Kimmelman Skewers Foster

January 30, 2013

Ada Louise Huxtable would be proud of her successor’s critique of the Foster NYPL design in today’s NYT. Read it and cheer.

After months of controversy, the Central Library Plan will be presented to the public during a few rather closeted meetings this month. Here are some reasons why New Yorkers must fight this sham and stop the NYPL board from eviscerating one of the city’s most cherished public buildings.

  • The Foster design is simply not good enough. It has all the distinction and architectural panache of a run of the mill airport lobby.
  • The architect and the library board are deluding the public with their presentation of the current design, and lying about its funding. Light levels are lower than shown, there is no provision for book transport from underground storage rooms, and the views of Bryant Park will be blocked by restaurant service zones. Moreover, the critics cannot have access to full plans or details about the cost of construction, so there may be even more faults in the design.
  • The NYPL board has conducted its business and made its decisions on this plan with virtually no public input or open discourse about its merits. Only when confronted by scholars and preservationists did it even agree to hold meetings to review the CPL.
  • The city is wasting millions in taxpayer dollars on what will prove to be a spectacular failure. The new “circulating” library will not attract more patrons, will not provide better space for reading and study, and will not even improve on the technology of the existing Mid-Manhattan branch.
  • All of the reasons for destroying the stacks, moving millions of books, selling two library buildings, and constructing a new facility in the Schwartzman Building are based on false premises that seem to change with each public communication from Tony Marx. Why should New Yorkers believe anything he says?
  • Most importantly, the Carrere and Hastings masterpiece that has served the city for more than a century must be preserved as a whole ensemble, not a series of set pieces, each with its own named patron or donor.
  • The stacks are an engineering marvel and a historic landmark that is more than worth its own preservation effort. All those who love historic buildings should decry their destruction, especially for such venal ends.

Paul Goldberger, the architectural critic of Vanity Fair (and previously not a few other New York media mainstays) has finally written something about the Central Library Plan. Never mind that he is too late to offer any relevant criticism, but his title says much about how little he has followed the controversy since 2008. He says that Tony Marx and the library board were “surprised” that the CLP would provoke controversy–perhaps it was Goldberger who found the project’s critics more determined and persuasive than he would have liked. His lengthy narrative about the CLP mainly covers old ground. He sheds some light on the inner workings of the library board, but skims over the real issues at hand. His own view of the plan, like many of his “critical” positions, is squarely on the side of the establishment, though he tries to convince the reader otherwise.

Goldberger, contrary to much that has been written about him, is a New York animal concerned almost exclusively with maintaining his status as a member of the A-List in society–a denizen of the Hamptons and the Upper East Side who delights in being seen with every kind of elite. Vanity Fair is just where he belongs, as The New Yorker found him lightweight and barely tolerable as a writer.

After reading his piece, I could barely believe that a man so deeply entrenched in New York’s cultural history could produce a story so full of contradictions and circular reasoning. After admitting that the library board backed into a public relations disaster, he seems content to accept Marx’s view that critics were silenced when he offered to put the books back under Bryant Park. Goldberger admits sheepishly that he helped put Norman Foster on a list of possible architects for the project in 2007, but insists that he had no position on whether such a “star” architect with “critically acclaimed” new insertions into old buildings should have been chosen from his list. Moreover, he describes features of the Foster design, which has yet to be shown to the public, as if they were already in place.
Further clouding the picture, he suggests that the New York Public Library was admired for its resistance to the a kind of cultural blackmail which billionaires foisted on the Guggenheim, Whitney, MOMA, and the Met when giving huge gifts for capital projects. When Steven Schwartzman’s $100 million gift broke the library’s will in 2006, it went for the same kind of “naming opportunity” as those museums had years earlier. Why then does he then treat Marshall Rose, Neil Rudenstine, and other board members as forward-thinking heroes only a few paragraphs later? Either there was something salutary and wise about its previous stance (and its longstanding commitment to scholarship), or there wasn’t. Go figure.

This long essay expends a good deal of clever prose on the library’s history, including stories of its opening after the death of John Carrere, but it fails to consider any relevant facts about the book stacks and the nature of the library’s design. The author admits that the building is probably the greatest and most beloved cultural institution in America’s cultural capital, but refuses to accord it special status as an icon worth preserving.

Goldberger is finally so taken by the charm and charisma of Tony Marx, to whom he defers repeatedly in the piece, that he cannot give Stan Katz and Joan Scott equal space to voice their negative opinions on the CLP. When all is said and done, this essay is merely a shill for the library board’s destructive plan, and a betrayal of the values that built it in 1912. Vanity Fair will get some points for weighing in on the controversy, but it has copped out on its opportunity to expose a sham.

Near the conclusion of the essay, Goldberger lays out his position clearly: “Even leaving the exterior of the library untouched, however, has not fully calmed some historic preservationists, who have argued that the bookstack should not be altered or dismantled, since it is a key part of the original Carrère and Hastings design. There is no doubt of its historical importance, but given the difficulties with bringing the bookstack up to present-day standards of temperature and humidity control, keeping it functioning is hard to justify.” I am proud to be one of those preservationists. Saving the stacks is not only justifiable, it is imperative.

Another highly critical piece on the Central Library Plan has appeared in the online publication, ARTINFO. Take a look at it, as it references our remarks at the May panel discussion. My colleague, Charles Warren, has written a wonderful essay for the Wall Street Journal or a sympathetic newspaper. Let’s hope it gets published.

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.

Fight the Foster Desecration

February 16, 2012

The New York Public Library has revived its plans to destroy the stack areas in the Carrere and Hastings building at 42nd Street. As I’ve said before in this blog, such a plan would rival the destruction of old Penn Station as one of the most horrific attacks on a public building in U.S. history. Please do whatever you can to stop this madness. Robin Pogregin’s piece in 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?

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.