By Carter B. Horsley
These are pretty good days
for architecture in New York City. After a generation or so of
generally lackluster designs, many new projects of considerable
interest have begun to sprout and have raised the city's depressed
architectural standards considerably. Although architecture has
flourished with great imagination and flair around the world and
in other parts of the United States, New York City's strict/restrictive
building regulations and even tougher community input and lack
of political leadership have stifled creativity with the result
that most new construction projects of the past several decades
has been banal and uninspired. Luckily, the city's inventory of
great buildings is huge, which has probably exacerbated the problem
because they distract attention from the missed opportunities
and tend to encourage a complacency of sorts.
It is not from a lack of
architectural talent, of course, that this situation has existed,
for New York City's local stable of architecture overflows with
it. Much of the problem lies with community activists who have
mastered the arts of public protest and bullied politicians. When
the city created its system of community planning boards, it recognized,
correctly, that neighborhood concerns should be aired and considered
before final decisions are made about new projects that require
public approvals. The city's uniform land use review process,
which is known as ULURP, mandated that public hearings be held
at the local community board level before being voted upon by
the City Planning Commission and the City Council. The process
does not state that the community board votes are binding. They
are only supposed to be advisory, but in practice they have very
rarely been reversed by the planning commission or council and
these bodies have been loathe to antagonize the local communities.
In far too many cases, however, the community boards have not
always acted in the best interests of the city at large, or of
good architecture and have been swayed by local anti-development
interests - the so-called Not-In-My-Back-Yard (NIMBY) groups -
often more concerned about protecting their own views. By and
large, many of the anti-development groups have very good intentions
but not a lot of architectural savvy. In their arsenal, however,
they have the "cause" of preservation and a lot of justified
anger at past mistakes as well as some quite literate rallying
theoreticians such as Jane Jacobs who have dramatically called
attention to urban design and planning issues and emphasized the
importance of "context" and the encouragement of designs
meant to improve existing neighborhoods. There is no question
that community input is very important and has often resulted
in very good modifications of some plans. On the other hand, however,
it has defeated far too many exciting, or at least, very good
plans. There is no reason to reform the ULURP process. The community
input is very important, but it should not be de facto binding
on the planning commission or council. What does need to reviewed,
of course, are the city's labyrinthine building, zoning and landmarks
preservation regulations. Many of these regulations, of course,
are fine and important, but the city evolves over time and periodically
they should be reviewed and the terrorist attacks of September
11, 2001 have provided the city with the need to reconsider some
important issues about its future and the intense interest in
what should be done at the former World Trade Center site offers
an excellent opportunity to consider larger architectural issues.
This article, however, is
not about what needs to be reviewed in those regulations, but
about architecture choices at two of the city's most prestigious
cultural institutions, one of which, The Morgan Library, has decided
to demolish a very graceful pavilion, and the other, The Asia
Society, which has recently created a very handsome new pavilion.
Both pavilions are by the same architect, Bartholomew Voorsanger.
The good news is that Voorsanger's
redesign of the interior of The Asia Society building on the northeast
corner of Park Avenue and 70th Street is quite exciting and includes
a very beautiful new skylit café.
The bad news is that his
ten-year-old pavilion, known as the Garden Court, at The Morgan
Library, which is located on the northeast corner of Madison Avenue
at 36th Street but occupies the avenue blockfront to 37th Street,
is to be replaced in a major new expansion designed by the Renzo
Piano Building Workshop and Beyer Blinder Belle.
The Asia Society building
at 725 Park Avenue was originally designed in 1980 by Edward Larrabee
Barnes, who also designed the former IBM tower on the southwest
corner of Madison Avenue and 57th Street with its great bamboo
atrium. Barnes's red-granite design for the society was very conservative
and not very exciting, and its most notable feature was the hanging
of two large banners on the avenue frontage that disrupted vistas.
Voorsanger's redesign did
not tamper with the building's avenue frontage, but is visible
on the sidestreet where the glass walls of the café are
quite visible and frankly are a bit incongruous with the building
and the rest of the block, which has some of the most impressive
and elegant townhouses in the city. The glass walls are somewhat
rakishly angled and distinctly different from the rear treatment
of the Barnes building. They do, however, have an "oriental"
sense and fortunately provide an intriguing incentive to go inside
the building. The glass walls rise above the existing parapet
wall so pedestrians cannot see what is contained behind them and
most likely they will assume that it is an added floor. Wrong!
