The Great Penn Station Hoax

January 13th, 2016
Converting the old Farley Post Office into the much-trumpeted Moynihan Station would serve only Amtrak’s 40,000 daily travelers and cost over $1 billion. So roughly 35% of the overall Penn Station “transformation” budget will be spent to improve conditions for just 7% of Penn Station’s daily users.

Converting the old Farley Post Office into the much-trumpeted Moynihan Station would serve only Amtrak’s 40,000 daily travelers and cost over $1 billion. So roughly 35% of the overall Penn Station “transformation” budget will be spent to improve conditions for just 7% of Penn Station’s daily users.

With much fanfare, New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo just announced a $3-billion proposal to “transform” Penn Station. Backers of the plan to rebuild McKim’s original Penn Station were initially encouraged – until we read the fine print. While exhorting New Yorkers to “think big,” the plan Cuomo put forth is actually an expedient band-aid camouflaged with flashy AutoCAD renderings,

It’s hard to know where to start listing the flaws and deceptions.  First, let’s start with the money. Cuomo’s grand plan is estimated to cost $3 billion. And how much public money is Cuomo putting on the table? A vague $325 million, supposedly coming from the Port Authority, the Federal Transportation Dept., and Amtrak.  Private developers are supposed to pony up the remaining $2.7 billion in return for control of retail and commercial rights in the complex. Even if the private sector is willing to put up $2.7 billion, experience has shown that when developers have this much leverage in a public/private venture, the public sector invariably gets short-changed.

The biggest change Gov. Cuomo proposes for the existing Penn Station would be a new generic glass entrance on 8th Avenue – which would require demolishing the 5,600-seat theater that’s currently tucked under the Madison Square Garden arena.

The biggest change Gov. Cuomo proposes for the existing Penn Station would be a new generic glass entrance on 8th Avenue – which would require demolishing the 5,600-seat theater that’s currently tucked under the Madison Square Garden arena.

Next is the fiction that by creating Moynihan Station in the old Farley Post Office (at a cost of at least $1 billion) it will relieve overcrowding in the current Penn Station labyrinth. In fact, Moynihan station will serve only Amtrak passengers – which accounts for just 40,000 of the 600,000 daily riders that use Penn Station. (The balance are commuters from New Jersey and Long Island.) So building Moynihan Station will gobble up roughly 35% of the project budget – to serve 7% of Penn Station’s users.

For the remaining 560,000 daily passengers, Cuomo’s “transformation” of the existing tawdry Penn Station complex consists of a generic glass-wall entrance on Eighth Avenue, new entrances on 33rd Street, and upgrading retail shops in the complex. Executing this part of the plan would entail demolishing the 5,600-seat theater currently wedged underneath Madison Square Garden.  This will require cooperation of the Madison Square Garden Company – which is sure to be an expensive and tricky negotiation.

To avoid moving the Madison Square Garden arena, Gov. Cuomo proposes closing 33rd Street and building a giant skylight to bring light into the underground warren to which Long Island Railroad riders are consigned.

To avoid moving the Madison Square Garden arena, Gov. Cuomo proposes closing 33rd Street and building a giant skylight to bring light into the underground warren to which Long Island Railroad riders are consigned.

Worst of all: Cuomo’s plan also allows the Madison Square Garden arena to continue to squat on top Penn station – confining all passenger services underground in the current maze of dingy passageways. Civic groups, such as the Municipal Art Society and the Regional Plan Association, who have studied the blight that is Penn Station, concluded that only by relocating Madison Square Garden can there be any real improvement in the lot of the 560,000 daily NJ Transit and LIRR commuters. If and when Madison Square Garden moves, then the plan to rebuild McKim’s Penn Station suddenly becomes the fastest and most economical solution.

Unfortunately, even though Madison Square Garden has only seven years remaining on its lease, there’s no sign that the company would be happy about moving. And the MSG owners are famously litigious, so it looks like Governor Cuomo is trying to avoid a protracted battle and is willing to settle for a less-than-desirable outcome in order to get something done quickly. Since a former Cuomo top aide now works for Madison Square Garden, cynical observers speculate that a tacit deal has already been struck, letting the MSG theater be removed in return for allowing the Garden arena stay where it is.

 

By refusing to consider relocating the Madison Square Garden arena, the Cuomo proposal forgoes any opportunity for creating inspirational public spaces such as offered by McKim’s original Penn Station.

By refusing to consider relocating the Madison Square Garden arena, the Cuomo proposal forgoes any opportunity for creating inspirational public spaces such as offered by McKim’s original Penn Station.

As it stands now, the Cuomo plan is more a real-estate deal than a visionary improvement of the public realm. The only silver lining is that Governor Cuomo has at least started some serious discussion about the public embarrassment that is the current Penn Station. There’s still time for the obvious shortcomings in the Governor’s proposal to be corrected.  The best solution, of course, would be to rebuild McKim’s Penn Station.

