to insist that the stacks be destroyed, even after confronted with the fact that there is ample space in the Schwartzman building for an 80,000 square foot circulating library without touching them.

“They can’t be fireproofed.” “They are endangering the books because we can’t install climate control.” “Book delivery will be faster from the Bryant Park storage spaces than from the old elevator.” “A renovation will cost $50-75 million.” We have heard all this before.

The fact is, none of these statements would have been made if the NYPL had put some of the tens of millions it has received over the past two decades into an upgrade of the building systems in the stack spaces. The NYPL board made a conscious decision years ago to let the stacks deteriorate–what preservationists call “demolition by neglect.” That isn’t Tony Marx’s fault.

Compared to the outrageous price of removing the stacks, drilling over a dozen caissons into solid rock, supporting the reading room on over 1300 hydraulic jacks, and building an expensive new library underneath, the installation of fire suppression and new HVAC systems in the stack area would have been peanuts. Any technical challenge can be met if there is a will to do so, and money to pay for it. The money was available, but it wasn’t spent on the stacks, only on polishing the Danby marble outside.

As any homeowner knows, you can apply all the paint you wish to the outside, but if you don’t fix the rotten rafters, you wont have a house for long.

After months of controversy, the Central Library Plan will be presented to the public during a few rather closeted meetings this month. Here are some reasons why New Yorkers must fight this sham and stop the NYPL board from eviscerating one of the city’s most cherished public buildings.

  • The Foster design is simply not good enough. It has all the distinction and architectural panache of a run of the mill airport lobby.
  • The architect and the library board are deluding the public with their presentation of the current design, and lying about its funding. Light levels are lower than shown, there is no provision for book transport from underground storage rooms, and the views of Bryant Park will be blocked by restaurant service zones. Moreover, the critics cannot have access to full plans or details about the cost of construction, so there may be even more faults in the design.
  • The NYPL board has conducted its business and made its decisions on this plan with virtually no public input or open discourse about its merits. Only when confronted by scholars and preservationists did it even agree to hold meetings to review the CPL.
  • The city is wasting millions in taxpayer dollars on what will prove to be a spectacular failure. The new “circulating” library will not attract more patrons, will not provide better space for reading and study, and will not even improve on the technology of the existing Mid-Manhattan branch.
  • All of the reasons for destroying the stacks, moving millions of books, selling two library buildings, and constructing a new facility in the Schwartzman Building are based on false premises that seem to change with each public communication from Tony Marx. Why should New Yorkers believe anything he says?
  • Most importantly, the Carrere and Hastings masterpiece that has served the city for more than a century must be preserved as a whole ensemble, not a series of set pieces, each with its own named patron or donor.
  • The stacks are an engineering marvel and a historic landmark that is more than worth its own preservation effort. All those who love historic buildings should decry their destruction, especially for such venal ends.

Icons and Aliens 2012

December 31, 2012

Alien NYPL

When John Costonis published his 1989 book on the legal aspects of historic landmarks he could not have imagined the kind of controversies that would emerge during the coming years. It is worth revisiting his prescient text in light of what is happening to the beloved New York Public Library. A new “lending library” with “state of the art” architecture and communications technology has been inserted into the very heart of one of the most venerated buildings in a great city. Though Tony Marx calls the architecture of Norman Foster’s room “world class” no one has yet seen it that way–reactions have ranged from “regional airport style” to “Barnes and Noble lobby.” The superlative building by Carrere and Hastings will be infested with something that I can only compare to Sigourney Weaver’s stomach splitting prey in a classic science fiction film.

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