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.

4 Responses to “Messing with a Masterpiece”

  1. Anon said

    Thank you, Mr. Hewitt. This is a dubious “expansion” to begin, and for all the reasons you mention perhaps the worst possible execution of that. Let us hope a counter-campaign is heard in the near future.

  2. […] the Times is the place to start. You can also consult some of my previous blogs: A Twist of Fate, Messing With A Masterpiece, or Norman Foster, Preservationist? Like this:Like2 bloggers like this post. Posted by Mark Alan […]

  3. Glenn said

    Merely ɑ smiling visitor here to share tҺe love (:, btw
    outstanding deѕіgn. “He profits most who serves best.” by
    Artɦur F. SҺeldon.

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