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Secrets of Scagliola Revealed

December 14th, 2015

I’ve just run across a brand-new book that strips away much of the mystery surrounding the most arcane of all the traditional building arts: the restoration and creation of scagliola. The author of this fascinating new volume is David Hayles, master plaster artisan and co-founder of Hayles & Howe — and who has probably made and restored more scagliola than any other living person.

The sumptuous Allen Country Courthouse in Fort Wayne, IN, makes copious use of Marezzo scagliola, as seen here in the columns and side panels of the Circuit Courtroom. Hayles did scagliola restoration for the building’s centenary celebration in 2002.

The sumptuous Allen Country Courthouse in Fort Wayne, IN, makes copious use of Marezzo scagliola, as seen here in the columns and side panels of the Circuit Courtroom. Hayles did scagliola restoration for the building’s centenary celebration in 2002.

Although many people are unfamiliar with the term “scagliola,” everyone has seen it. Scagliola is hand-made artificial marble composed of gypsum plaster, animal glue, various pigments and water. Evolved in Europe during the Renaissance, scagliola found widespread use in the U.S. during the early 1900s in churches, theaters, banks, courthouses and other public buildings. When we see “scag” in the interiors of such places, our eye tells us it is real marble. (Hayles gives us a simple test to distinguish between the two: Real marble feels cool to the touch, while scagliola feels warm.) Color and veining in scagliola is integral to the material, so scratches and dings in the surface don’t remove the color as happens with painted marbleized surfaces.

Although the materials are simple, procedures for making scagliola are not. Creating scagliola demands extensive knowledge of how materials react, combined with the skilled hands of a master plasterer, plus the keen eye and instincts of an artist. The number of subtle variations in production techniques and recipes are probably as numerous as there are scagliola artisans. That’s why for centuries craftsmen zealously guarded their scagliola secrets. Happily, Hayles’s volume provides the reader with an excellent understanding of many of the variations

Scagliola is somewhat more economical than real marble, but it has other advantages besides cost. First and foremost is creative freedom for the architect. A designer can specify any type and combination of “marble” without worrying about sourcing from far-away locales and long fabrication and delivery times: An experienced scagliola studio can be the single source for any color and shape of “marble.” Because it is worked in a plastic state, it is easier to produce complex shapes in scagliola than via fabrication of hard natural marble.

Titled The Magic of Scagliola, Hayles’ 324-page self-published hardcover volume has hundreds of full-color images of scagliola installations in Europe and the U.S. — plus numerous step-by-step photos of scagliola production. Despite its colorful appearance, I wouldn’t call it a coffee-table book. It is aimed primarily at a professional audience: Architects, interior designers, plaster artisans, and other practitioners. It’s essentially one artisan’s master class — an attempt to pass along to new generations much of the knowledge Hayles has accumulated over a lifetime.

Fully half of the opus is devoted to the little-known origins and development of scagliola in Europe, with informative photos and short descriptions of more than 35 noteworthy installations. Turning to the New World, Hayles recounts the history of scagliola in the U.S., illustrated by installations and restorations in nine major U.S. buildings — including the U.S. Capitol. Hayles also provides detailed methods for making traditional scagliola, including 10 reprinted pages on scagliola from William Millar’s 1897 classic “Plastering, Plain and Decorative.”

In addition, it includes history and recipes for Marezzo scagliola based on Keene’s cement (also called “American scagliola” because of its wide use in the U.S. in the early 1900s). Practitioners will find recipes, techniques and photos for making eight specific types of scagliola, including porphyry, malachite and Verona rosa.

Currently, the only mail-order source for this limited-edition book is Steven Schuyler Bookseller. The price of this richly informative volume is $90, postpaid. 

 

Clem Labine

“Beauty” Wasn’t Always a Dirty Word

September 1st, 2015
The architectural profession awarded architect Albert Kahn, designer of Detroit’s impressive Art Deco Fisher Building, a medal in 1928 for creating the most beautiful commercial building of the year.

The architectural profession awarded architect Albert Kahn, designer of Detroit’s impressive Art Deco Fisher Building, a medal in 1928 for creating the most beautiful commercial building of the year.

The recent sale of the landmark Fisher Building in Detroit was a painful reminder of the way the word “beauty” has disappeared from contemporary architectural practice. When the Fisher Building opened in 1928, its architect – Albert Kahn – received a medal from the Architectural League of New York for creating the year’s “most beautiful commercial building.

Alas, it is inconceivable that any mainstream professional organization today would honor an architect for creating “beauty.” At best, Modernist architects ignore beauty as design parameter; at worst they scorn beauty as an irrelevant, subjective, relativistic concept.

For example, Moshe Safdie, winner of the 2015 AIA Gold Medal was cited for his “hunger to follow ideals and ideas across the globe . . .” Not a word about creating a more harmonious built environment . . . nothing about elevating the human spirit . . . and certainly nothing about beauty. Indeed, looking at Safdie’s body of work (see typical image), “beautiful” is not a descriptor that comes to mind.