Upon entering the redesign
interior, the visitor to the society will be startled to find
swooping, curved walls and staircases, marvelous round tables
whose tops are large, built-in computer screens, and, where the
museum's gift shop used to be a new and large, double-height café
that is contained in the space behind the glass walls seen from
The café is immensely
attractive. Indeed, it may well be the handsomest dining space
in the city, which is quite an accomplishment and one that should
significantly increase surrounding property values as well as
eventually attracting many more visitors to the society. It is
even lovelier than the delightful Café Sabarsky that also
opened recently in the very fine Neue Gallerie of German and Austrian
Expressionist Art at 1048 Fifth Avenue at 86th Street overlooking
Central Park. In a city noted for flamboyant restaurant design,
it is quite remarkable that two great new moderately priced restaurants
should open in museum settings at about the same time, a giant
step for the city's culture.
(The Asia Society's book
and gift shop has been relocated in the redesign and now is directly
at the society's entrance and visitors will be hard-pressed not
to spent lots of money on its many varied and enticing offerings
that are beautifully displayed in one of the nicest retail settings
in the city.)
Visitors will also marvel
at the new staircases that are curved and have bright blue tubular
supports that have nothing whatsoever to do with the building's
sedate red-granite facades. The staircases are quite spectacular
and actually deserve a far more high-tech setting, perhaps something
like the Javits Convention Center, which was designed by I. M.
Pei's architectural firm.
The setting here actually
is high-tech but some visitors may not immediately notice. There
are a few low circular tables whose surfaces are actually computer
screens that are activated by rather large "stones"
that act as computer mice, albeit without the tail of cables.
These tables, at least their surfaces, are the epitome of high-tech
although their form from a distance seem like conventional 1950's
style garden furniture.
The café interior
itself does not break new ground architecturally, but it is a
smashingly lovely space that has a definite contemporary Asian
style. The $30 million redesign of the institution's interior
doubled its public and exhibition spaces. (The Asia Society is
open from 11 AM to 6 PM, Tuesdays through Sundays, and on Fridays
it is open until 9 PM. Admission is $7 but seniors and students
are admitted for $4.)
Voorsanger obviously is
more comfortable with curves with rectilinear solutions and his
curves are subtle and graceful and a most welcome addition to
this city of grids. One could quibble that the computer tables
and the staircase's tubular supports might have been covered in
wood or perhaps red to be more in "context" with the
traditions of the society. Nonetheless, Voorsanger has taken a
relatively non-descript, unattractive building and given it an
awesomely cool interior that reflects the best of "Oriental"
design, which is saying a great deal. While this interior is not
as serene as the great sculptures of Isamu Noguchi it elegantly
reflects the refined modern aesthetics of the East and certainly
transforms the rather esoteric society into a major destination.
The Asia Society café
nestles within the walled sidestreet elevation of the institution
whereas Voorsanger's café at the Morgan Library was the
centerpiece of a highly visible expansion of that institution
that was completed in 1992 and connected its two buildings on
36th Street with the large brownstone townhouse on the southeast
corner of 37th Street and Madison Avenue. The townhouse was erected
in 1853 for Isaac N. Phelps and was later occupied by Anson Phelps
Stokes and from 1904 to 1943 by J. P. Morgan Jr. It then became
the property of the Lutheran Church i America that would subsequently
successful contest its designation as an official city landmark
but was rescued from demolition by its purhase by the library.
J. P. Morgan's original mid-block building on 36th Street was
erected in 1906 and was designed by McKim, Mead & White. The
annex at the northeast corner at Madison Avenue and 36th Street
was designed by Benjamin W. Morris in 1928.
Voorsanger's solution at
The Morgan Library was the erection of a large glass pavilion
with a wonderfully sinuous curved skylit roofline that created
one of the city's most serene spaces.
The institution, however,
won approval in early 2002 from the city's Landmarks Preservation
Commission to demolish this beautiful space to make room for another
major expansion, designed by Renzo Piano, the architect of the
great high-tech Georges Pompidou Centre, known as Beaubourg, in
Paris, one of the 20th Century's most important works of architecture,
and Beyer Blinder Belle.
