Sir Norman Foster, the iconoclastic British architect, is one of the most consistent ideologues in the profession. He makes it perfectly clear where he stands, and it is not with lovers of historic buildings. From his beginnings as a technological guru in the early 1970s to today, he has argued that technology has all the answers for what ails society, particularly when it comes to creating habitable space. One of the first architects to develop a self-supporting glass curtain wall, he is fascinated, indeed obsessed, with high technology and muscular engineering. Virtually every Foster building is a manifesto.

To be sure, Foster has created some memorable buildings. The Willis Faber office building of 1971-75 amazed the world with one of the first “green roof” applications and undulating glass walls. His Hong Kong bank was an icon of 1980s architecture, a kind of “glam rock” castle supported on outrageously large trusses that set records for cost overruns. And his recent triumph of engineering over space, the Beijing airport, impressed the world with both British engineering and Chinese construction management. He appears to relish proving his critics wrong, and pulling off seemingly impossible stunts. Megalomania is his game, and he is good at it.

In 1984 Foster had to deal with a historic site of major international stature–the Maison Carre at Nimes, France. This treasure of Roman architecture is perhaps the best preserved and most beautiful example of a small temple from the 1st century A.D. anywhere. A man of enormous ego, his first sketches suggested that the diminutive historic building should become a sideshow for a gigantic festival of culture of the kind now associated with “blockbuster” art museums. What he eventually constructed, after a decade of controversy, was a cartoon-like glass carton with spaghetti columns that make a mockery of the beautiful temple across the new plaza. His website trumpets the “dialogue” between old and new, suggesting that the building he designed was a necessary icon of its own time. It has become a cliche of modernist responses to old buildings, with many kitschy imitators throughout the world–a testament to a time of confusion and aesthetic dementia among architects.

During the 1980s, it was hard to believe that any worse example of the clash between modernism and historic cities could pass muster with conservationists in Europe, but Foster continued his destructive march. His next victim was the Reichstag in Berlin, one of Germany’s most sensitive and emotionally-charged monuments. Foster’s response to the reuse challenge here was to insert a giant nightclub globe in the center of the charred dome, create a glass roof that is likely to fail within a decade, and treat the rest of the building like a shopping mall. The public cheered like rowdy soccer fans at a Manchester United match, and Foster was on to London, where he made a similar, though less outrageous, glass enclosure over the courtyard of the British Museum. The populists in Britain were vindicated, while scholars and historians scurried back into their cubicles in shame. For a rippingly good satire based on this kind of cultural pandering, look at Giles Waterfield’s novel, The Hound in the Left-Hand Corner.

Foster Associates credentials as preservers of the world’s most beloved monuments rest mainly on these dubious projects. Until now, he has not achieved the kind of commissions in the United States that have propelled his career in Europe and Asia. The director and board of the New York Public Library decided last week to give him his big opportunity on this side of the pond. New Yorkers who care about historic preservation should be prepared for the same kind of imperious contempt for old buildings that he has shown in his work at Nimes, Berlin and London.

Sir Norman will have his hands full in New York, both because of the complexity of dealing with a vast windowless space designed for books, and because the New York City Landmarks Commission is one of the toughest in the world at insuring that architects create “appropriate” interventions in historic buildings. When Renzo Piano, a truly excellent architect who respects historic buildings, went too far in his initial concepts for an addition to the Morgan Library (a Charles McKim masterpiece), he was chastened by the LPC and the resulting building was far better for it. Foster is thin-skinned and will almost certainly clash with the LPC, even though the current panel is favorable to modernist additions.

Let’s look at how a typical preservation master plan works when handled by architects who respect and love historic buildings, as it may help predict how successfully the NYPL project will proceed from here forward. First, planning begins by researching the history of the structure and assessing the significance of every material, space and feature in it. Next, preservationists create precisely detailed conditions surveys of all of these elements, identifying those most fragile or inviolable, and those capable of withstanding re-use. Finally, the architects propose only those interventions that will not harm the truly significant features in the building, whether they be interior spaces or exterior elements. When Davis, Brody Bond completed their restoration program nearly a decade ago, their analysis concluded that the library had achieved a balance or reused spaces and historically restored ones. Why did the current board reverse course and repudiate these studies?

While no one can second guess the decisions rendered in the past several months, it appears on the surface that the board and director were unduly influenced by a $100 million gift from the founder of Blackstone Capital Management, Steven A. Schwarzman. Thus, when confronted with the opportunity to create new space where none was warranted, they chose an architect who is very good at following just such a brief.

So, Norman Foster is the perfect designer for this board, and this director. Is he the perfect designer for the magnificent Beaux Arts masterpiece that stands in the center of one of the earth’s most influential cities, the symbol of American culture for the rest of the world? As this brief critique of his record shows, Foster’s operation on Carrere & Hastings’ building will no doubt be as ham-handed, glitzy, and techo-crazed as his efforts in Berlin, Nimes and London.