The Fisher Building’s good looks were no accident, but rather the result of an inspired collaboration between architect and a well-heeled client – the Fisher brothers. The seven Fisher brothers became rich by selling their car-body company to General Motors in 1919. The Fishers devoted much of their resulting wealth to civic causes, which included a desire to construct a building that would both honor their legacy and provide a great civic monument for the city they loved. Thus the Fisher Brothers gave architect Albert Kahn a generous budget with the charge to build the most beautiful building he could create.

Interiors of the Fisher Building feature custom mosaics, Art Deco lighting fixtures, meticulously crafted metalwork, plus stenciling and other painted decoration – finishes that were meant to delight the eye.

Interiors of the Fisher Building feature custom mosaics, Art Deco lighting fixtures, meticulously crafted metalwork, plus stenciling and other painted decoration – finishes that were meant to delight the eye.

Albert Kahn considered himself a modern architect – but also disdained striving for the weird and the bizarre as proof of originality. For the Fisher Building, he created a huge (over one million sq.ft.) building whose refinement of massing and detail disguises the massiveness of its volumes. Kahn certainly did not follow the “ornament is a crime” dictum, using the finest marbles, mosaics, murals, decorative painting and ornamental brass and bronze metalwork to create a building that still inspires delight – even in its current neglected state.

Habitat 67 in Montreal is emblematic of the work of Moshe Safdie, winner of AIA’s 2015 Gold Medal. Safdie’s designs are typical of the contemporary fashion that prefers the momentary shock of strange geometrical forms over a striving for timeless beauty.

Habitat 67 in Montreal is emblematic of the work of Moshe Safdie, winner of AIA’s 2015 Gold Medal. Safdie’s designs are typical of the contemporary fashion that prefers the momentary shock of strange geometrical forms over a striving for timeless beauty.

Unlike Albert Kahn, today’s Modernist architects prefer the shock of the new and the next instead of the emotional thrill of timeless beauty. Disdaining the organized complexity of traditionalism and any sense of urban harmony, designers today compete with each other to create ever more bizarre and bombastic structures, creating civic spaces that become more chaotic and visually disturbing by the day.

Vitruvius was only re-stating the accumulated wisdom of centuries when he declared that the creation of beauty (“venustas”) was one of the three objectives of architecture.  No wonder that the public – whenever given a chance to voice an opinion – prefers the elegance and grace of beautiful traditional buildings over abstract, theory-based, egoistic, disruptive shapes grounded in Modernist ideology. In the world of architecture, “beauty” should not be a dirty word.

Clem Labine

Come Mingle With the Lions of Classicism

January 14th, 2015

The 2014 Classical Tradition Conference (CTC) in Salt Lake City was a high point of the past year – one reason being that was where the dramatic plan for rebuilding McKim’s original Penn Station was unveiled. Following on that success, the second annual CTC is taking place Feb. 6-7, 2015, at the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City.

Keynote addresses by internationally known pioneers of the Classical movement, architects Allan Greenberg (top) and Demetri Porphyrios, will be among the highlights of the Classical Tradition Conference in Salt Lake City, Feb. 6-7.

Keynote addresses by internationally known pioneers of the Classical movement, architects Allan Greenberg (top) and Demetri Porphyrios, will be among the highlights of the Classical Tradition Conference in Salt Lake City, Feb. 6-7.

The unique program provides two days of immersion in the totality of the Classical ideal. Organized under the aegis of the Utah Chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, the conference program covers far more than just Classical architecture. Instead, the two-day symposium is built around the foundational principle of Classicism: The interrelationship of ALL the Classical arts.  Thus the presenters will be examining architecture’s links to mural painting, sculpture, stone carving, decorative painting, metalwork, mosaics and woodworking – all of the allied arts. The designer’s ultimate goal is to fuse all of these arts into a unified, beautiful whole.

The Conference comes at a particularly challenging time in the world of architecture. Even as Traditionalism and Classicism are gaining greater acceptance as valid contemporary styles, this success is generating vigorous push-back from the architectural establishment. Most worrisome is evidence that the majority of clients and building committees are still captives of Modernist ideology.

One recent troubling example: The stewards of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, a magnificent Romanesque synagogue in Los Angeles, are planning a 55,000-sq.ft. addition – and insist that the new wing “must establish an iconic profile.” Several starchitecture firms have been invited to submit their visions for the “iconic” addition.  (Be very afraid for the historic building!)

The CTC program is designed to arm participants with theory and practice to prove to clients that there are beautiful alternatives to bizarre, transgressive architecture. I will be on hand in Salt Lake City serving as moderator of the extraordinary 15-speaker program.

Classical lions Allan Greenberg and Demetri Porphyrios are keynoting the proceedings; Greenberg on Friday and Porphyrios on Saturday. Among the other presenters are: Thomas Jayne, interior designer, Mary Kay Lanzillotta, architect, Jean Wiart, architectural metalsmith, John Ike, architect, D. Jeffrey Mims, artist and muralist, Phillip Dodd, architect, Brent Hull, architectural woodworker, Michael Scheiner, glass sculptor, Michael Imber, architect, Erik Evens, architect, Patrick Webb, ornamental plasterer, Elizabeth McNicholas, architect and interior designer.