Piano's design calls for
the creation of new vault space that will represent a significant
expansion for the museum and will also result in making a new
entrance to it in the middle of the avenue blockfront between
36th and 37th Streets. The museum now has an avenue entrance in
the brownstone townhouse structure that leads into its book and
gift shop and another in the museum's annex building on 36th Street.
The original building's entrance in the middle of 36th Street
between Madison and Park Avenues has long been closed.
As one of the world's greatest
libraries with a fabulous collection of drawings as well as some
good Old Master Paintings, the institution is one of the city's
great cultural treasures. The city should welcome and encourage
its expansion and it has. Unfortunately, the design of this expansion
calls for the replacement of Voorsanger's delightful glass pavilion
with a cube-like structure that would appear to be windowless
except for the entrance based on a photograph reproduced March
1, 2002 in The New York Times in a short article by David
W. Dunlap. The article noted that the design was approved unanimously
by the Landmarks Preservation Commission and that the $75 million
plan is to begin in 2003 and will require the museum to be closed
for two years.
The photograph in Mr. Dunlap's
article indicated that the museum's handsome wrought-iron fence
along its avenue frontage will be moved but it was not clear from
the picture whether the entrance will be approached by a short
ramp or stairs since it is elevated a few feet from the sidewalk.
The article quoted Sherida E. Paulsen, chairwoman of the preservation
commission, as stating that the plan was a "brilliant design."
Two phone calls and one
e-mail from The City Review to the institution's communications
department for a press kit about the plan elicited no response,
A February 10, 2002 column
in the Arts & Leisure section of The New York Times
by Herbert Muschamps, the newspaper's architecture critic, reproduced
an elevation sketch by Piano for the project that indicated it
would have four underground levels and a rear glass-enclosed pavilion
of at least five stories.
In his article, Mr. Muschamps
made the following observations:
replace three structures completed between 1962 and 1991. Roughly
half of the $75 million project is to be underground. This will
allow the design's visible portions to be lower than the rooflines
of the library's existing buildings. Beneath grade, Piano proposes
to cut into the bedrock of Manhattan schist on which the library
sites. Into this cavity he will insert a four-story subterranean
vault, containing stacks. These lead off from an atrium lined
with metal stairs. A 250-sear auditorium, site of the spoken word,
is also located here. The space is Piranesian, Borgesian, even
Pythian. The design above ground is 'infill' architecture: a set
of three new pavilions, acing into a glass-roofed courtyard, that
will be inserted between three of the exiting buildings: the J.
P. organ house the original library building and its subsequent
annex. Since these structures differ in style, materials and relationship
to the street, their context is one of contrast, scale and sequence.
It is a context of time as well as space, in other words, one
of adding to rather than fitting in which. Piano's design responds
straight forwardly to this context. It adheres to the scale of
the existing structures but departs from them in form, materials
and proportions. The palette is glass and painted steel, the color
as yet undecided. The forms are stark but not brutal. For example,
the steel panels of the main facades sit glat on the ground.but
the panels are recessed within frames and grooved at the edges,
to evoke the image of moldings. Stair towers are faced with glass,
and the airy spring of the metal stairs again reveals Piano as
architecture's great poet of circulation. The courtyard, however,
ist he focal point of the design's circulation system. It replaces
the inelegant Garden Court designed by Voorsanger and Mills and
completed in 1990. But the architects of the addition were constrained
by its relatively unambitious scope. With an overall plan that
radiates from the center of the site to the three streets bordering
it, the new courtyard will be integrated more organically into
the new complex. The courtyard's glass roof is a refined version
of the 19th Century engineering projects that inspired many architects
in the early years of the 20th.The design doesn't fit the rancid
image of modern architecture still held by many New Yorkers who
should know better. No where is Piano's departure from the image
more evident than in his design for a new gallery that will be
inserted between the Morgan house and library facing 36th Street.
A windowless steel cube, 20 feet on each side, the room is intended
for displaying individual books of exceptional rarity. But its
real function is to show off the beauty o classically proportioned
space. If you are classically inclined, you are always on the
lookout for the Good, the True and the Beautiful. As I see it,
the Good means service to others; the True means truth to self;
and the Beautiful articulates the continuous union and separation
of selves and others over time. Piano's design is as complete
a rendition of these virtues as New York has seen since the Seagram
building. It s most classical aspect is that it is a work of connective
tissue, not an independent object free-floating in space. Service
to others is the critical issue raised by this project.Piano is
an outsider, and therefore vulnerable to attack by local architects
who shy away from criticizing one another. Robert A. M. Stern,
objecting to elements of the design in a letter to the Landmarks
Commission, adopted the tone of a great Beaux Arts master admonishing
a callow apprentice. This was predictable. Stern represents a
brand of theme park design that has misrepresented itself as classicism
- as architecture, for that matter - for three decades. The brand
was built on a false polarity between Classicism and Modernism,
the latter taken to be a 'style' developed in the 1920s and 30s.
