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.

Food analogies seem to register with Americans, who besides being obsessed with their bodies are likely to tune into at least one cooking show a week on TV. So let me suggest that the global built environment has begun to resemble one huge fast food franchise–a vast MacDonald’s that has spread to the farthest corners of the planet. What Modernists dreamed of–a world of functional, flat-roofed machines for living and working undifferentiated by place or culture–has come to pass. Unfortunately for those of us who like a varied diet and appreciate local cuisine, the architectural monoculture has obliterated local building traditions in the same way that global fast food and big box stores have destroyed local color in food and retail goods. James Howard Kunstler, the author of the Geography of Nowhere, saw this trend two decades ago, and continues to rail against its effects in his recent books.

One of the things that disappointed me most about the Olympic icons built in Beijing was how little they seemed to acknowledge the rich history of Chinese art and architecture, particularly a reverence for landscape. When in the past architects designed for a place, they tended to bow to the cultural milieu in choosing forms and materials of local significance. The Chinese are a conservative and tradition-bound culture when it comes to eating, and every visitor is enchanted by local cuisines throughout the huge country. They entertained the world with their distinctive cuisine. But when it came to building, they bowed to the monoculture of Modernism. Beijing looks like any other large city–it’s just bigger.

Though most of the world’s esteemed architects pay lip service to giving their buildings a place-specific tone, very few actually employ local building materials or traditional crafts in their work at any scale. They explain that modern building technology has moved beyond such niceties. Sometimes when a local material is employed, it is treated “critically” or given a shocking, new context so that people will recognize its position of alienation. It’s a cynical nod to the locals.

Indeed, the gatekeepers of high culture around the world–patrons who hire the handful of name-brand architects–are not interested in maintaining provincial flavor in their new museums, theatres, concert halls and academic campuses. They purchase one-of-a-kind buildings distinguished mainly by the name of the genius who created the design. There is an international franchise in high-fashion building design that closely resembles haute couture clothing.

The rest of the buildings that are springing up in fast-growing areas like China, India, the Nevada desert, Dubai, and resort areas around the world do not benefit from the touch of genius. They are part of the international development business that generates high rise buildings, shopping malls, townhouse developments, office parks, country clubs and all the other shelter required for capitalism no matter what the climate or terrain. And all of this architecture looks the same, wherever it is constructed. It’s cold, alienating, scaleless, and it helps sell international brands like Coca Cola, Exxon and Michelin. But the world is changing its attitude toward the environment, and sustainability is leading us back to local and regional ways of doing things.

The Italians, for whom food and wine are sacred, have resisted the monoculture better than most countries. Their answer to the numbing sameness that pervades the media as well as the environment is the slow food movement. With the increasing desire for revival of local agriculture and organic food, this movement has begun to influence the rest of the world, even the United States. Instead of eating efficiently, ingesting food produced thousands of miles away by Big Ag, peopleĀ  who care about the earth are starting to care about where the food comes from, and how it was grown. Locavores are raising their voices for maintaining traditional agriculture. Where are the proponents of local building traditions? Can we have a slow building movement?

The answer is yes. Traditional building groups like INTBAU in Europe and the Institute for Traditional Architecture in the U.S. are growing in influence. The Prince of Wales Institute in the UK has been sponsoring educational programs and projects for two decades, building the town of Poundsbury according to local planning and building traditions. New schools are training the next generation of masters in the Building Arts–blacksmithing, timber framing, wood carving and joinery, masonry, metal casting– just as Pierre de Coubertin’s Les Compagnons du Devoir has done for the youth of France since the early 20th century. To be sure, much of this renaissance in old world craft has served the building preservation industry, but some has begun to spread to construction in new buildings.

Public reaction against the alienating monoculture that surrounds us in the media and the environment is mounting throughout the world. Only when the public demands more from architects, developers and institutional patrons will the numbing sameness of Modernist design begin to give way to a more humanistic way of sustaining the built environment.