New York deserves better, both from its cultural leaders and from its designers. Amidst Palin-McCain sideshows and media feeding frenzies, it is hardly surprising to find arts boards turning to agressively high-tech starchitects when confronted with big monetary gifts. Those who respect the art of Carrere & Hastings can only hope that the public process of design review, like the democratic process, will prevent the kind of disaster suffered by Foster’s European clients. Better yet, perhaps the trustees will recognize their error and pursue a different course.

Messing with a Masterpiece

October 23, 2008

Historic preservation is an art, not a science. As such, it demands aesthetic creativity equal to that of painting or music, indeed any art. Only recently have architects and conservators begun to think of building preservation in this way. Yet the challenges of preserving the world’s most precious architecture are pressing professionals and patrons to find more creative solutions in the face of diminishing resources.

Paul Le Clerc, the director of the New York Public Library, is well aware of these challenges. He presides over one of the nation’s greatest cultural institutions and cares for an architectural treasure beloved of all New Yorkers–Carrere & Hastings’ main library at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, finished in 1911. Though attached to an elite institution that caters to scholars, Le Clerc sees himself as a populist. His mission, he believes, is to take the NY library system into the information age. Two years ago, he was presented with a pot of gold by a Wall Street tycoon with which to transform the city’s library system. With that gift began a travesty that will have profound consequences for New York and for historic preservation as a discipline.

After many months of interviews and deliberations, Le Clerc and the library’s board have chosen Sir Norman Foster to be the architect of a massive renovation of the 42nd Street building. Perhaps sensing public outrage, the New York Times buried the announcement on the back page of its arts section. Accompanying the article was a piece by the Times architecture critic, Nicolai Ouroussoff that began by praising the building as “one of the most glorious examples of civic architecture in America” and asking “Why tinker with it?” Unfortunately Ouroussoff can never resist a chance to trumpet the virtues of European avant-garde architects, and launched into a vigorous defense of the library’s plan and its choice of architect. Despite his spurious arguments, New Yorkers who love this extraordinary building will be outraged not only by the “hubris” (Ouroussoff’s word) of the library administration and board, but by its selection of one of the most anti-preservation architects in the world to carry out the plan.

There are so many things wrong with this choice that it is hard to know where to begin. The initial decision to gut the library’s innovative stack spaces and to make them into public spaces was suspect when examined from a number of different points of view. Why was it necessary to have these facilities in the main library when a technology branch across the street had just closed? Were the scholars, specialists, and tourists who value this building not reason enough to maintain it? How was it that the board chose to relocate one of the most valuable, indeed priceless, collections of books, manuscripts and printed matter on Earth in a vast subterranean space below Bryant Park? The board must also have considered the kind of criticism it might encounter over changing the interior of what is arguably the best modern library in the United States, and one that achieved its significance partly as result of the design of the stacks. Why is there a double standard when it comes to other, unimpeachably “modernist” landmarks such as the Guggenheim Museum, the Kimball Museum in Fort Worth, or the Whitney? These buildings actually required expansion (not an issue at NYPL), yet when excellent architects were chosen to create additions, the critics and design community went berserk. Their argument–masterpieces must retain their integrity, and no addition would be acceptable for works of such stature. It appears that for the “design community” certain masterpieces are expendable, others inviolable.

Then there is the question of what kind of architect might be chosen for such a renovation. America has a large, distinguished community of traditional, classical architects who were capable of creating a seamless and harmonious interior renovation, perhaps even maintaining some of the stacks in their present position. The board members made it clear in recent press statements that they were not interested in this approach. Ouroussoff was quick to come to their defense: “This [traditional] approach trivializes history by blurring the distinction between old and new. The result is a watered-down vision of history–or worse, kitsch.” This well-worn and completely spurious argument holds no water for intelligent patrons throughout the world, from the Trustees of the Harvard Business School and Princeton University to the Dons at Cambridge University, who have commissioned magnificent traditional buildings from superb architects such as Robert Stern, Demitri Porphyrios, and Quinlan Terry. Moreover, it ignores the view of history that is most relevant to the 21st century, instead clinging to a 19th century Hegelian ideology that philosophers abandoned decades ago. “One has to embrace one’s time,” said board member Catherine Marron, forgetting that our century is full of pluralistic responses to history.

I’ll address the issue of why preservation of the New York Public Libary deserves a better architect in my next post. But suffice it to say that I don’t believe that Norman Foster is “as good as Carrere & Hastings” (a firm I’ve researched and written a book on), nor do I think that he is capable of designing “a second masterpiece” inside a virtually windowless space of 1.25 million square feet that was designed specifically for the storage of books.

Dymaxion history

October 4, 2008

When I was a boy in the 1960s, reading science fiction and following super heroes in Marvel and DC comics, I couldn’t get enough of the myths of the space age. That’s not surprising, since real history was being made around me. It was easy to confuse Buck Rogers and Doc Savage with John Glenn and Chuck Yeager. I was a romantic kid, so it was a short leap from my imagination to the moon.