The brand's stock, which has been tumbling in recent years, stands
to fall still further as work like Piano's alerts people to the
flimsiness of its underlying premise. This is not the first time
a New York project by Piano has been targeted by a local architect.
In 2000, at a symposium organized by the Museum of Modern Art
on the subject of pragmatism, Peter Eisenman caused a slight commotion
by showing a slide of Piano's design for a 52-story headquarters
for The New York Times on Eighth Avenue opposite the Port Authority
Terminal.Eisenman offered the crudely rendered image as self-evident
proof that the design, and therefore the philosophy, were objectionable.All
the ideological posturing simply reinforces the creative stalemate
that has gripped New York architecture in recent decades. What
may have once resembled intellectual positions are now just sales
positions: marketing tricks. These architects are only serving
their own brands. Because of them, the public has come to regard
most architects as preening egos. Piano's design may cause some
of them to reconsider. It should also remind people that truth
to oneself and service to others are not incompatible.In recent
decades, the city has been excessively vigilant in rooting out
architectural individuality as if it were a crime against the
people. Piano's design for The Morgan Library shows us that the
street runs both ways. There are times when the public should
surrender a portion of its collectivity in order to have the sense
of community restored to it, at a higher level by an architect
of exceptional talent."
Mr. Muschamps evidently
likes Mr. Piano and his design for The Morgan Library although
his cavalier remarks about local architects and "marketing
tricks" may not win him too many new friends. Presumably
he was expressing his disappointment with much of what passes
for Post-Modern design, which is understandable to a great extent.
While Robert A. M. Stern is well-known for many Post-Modern designs
he is also the author, with several collaborators of an incredible
series of huge volumes on New York City's architecture since the
1880s that are brilliant and invaluable reference works. Stern
is very, very, very knowledgeable about New York City architecture.
Piano is the architect with
Fox & Fowle of the planned new Eighth Avenue skyscraper that
will house the new headquarters of The New York Times (see The City Review article on that project).
In recent years, several major new projects in the city have been
"won" by famous international architects. Sir Norman
Foster, for example, has been selected to design a new tower atop
the low-rise Hearst Building on the southwest corner of 57th Street
and Eighth Avenue and Christian Portzamparc designed the angular
mid-rise LVMH building on 57th Street between Fifth and Madison
Avenues. Hopefully, New York City will eventually have examples
of the works of many other important "foreign" architects
as well as new important buildings by the "locals,"
who are a pretty impressive lot.
One wonders, however, why
Mr. Muschamps described Voorsanger Mill's pavilion as "inelegant."
It is one of the city's few lyrical structures of the past few
decades and it is elegant and pleasant and delightful. Beyer Blinder
Belle is a fine local architectural firm with a long and good
record involved with historic preservation properties. Voorsanger's
pavilion at the Morgan is one of the city's small jewels and while
the museum's important underground expansion may well require
its demolition, why was he not brought on board as an associate
consultant? The City Review would have asked the Morgan
about Voorsanger's possible involvement in the project, but since
it did not respond to three requests for information The City
Review will still await an answer. The City Review has
not attempted to contact Mr. Voorsanger for comment.
There are two few jewels
and delightful oases in midtown and Voorsanger's Garden Court
at the Morgan has been one of them and it gracefully tied together
the somber brownstone, which has rounded bay windows on its south
facade with the classical elegance of Benjamin Wistar Morris's
annex at the south end of the avenue blockfront. Piano's steel
and most blank cube is not likely to be as elegant as Voorsanger
swooping curves and the loss of the fine fence seems callous.
What are the preservationists thinking about these days? An underground
expansion of the museum is not a bad idea, but a midblock atrium
hemmed in on all sides by other buildings is not quite the same
as one that faces the avenue as Voorsanger's pavilion does. Despite
Mr. Muschamps enchanted raves, Piano's plan conjures only a bunker
that turns its back on its neighbors.