This convocation in Salt Lake City will constitute the largest collection of Classical brainpower you’ll be able to tap into all year. I hope to see you there; it’s a great opportunity to network and to get charged up with new ideas You can register here.

Clem Labine

Getting Stuck with Starchitecture’s Bill

December 17th, 2014

Opponents of Traditional and Classical architecture assert such buildings are too expensive to construct today. Thus it’s ironic that “scientific” Modernism has just produced two of the most costly and over-budget structures in living memory. Worse, the cost overruns for these boondoggles are being paid for not by deep-pocketed billionaires but by the general public.

The two scandalous buildings are both part of the World Trade Center reconstruction in lower Manhattan: The Transit Hub and the One World Trade Center tower. Together, these two structures are costing a staggering $8 billion – almost $4 billion more than original estimates. On the hook for most of the cost over-runs is the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. To raise funds, the Port Authority is hiking tolls on its bridges and tunnels by 56% between 2011 and 2015. So, in effect, motorists in the metropolitan area are stuck with the bill for these two megalomaniacal starchitecture projects.

The primary fault does not lie with the starchitects involved, however. Rather, the blame lies with the political leaders of New York State and New York City. They are infected with Modernist ideology which decrees that every new structure MUST be excitingly different – something that will grab headlines. The inevitable outcome of this endless pursuit of novelty is that every new building is an experiment – with predictable costly surprises. The starchitects at the World Trade Center were merely delivering what the deluded clients asked for. A cynic might say that the politicians’ priority was building monuments to their egos since they knew the public would pay the bill – no matter how high the cost.

The Calatrava Calamity

Santiago Calatrava designed one of his trademark curvilinear structures to serve 46,000 New Jersey train commuters each day. Even after cost-saving modifications to the architect’s design, the Transit Hub still cost $4 billion.

Santiago Calatrava designed one of his trademark curvilinear structures to serve 46,000 New Jersey train commuters each day. Even after cost-saving modifications to the architect’s design, the Transit Hub still cost $4 billion.

By selecting Santiago Calatrava to design the Transit Hub, the political czars had to be certain of two things: (1) Calatrava would give them a visually dramatic building; (2) The building would be difficult – and expensive – to construct. By this point in his career, Calatrava is notorious for buildings that are extremely costly to build and maintain.

Primary users of the Transit Hub are 46,000 daily New Jersey train commuters. (By comparison, the bedraggled Port Authority Bus Terminal in mid-Manhattan handles close to 180,000 passengers per day.) Even though the number of daily users of the Transit Hub is small, former NY Gov. Pataki had declared he wanted an “icon” (as does every cultural institution these days).

So, for a mere $4 billion, New York has its “icon” – although even at this humongous number, the design had to be considerably simplified from Calatrava’s original conception. Of course, from the politicians’ standpoint, the best part is that the bulk of this enormous cost is on the budget of the Port Authority – not the city or the state.

Towering Cost Overruns

Political officials wanted the One World Trade Center tower to serve as a symbol of New York’s recovery from the 9/11 attacks. But its “iconic” status required layers of security that were instrumental in its $4 billion price tag.

Political officials wanted the One World Trade Center tower to serve as a symbol of New York’s recovery from the 9/11 attacks. But its “iconic” status required layers of security that were instrumental in its $4 billion price tag.

The other $4 billion project – adjacent to the Transit Hub – is the combination office tower and fortified bunker that’s now called One World Trade Center. Starchitect Daniel Liebskind’s master plan for the site called for a “Freedom Tower” that would be a patriotic 1,776 ft. high. Many aspects of Liebskind’s tower proposal proved too expensive and impractical (surprise!) – even for the grandiose thinking that was abroad at the time.

Architect David Childs, chairman emeritus of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill was called in to create a more economical version of Liebskind’s “Freedom Tower.” And because the political decision had been made that the tower (like the Transit Hub) was to be an “icon” and statement of the city’s resilience – it was also feared that the building could become a future terrorist target. Hence, security precautions and hardening of the tower became a primary cause of the price tag soaring to $4 billion.

We can hold endless debates over the architectural merits of these two structures. But that misses the point. The real question should be: Has the striving for headline-grabbing novelty in publicly funded buildings gone too far? With all the under-funded transit needs in the New York-New Jersey area, were these two structures the best way to spend $8 billion?

Just remember: The next time you pay $14 to use the George Washington Bridge – or other Port Authority bridges and tunnels – you’re being required to help pay for those $4 billion in cost overruns.
 