Of course, eventually the moon’s surface appeared on prime time TV, with shadowy astronauts and lunar rovers exploring its craters and dusty valleys. I never believed the naysayers who said the whole thing was shot on a back lot in Hollywood. Of course I didn’t give any credence to the conspiracy theorists who saw Cubans and Mafia hit men behind the Kennedy assassination either.

Reading about the heroes and villains of the 1960s now is still something of a reach for me, as I have trouble squaring my memories with what historians have discovered in archives and other sources. Because of this, I find it even more important to see the record set straight, or as straight as history can get it. Being a historian of architecture, I am skeptical of all but the most careful research on the subjects I know best.

When I read the reviews of the recent exhibition on Buckminster Fuller at the Whitney Museum in New York, I was immediately struck with both nostalgia and disappointment. Fuller was to my generation a kind of Timothy Leary figure, a guru with promises that seemed incredibly important but also too good to be true. Like so many other heroes of the time, his life hid a number of secrets and contradictions.

In my previous posts, I have made it clear that romanticism for the modern movement in architecture is something I disdain. One of the reasons for this is that I suspect that most younger architects (less than say, 35 years of age) who see modernism through rose colored glasses have little understanding of its complex history during the 20th century. So, when I read about museum exhibitions that perpetuate bad history and hype about major proponents of the machine aesthetic, it raises my hackles a bit.

Bucky Fuller was a complex personality who deserves careful historical scrutiny. He was also enough of a huckster to have made even contemporaries a little uncomfortable. The same can be said of Frank Lloyd Wright and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. However, one should never confuse designers of real genius such as the latter two, with someone of minor gifts. Fuller was clearly in the latter category, but the Whitney might as well have been his publicist for all the critical scrutiny they gave their sci-fi hero.

Three architecture critics who cover the American scene were quick to write about the Fuller show, which on its merits did not seem a major retrospective but only a tribute awaiting more complete treatment in the future. Nevertheless, Nicolai Ouroussoff of the Times weighed in with a starstruck rave that betrayed his generational awe of the pioneers of mid-century modern design. A far more measured piece followed in Slate, from Witold Rybczinski, who shares my jaded view of much contemporary design.

Neither review was as penetrating, or devastating, as Martin Filler’s recent piece in the New York Review of Books. Filler has just published a well-reviewed volume of essays, and he has proved to be the least biased and most scholarly American critic for more than a decade. His wife, Rosmarie Haig Bletter, is a respected architectural historian with special expertise on the German masters of the modern movement. He gives no quarter when historical facts are mangled.

As Filler points out, Fuller attained a kind of “rock star” status only at the age of 70, after a peripatetic career working for the US military building lightweight shelters and a string of spectacular failures as an inventor. His rambling, obtuse language and utopian ideas struck a chord with students of the LSD generation, who sat four hours in Kesey-esque love-ins soaking up wisdom from a man who looked like a professor. Most people today remember him, wrongly, as the “inventor” of the geodesic dome, an idea he borrowed from someone else and claimed as his own. Wonderful in concept and seemingly perfect as a space-age building type, the domes have never been perfected as shelter for humans, serving better as conservatories.

It was easy to believe the hype, as most of us did in the 1960s. Bucky Fuller became an icon of the American view of progress, as his Expo ’67 US pavilion in Montreal captured the nation’s aspirations perfectly at that heady moment. Dymaxion, the Fuller mantra, was a conflation of “dynamic,” “maximum” and “ion,” three words that seemed to sum up the zeitgeist of the decade. Like so much of Fuller’s output, the neologism captured ideas that we wanted to believe in, but in the end amounted only to empty rhetoric.

Martin Filler dissects the myth of Fuller’s genius while also drubbing the Whitney’s “seriously flawed” retrospective. He has particular disdain for K. Michael Hays, the Harvard “theory” professor who co-curated the show and wrote a major catalogue essay on Bucky’s “Geological Engagements with Architecture.” Referring to the “inchoate syntax” of both critic and subject, he concludes that “the museum-going public is ill-served by such imparsable nonsense.” He also finds the museum’s installation curiously dry and visually bland.

I need not belabor the conclusion that Hays, Dana¬† Miller and the Whitney have made a pig’s breakfast of their tribute to a man who “had a profound effect” on American culture during the 20th century, according to Martin Filler. The dangerous and alas, too frequent impact of such adulatory exhibitions is that they perpetuate shabby, rhetorically weak and historically incoherent interpretations of people, artifacts and events that are fundamental to our understanding of the recent past, and thus of our own cultural identity. While architecture continues to wallow in its own philosophical miasma, and the nation spirals into chaos, it is doubly important to dig deeply into the dichotomies and contradictions promulgated by such figures as R. Buckminster Fuller.

Good history is being written about the 1960s. Read the work of Taylor Branch or Robert Dallek and you will discover a rich world under the surface of people and events. The built environment–buildings, cities, bridges, roads, landscapes–deserves similarly penetrating analysis. When reputable critics fail to identify bad architectural history, or see beneath the scrim of ideology, the public is not only “ill served,” it is left bamboozled, hyped and ultimately impoverished. That’s part of the reason why we get so much bad architecture today.