Yesterday was definitely a mixed bag for the people fighting to save the New York Public Library from moneyed interests in Gotham. Two plaintiffs in lawsuits to stop the horrible Central Library Plan argued persuasively for a halt to the project, and got a sympathetic hearing from Judge Paul Wooton in Manhattan Supreme Court yesterday in an all-day session with attorneys. The judge issued a temporary restraining order that will be in force until January 28, 2014.

Unfortunately for those fighting to save both the Mid-Manhattan Branch and the 42nd Street stacks, the NLPL board had an ace up its sleeve. Richard Leland, the library’s attorney, pulled out a mysterious “Letter of Resolution” from the New York State Preservation Office that appeared to give the green light for both the sale of the busiest branch library in the NYC system, and the destruction of most of the historic stacks in Carrere and Hastings’s masterpiece. Only two weeks before, Michael Lewis, professor of art history at Williams College, declared the building to be the greatest civic edifice in the United States. Apparently bureaucrats in Albany didn’t read the New Criterion’s indictment of “the tyranny of philanthropy,” as Lewis dramatically framed the problem with the Central Library Plan.

Why did the SHPO, which had twice rejected the NYPL’s proposal for demolition of the stacks in a National Historic Landmark building, change direction so abruptly? As we’ve seen before in this multi-year battle, the forces of greed are powerful and multi-headed. It’s not surprising that high-level politicians in New York state have succumbed to their pressure. But it’s certainly very disheartening.

From Mayne to Morgan

December 16, 2013

In case no one has noticed, the American Institute of Architects seems to have made a dramatic turn during the past year with at least one decision. For the very first time the Institute decided to award its coveted Gold Medal to a woman, and not just any woman. Julia Morgan, who practiced a century ago, received the medal posthumously (only the second person so honored). Why did this happen in 2013 and not 2012, or 1995, or 1960? Last year, after all, the recipient was Thom Mayne, that most macho of avant garde sycophants.

Well, one can certainly speculate on what made the jury make such a radical turn. First, the AIA has been operating as if nothing has changed in a male-dominated, good old boy system for decades now, and recognizing the role of female architects was long overdue. It could well have given the award to a living architect like Denise Scott Brown, Merill Elam or Susana Torre. Julia Morgan’s award, however, sent a different kind of signal.

By honoring Morgan, the AIA showed that women have played a historic role in the evolution of American architecture, not just one that began with the feminist movement in the 1970s. While clearly a minority in 1900, women were designing key buildings for a wide variety of clients, just as were African American architects a few decades later. The fact that our professional organization could not recognize their achievements is an indictment of its leaders over the past half-century or more.

Happily, we have begun a new chapter in AIA history in 2013. Let us hope that our next Gold Medalist represents an equally important, and neglected, part of this richly talented and diverse profession.

The Real Rio

December 3, 2013

Michael Kimmelman has proven again that he will not bend to current fashion when writing about architecture and urbanism. Instead of heaping praise on Brazil’s efforts to outspend Athens and out-hype London as it prepares for the next Olympics, he visited Rio to look beneath the thin skein of high design that now seems de rigeur for international sporting events. His trenchant critique of a new cultural center, The City of Music, designed by French starchitect Christian de Pozzamparc in the suburb of Barra, puts things into perspective:

A concrete complex of theaters, raised sky high on giant piers, the center may be the most absurd new building in years. It can bring to mind that famous Stonehenge gag from the film “This Is Spinal Tap,” in which a design for a rock concert stage-set mislabeled feet as inches — except the proportions here are reversed. People in charge complained to me about whole sections of unusable seats without views, ineptly designed stages, halls without dressing rooms, windswept plazas and staircases going nowhere.

Had any “professional” journal published this pathetic building, nothing negative would appear in print, yet Kimmelman merely tours the building and listens to its users in order to assess its real worth–a net zero in every meaningful category. Meanwhile, favelas continue to be cultural incubators desipite their poverty and deplorable living conditions. Could there be a sharper dividing line between the cultural and economic elites who control international development and the struggling residents of a major world capital? Why can’t the architectural establishment, and its media, address this social divide instead of touting its expensive mega-projects for the rich? If I see another Zaha Hadid opera house or museum I am going to vomit.