Clem Labine

McKim’s Penn Station Can Rise Again

October 20th, 2014
The original 1910 Penn Station by Charles Follen McKim was a Beaux-Arts masterpiece – a privately owned railroad terminal that was at the same time a grand public space and a magnificent gift to New York City

The original 1910 Penn Station by Charles Follen McKim was a Beaux-Arts masterpiece – a privately owned railroad terminal that was at the same time a grand public space and a magnificent gift to New York City

A plan of jaw-dropping daring and imagination was recently unveiled at the symposium gathered in Philadelphia to assess the legacy of Henry Hope Reed (1915-2013), founder of Classical America. Reed spent a lifetime railing against the rapid obliteration of beauty in American cities caused by the Modern Movement; one of the greatest disasters being the demolition of Penn Station in 1963. The symposium audience was therefore delighted when architect Richard Cameron of Atelier & Co. outlined a project that would have brought a smile to Henry’s face: rebuilding Charles Follen McKim’s Pennsylvania Station. .

McKim’s original Beaux-Arts masterpiece was built between 1901 and 1910, inspired by the Baths of Caracalla in Rome. The classical edifice was a stunning achievement of both engineering and aesthetics: Its steel frame sheathed in pink granite and travertine, with 84 Doric columns and lofty halls with 150-ft. coffered ceilings, created one of the largest covered public spaces in the world. Built totally with funds from the Pennsylvania Railroad under the guidance of its visionary president, Alexander Cassatt, the privately owned building was more than a train terminal: It was also a gift to the entire city of New York. Rich in classical architectural detail and built of high-quality stone, the building set a standard for excellence in civic spaces. It was an awe-inspiring public realm where the poorest citizen could feel like nobility.

When the Pennsylvania Railroad fell on hard times, the corporation sold the air rights above its track system and in 1963 demolished the magnificent building that McKim had created.

When the Pennsylvania Railroad fell on hard times, the corporation sold the air rights above its track system and in 1963 demolished the magnificent building that McKim had created.

Alas, this privately sponsored public benefaction was too good to last. With the advent of jet travel after WWII, the Pennsylvania Railroad fell on hard times – and the lure of rising Manhattan real estate prices was too great to resist. The railroad sold the air rights above its underground track system, and McKim’s masterwork was demolished in 1963 – just 53 years after its opening. Rising in its place was the new home of Madison Square Garden – housed in a structure that’s a pedestrian pastiche of Modernist banalities (to put it kindly). The 650,000 travelers who use Penn Station daily are left to thread their way through a confusing dingy warren of underground passageways that now burrow beneath Madison Square Garden.

The cramped underground passenger accommodations that were substituted for McKim’s Penn Station gave rise to Vincent Scully’s famous quip that one formerly “. . . entered the city like a god. One scuttles in now like a rat."

The cramped underground passenger accommodations that were substituted for McKim’s Penn Station gave rise to Vincent Scully’s famous quip that one formerly “. . . entered the city like a god. One scuttles in now like a rat.”

Everyone agrees the current situation is a scandal. New York’s Municipal Art Society recently sponsored a “design challenge” and invited four architectural firms to envision a new Penn Station. Predictably, only Modernist firms were invited to submit – with equally predictable results. (Creating beauty in the urban environment was not a requirement.)

Given that background, it’s easy to understand why the symposium audience was so excited by Cameron’s assertion that is it technically and economically feasible to rebuild a beautiful Beaux-Arts Penn Station similar to McKim’s. The architecture and construction are the easy part: The McKim Mead & White drawings still exist, and bringing them up to modern code and functional requirements would not be difficult. .

New York’s Municipal Art Society sponsored a “design challenge” and invited four architectural firms to imagine a new Penn Station.  The result was four Modernist schemes ranging from austere to the bizarre.  Above: Part of the proposal from Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

New York’s Municipal Art Society sponsored a “design challenge” and invited four architectural firms to imagine a new Penn Station. The result was four Modernist schemes ranging from austere to the bizarre. Above: Part of the proposal from Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

Cameron has also done considerable research with developers and real estate experts and is convinced that the air rights involved make the project economically feasible. The current disgrace that is Penn Station could be transformed into a beacon of civic beauty once again.

The biggest obstacles to any new Penn Station project are the Byzantine politics that always surround major real estate efforts in New York City. For one thing, the Dolan family that holds the short lease for Madison Square Garden has no desire to move. Political will is what’s needed to get a new Penn Station on track; nothing will happen until the Mayor and the Governor get together and crack heads. It will be a beautiful day in the city if and when that happens.

Clem Labine

Architecture’s Invasive Species

July 31st, 2014
Brooklyn developers frequently create Modernist infill in an attempt to appear hip and trendy. These high-contrast buildings depend on having traditional neighbors for their shock effect – but at the same time detract from the community charm and intimate character that attracts people to Brooklyn in the first place.

Brooklyn developers frequently create Modernist infill in an attempt to appear hip and trendy. These high-contrast buildings depend on having traditional neighbors for their shock effect – but at the same time detract from the community charm and intimate character that attracts people to Brooklyn in the first place.

Many of us are dismayed to see the flood of anarchic buildings swamping America’s older communities – often with the blessing of local preservation boards. Apparently it’s now conventional wisdom that architecture should reflect the disruption, distortion and disorder that infects the modern world. To counter this repellent trend, let’s try borrowing a concept from environmental activists.

