More on NYPL

April 27, 2012

I have posted a petition on Change.org that allows friends and concerned people to fight the library’s plan to gut the stack areas and renovate this precious landmark. Friends asked me to add comments to the petition. Here they are:

The Carrere and Hastings library was designed, by its librarian, to be a state of the art facility in the late 1890s. Its reading room, on the top floor, provides light and an airy space for everyone. By putting the stacks below the reading room, it was simple for library personnel to retrieve books (using elevators) for all patrons. This has continued to this day, and many researchers love the attention they get from the staff when their books arrive. The building was designed for this arrangement, and only this arrangement. There are few windows in the stack areas, so they will not make good spaces for people. Moreover, the entire magnificent staircase and circulation system was designed to usher readers up and into the main reading room. They arrive in awe of its grandeur.

The library has worked as a world-renowned research facility for decades, and the collection is well housed in the stacks (though they could use better HVAC systems and fire protection, something this money could pay for). Researchers are very upset at the prospect of seeing the collection moved to Princeton, where it will be 24 hours away. This is ridiculous, when the space exists in the building–space made only for storing books. The librarians are apoplectic at the thought of moving collections, and are fighting the proposal from within.

Last, but not least, the things that the NYPL board (a group of very wealthy, megalomaniacal¬† types) say they want to accomplish with the multi-million dollar renovation will be much more easily, and cheaply, achieved without touching the central library at all. The mid-Manhattan branch, across 42nd street, is popular and very easily upgradable. Why sell it? (Anthony Marx, the library’s president, says that $150 million is too high a price to pay for an upgrade, but will spend four times that amount across the street). Branch libraries are in desperate shape, and could use the new computer workstations to their advantage–they are closer to the people who need serving. Of course, renovations of old buildings don’t make a big splash, and that is what the board is really trying to do. They would love to just build a big new building by Frank Gehry and do a Guggenheim; the Norman Foster scheme is their substitute for this kind of ego trip. There is no compelling reason why the library board needs to convert one of America’s greatest Beaux Arts buildings into a huge internet cafe.

In a recent radio interview on the Leonard Lopate show, Marx offered one weak explanation after another for this hair-brained scheme. He suggested that it would be impossible to renovate the Mid-Manhattan branch while still using it, when libraries do renovations like this as a matter of course every day. He maintains that he wants to build “the greatest library in the world” inside the Carrere and Hastings landmark, which is already one of the greatest libraries in the world. He admits that all of the research libraries are operated via private endowments, while public money is expended for the branch libraries. Why then use public money to ruin the most prestigious of the endowed research libraries in order to make into something it is not? If the public facilities need renovation, and he wants to keep the largest circulating library in the world, Mid-Manhattan, as a “state of the art” facility, why not either renovate it or build a new branch? What is driving this insane effort to wreck a landmark building? Money, just money.

A Houzz Is Not A Home

April 20, 2012

A month or so ago the Times had a full-page spread on a rising star in the home improvement marketplace: Houzz. I have checked it over and even registered our firm on it, but can’t find much worth endorsing. From the point of view of an architect–and perhaps not that of an interior designer–there is much to criticize. Some of the problems are cultural, but many are in the structure of the site and its message.

First, the basic idea. Houzz is a website built on successful models that match consumers with products and people within an interest group or industry. From that point of view, the business model is slick and very successful, as homeowners can browse different “looks” for rooms in their houses. Here the paradigm again follows a successful melding of high fashion and interior design that has worked for Architectural Digest and other print publications. There are also brief blogs on all sorts of vaguely interesting things related to home design. One basic flaw is that architecture that matters–and styles that are really worth following, don’t change as fast as haute couture trends. They shouldn’t.

We are a consumer culture, and this site assumes that more choice is better; ergo, tastes in domestic environments will benefit from an unlimited amount of product choices, professional choices, and style choices. Unlike the recent spate of “simple is better” magazines and books, this site tends to promote an eclectic and basically hedonistic ethos. The internet fosters such an ethos, giving homeowners the idea that the world is their oyster–anything can be gotten for a price, and everything worthwhile is consumable.

As an architect, I’ve confronted this “I want what I want and you need to find it for me” ethos many times; what bothers me most about Houzz is that it reinforces the notion that designers are merely “sources” for consumers, no different than say, ABC Carpet, Restoration Hardware, Waterworks, or Design Within Reach. Too much choice can, and often does, make critical judgment on aesthetics a matter of picking between purportedly equal design solutions. These “solutions” are not really designs, but pretend to be. The designer is no longer a professional arbiter or advisor, but more of a “personal shopper” for the homeowner. Sometimes he/she feels more like an over-educated store clerk hocking scented soaps.

In its structure, the website makes this very clear–when you browse you are able to choose design professionals from the same menu as products and styles. A professional who’s work is branded with a particular style or “look” may be matched with a homeowner who prefers that look, as often happens when special interest magazines–say, Style 1900–match arts & crafts designers with like-minded collectors. What is disturbing about Houzz, is that all kinds of aesthetic approaches are combined in a giant fishtank. A serious classical designer, or modernist one, gets thrown in with flavor of the month types. Visitors to the website, who may be well-educated in non-visual things, are encouraged to look at visual choices without any frame of reference but their own limited experience. Most are not likely to find designs or designers who can precisely match these preferences in such a wide-open forum.

Perhaps most disturbing for those of us who research American houses as a reflection of culture is the fact that Houzz reinforces the “house lust” trends that were supposed to have been tempered by the housing crash. Even the site’s co-founders, a married couple, like to brag about their next “challenge” in home decorating and remodeling, implying that a bigger house is in the offing once they do a Facebook and launch their IPO. Weren’t we supposed to challenge the assumption that our homes were merely stepping stones on the road to a mansion, the way kids play the board game, Life? Trading houses, changing decor, embracing new products and “looks” was something we did in the 1990s and roaring 00s. Weren’t Americans chastened? Weren’t we going to embrace smaller, simpler ways of living now that the “property is wealth” myth exploded?

Well, it seems that, like big Wall Street bonuses, buying houses and land from the big real estate toy store on the internet is back. The technology is more dazzling, and with an Ipad in your hand you can start decorating the Great Room of your new home before you’ve even left the realtor’s office. Let’s see, do I want early Swedish modern or contemporary Venice Beach for my wet bar?