Ecologists have convinced the public that “invasive species” are a bad thing. The term describes non-indigenous flora or fauna that have an adverse impact on the natural habitat they invade. And as my neighbor and preservation activist John Casson explains, the architectural eco-system of America’s older communities face equally adverse impacts from “invasive architecture.” By that he means architecture that purposefully contrasts sharply with older traditional buildings surrounding it. John has been particularly distressed by numerous provocative and adversarial buildings that are invading our older Brooklyn neighborhoods. (See first photo.)

Modernist architects often attempt to deflect criticism of these alien buildings by asserting that they are indeed “contextual.”  “We’ve established a dialog between old and new,” the architect will artfully explain, “thus our design is totally context-sensitive.”

Of course, what the architect’s rhetorical trick really means is: “I’m using the surrounding historic buildings as a foil to create shock value for my new building. In the context of modern Hong Kong my building would be totally ho-hum.”

The John Hancock Tower is massively invasive in Boston’s Copley Square. Its immense height (790 feet) diminishes the dignity of its smaller indigenous neighbors, such as the Copley Plaza Hotel (right) and Henry Hobson Richardson’s Trinity Church.

The John Hancock Tower is massively invasive in Boston’s Copley Square. Its immense height (790 feet) diminishes the dignity of its smaller indigenous neighbors, such as the Copley Plaza Hotel (right) and Henry Hobson Richardson’s Trinity Church.

A vivid example of invasive architecture’s negative impact was provided to me while in Boston to attend the Traditional Building Conference. During a tour of historic Copley Square, I stood on the front steps of Charles McKim’s magnificent Boston Public Library looking out over the superb urban landscape before me. To the left was the Gothic splendor of Old South Church. Directly across the square was Richardson’s exquisite Trinity Church. To my right was the stately beauty of the Copley Plaza Hotel.

But the eye did not dwell on the agreeable ensemble of traditional buildings that enclose the square. Instead the eye was drawn inexorably to the Brobdingnagian height of the all-glass John Hancock Tower that looms 790 ft. over the square, like an ungainly cornstalk that’s invaded a carefully tended lavender bed. The eye focuses on the disruption, not the adroitly balanced composition. Thus does the invasive species contaminate an entire architectural eco-system. The John Hancock Tower bears silent witness to the triumph of money and political power over rational urban planning.

The traditional streetscape around New York’s Cooper Square was recently disrupted by invasive architecture from Thom Mayne. To say the building distorts the historic character of the area does not begin to do justice to the structure’s negative aesthetic impact.

The traditional streetscape around New York’s Cooper Square was recently disrupted by invasive architecture from Thom Mayne. To say the building distorts the historic character of the area does not begin to do justice to the structure’s negative aesthetic impact.

The way invasive architecture despoils the special character of a locality is fully explored in Steven Semes’ seminal volume, The Future of the Past. In his book, Semes shows how intact ensembles of traditional buildings are people-magnets because such areas possess the beauty and harmony that most of us find emotionally satisfying. When invasive architectural shapes disrupt local special character, part of that unique architectural eco-system is killed and the area moves one step closer to anonymous modern Shanghai.

 

If we can convince our fellow citizens to think of older communities as fragile architectural eco-systems, then perhaps there will be more resistance to the menace of invasive architecture.

Clem Labine

Coming Soon: The Perfect Modernist Pastiche

December 19th, 2013

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A new 32-story tower now under construction in downtown Brooklyn will surely delight any disciple of Modernism:

* Its design was created by one of the hot young architectural firms

* Its construction depends heavily on innovative technology

* It perfectly expresses its industrial origins

* It has the straight lines and flat planes of a geometry exercise

* It is sure to offend lovers of traditional aesthetics.

 

Although designed by an architectural firm renowned for its edgy creations, this new modular prefab residential building under construction at Brooklyn’s Atlantic Yards development looks like it came from a Lego box.  Image: SHoP Architects

Although designed by an architectural firm renowned for its edgy creations, this new modular prefab residential building under construction at Brooklyn’s Atlantic Yards development looks like it came from a Lego box. Image: SHoP Architects

The building in question (see top image) was design by SHoP Architects for developer Forest City Ratner as part of its controversial Atlantic Yards project. SHoP has built its reputation on “edgy” designs, such as its Barclay’s Center arena but in this case its “creativity” was circumscribed by the modular building units the developer forced it to work with. The end result, which looks like it came straight out of a Lego box, can only be described as an old-fashioned pastiche of Modernist memes that have been circulating for a century.

The 32-story tower’s claim to fame is that, when completed in 2014, it will be the “world’s tallest modular prefab building.”   (The current record holder is a 24-story dormitory at the Univ. of Wolverhampton in England.) The modular units – living rooms, stairwells, bathrooms, kitchens, etc. – are being assembled inside a prefabricated steel frame by unionized workers in a factory in the former Brooklyn Navy Yard.

The completed modular units, fitted with electrical wiring and plumbing, are trucked to the building site and dropped into place – Lego style –with a crane. Construction workers then connect the units to the rest of the structure and make final electrical, plumbing, and HVAC hookups. Forest City Ratner believes it is saving construction time and money with this system, although how big the savings will be are still unknown since this construction process has not been tested yet in the U.S.

One can only hope that the savings will be massive – and that the developer will pass ALL the savings along in the form of affordable apartment rents –  because that would be this banal building’s sole merit. The architecture’s blatant technological origins show the designer’s disdain for any attempt to create a humane urban environment within the building’s shadow. What’s worse, the current plan calls for 15 more towers as part of the Atlantic Yards developments.  If they all turn out like this “LegoBuilding,” the violence done to the adjacent community of brownstones and traditional commercial buildings will be incalculable.

 

Prefab buildings don’t have to be cold and dreary. The façade of this 19th-century commercial building in New York’s SoHo District is constructed from modular cast-iron units, and possesses the visual richness and complexity that people still find pleasing.

Prefab buildings don’t have to be cold and dreary. The façade of this 19th-century commercial building in New York’s SoHo District is constructed from modular cast-iron units, and possesses the visual richness and complexity that people still find pleasing.

One reasonable test for any new piece of urban architecture is: What would be the consequence if this building were replicated many times over in this community?  In the case of this “Lego Building,” I believe all but the most fundamental Modernists would admit that a throng of these buildings bunched together would be a the antithesis of humane urban environment. A clump of such buildings would greatly detract from the character, intimate feel, and diversity of the lively streets that have made Brooklyn a great urban success story.

The fact that a building is erected from factory-made units doesn’t automatically mean that it has to look cold and mechanical. The cast-iron buildings of the 19th century showed that visually rich and pleasing aesthetics can be combined with innovative, economical building technology. Prefab doesn’t have to be ugly.

Clem Labine

Why Doesn’t the AIA Have a TAG?

October 28th, 2013
AIA Gold Medalist Thom Mayne built his reputation through design of disruptive buildings that often contrast violently with their surroundings; ornament and any reference to traditional forms are banished. Shown here is his Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas, TX.

AIA Gold Medalist Thom Mayne built his reputation through design of disruptive buildings that often contrast violently with their surroundings; ornament and any reference to traditional forms are banished. Shown here is his Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas, TX.

When the American Institute of Architects named self-proclaimed “bad boy” Thom Mayne as recipient of its 2013 Gold Medal,  it just underscored the AIA’s one-sided view of the architectural profession. The Gold Medal is the highest honor the AIA can confer on an architect, and a review of Gold Medal Winners over the last 30 years confirms the AIA’s single-minded advocacy of anti-traditional Modernist design.

Though it purports to serve the entire profession, the AIA’s promotion of architecture that disdains ornament and traditional references totally dishonors those architects who choose to work in historically influenced modes. Strangely, an institution you’d expect to be even more rigidly Modernist – the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) – has a somewhat more indulgent attitude towards traditional design. The RIBA has long championed the work of starchitects like Norman Foster and Richard Rogers, defending Modernist buildings against the criticisms of Prince Charles and others.

 

Members of RIBA-linked Traditional Architecture Group rely on adapting traditional forms and ornament to create buildings that are both beautiful and context-sensitive. TAG member Robert Adam designed this commercial building in Piccadilly, London, to harmonize with its historic setting while establishing its own distinct identity.

Members of RIBA-linked Traditional Architecture Group rely on adapting traditional forms and ornament to create buildings that are both beautiful and context-sensitive. TAG member Robert Adam designed this commercial building in Piccadilly, London, to harmonize with its historic setting while establishing its own distinct identity.

Nevertheless, the RIBA sanctions the Traditional Architecture Group (TAG) as a linked society of the RIBA. Architectural members of TAG are “committed to developing the values established by long tradition and adapting them to the modern world. Traditionalism looks to the past only to see the future more clearly. Traditionalism is the solid, viable, long-term future for architecture.” One can’t imagine the current AIA ever associating itself with such sentiments. The RIBA, even though Modernist at its core, is at least is willing to admit there is an alternative point of view.

Among the 400 members of TAG are some of England’s leading architects working in traditional styles, including Robert Adam, Graham Rix, Quinlan & Francis Terry, and Alireza Sagharchi (TAG Chairman) of Stanhope Gate Architecture & Urban Design Ltd. TAG members adapt and build upon historical precedents to create contemporary architecture with character, intimate feel, and in aesthetic harmony with its context.

The AIA has nothing comparable to the Traditional Architecture Group. The only area where AIA tolerates traditional design is within the isolated confines of preservation. The AIA’s Historic Resources Committee, comprised of some of the country’s leading preservation architects, is one of the oldest members of AIA’s “Knowledge Communities.” But when it comes to additions to historic structures, or infill in older neighborhoods, establishment architects insist that new work should be Modernist and in high contrast with the old – often fatuously described as “creating a dialogue between old and new.” The main argument for anti-historical Modernism is that new architecture should be “of our time.” The ludicrous assertion that only Modernism is “of our time” has been thoroughly debunked by (among others) University of Colorado’s Dean Mark Gelernter and by architect Steven W. Semes in his ground-breaking book, The Future of the Past.

The AIA did not always scorn traditional architecture; it awarded the Gold Medal to Beaux-Arts trained Paul Philippe Cret in 1938. Shown is Cret’s building for the Organization of American States in Washington, DC.

The AIA did not always scorn traditional architecture; it awarded the Gold Medal to Beaux-Arts trained Paul Philippe Cret in 1938. Shown is Cret’s building for the Organization of American States in Washington, DC.

 Unfortunately, current debates about architecture are ideological, not evidence-based.  The unhappy reality is that Modernist theory has assumed the status of religious orthodoxy within the architectural establishment. So many architects and institutions have bought into the ideology of Modernism that they can’t afford to question its underlying assumptions. And thus today we find the public realm littered with bizarre, alienating buildings and sculpture – despite the general public’s bewildered and/or hostile reaction to most of these abstract intellectual exercises. Most people prefer order, comprehensibility, and beauty in their buildings and surroundings.

Obviously, those in the AIA hierarchy aren’t going to become card-carrying classicists overnight. But is it too much to hope that the AIA will adopt a more inclusive view of what constitutes “architecture,” and add the equivalent of a Traditional Architecture Group to its Knowledge Communities? Dare we hope for AIA’s return to a more comprehensive definition of excellence – such as it had in 1938 when it awarded the Gold Medal to Beaux-Arts trained Paul Philippe Cret? 

Clem Labine

New Tools for Rescuing Wood Windows

August 30th, 2013
This new manual succinctly outlines best industry practices for wood window preservation – and is handy for writing contractor specifications.

This new manual succinctly outlines best industry practices for wood window preservation – and is handy for writing contractor specifications.

“Those crappy old windows can’t be fixed. They gotta be replaced.” Managers of old buildings have heard this bleak assessment countless times. What that glib pronouncement often means is that the person rendering judgment doesn’t know how to restore wood windows – or doesn’t want to be bothered. Most contractors find it’s easier, quicker and more profitable to slam in replacement units. But now two new books make it possible for building owners to avoid the hidden costs incurred by discarding historic wood windows that could otherwise be saved.

The first volume — just brought to my attention by preservationist Bob Yapp — is Window Preservation Standards, published by the non-profit Window Preservation Standards Collaborative (WPSC). The WPSC is a consortium of more than 150 professionals, experts in window preservation and energy efficiency, who pooled their wood window know-how to arrive at a consensus on current best practices. The resulting book compiles 34 step-by-step field-tested methods used to maintain, repair and weatherize old wood windows. In addition to the procedural standards, there are protocols for window project planning and energy-efficiency testing. The standards are presented in a clear, concise and consistent format. The compressed manner of presentation means the standards can be easily translated into a set of contractor specifications. One special aspect of the window standards is that for each procedure there are also brief criteria for judging “best work,” “adequate work” and “inadequate work.” The standards are more of a “what to do” compilation rather than a “how to do it” manual. It assumes you, the contractor or both are already familiar with the materials and procedures involved.

John Leeke’s handbook of window restoration contains detailed step-by-step procedures – along with numerous diagrams of historic window construction and details.

John Leeke’s handbook of window restoration contains detailed step-by-step procedures – along with numerous diagrams of historic window construction and details.

For a set of more detailed “how to do it” instructions, there’s the new expanded edition of John Leeke’s Save America’s Windows. Leeke is a well-known preservationist, consultant and educator – and is also the editor of the WPSC standards manual discussed above. He has put together a thorough discussion of 15 step-by-step treatments to repair weathered sills and deteriorating sash that also includes a lot of background information on historical wood windows. In addition, the volume reprints five window chapters from 19th- and early 20th-century trade manuals that illustrate many early window construction details. Leeke assumes no prior knowledge, so the book can be used both by ambitious do-it-yourselfers and professionals who need to get up to speed on historic wood windows.

Both volumes provide plenty of ammunition to refute overly aggressive window salesmen – besides the obvious desirability of preserving historic building fabric. One common argument – energy-conservation – is often specious. The WPSC manual presents testing data that show restored wood windows can deliver energy efficiency on a par with replacement windows. In addition, when you factor in the shorter life-span of replacement windows (15-40 years depending on material), repairing the original windows is much more earth friendly. Old wood windows are normally made of tight-grained first-growth lumber, which is much more rot resistant than today’s fast-growth wood. Finally, the simple construction of old windows means they can be repaired indefinitely. Case in point: the original wood windows in my 1883 brownstone have received periodic maintenance and repair. With similar care, they should be good for at least another 100 years.

The WPSC standards manual ($48.50) can be ordered online directly from the collaborative. John Leeke’s handbook ($35) can be ordered through his website. In addition, Steven Schuyler Bookseller has a discounted package price when both books are purchased together.

Clem Labine