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.

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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.

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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.

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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? 

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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.

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Architects Display Selective Outrage

July 19th, 2013

If you doubt that the architectural establishment’s number-one priority is to protect the privileged position of orthodox Modernism, consider the story of two museum buildings in New York City.

Designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien for the American Folk Art Museum, the building’s narrow façade features angled planes of bronze alloy. Some found the building awkward and uninviting. But Modernist critics pronounced it an architectural gem, and when the 12-year-old building was threatened with demolition, the architectural establishment arose in righteous indignation.

Designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien for the American Folk Art Museum, the building’s narrow façade features angled planes of bronze alloy. Some found the building awkward and uninviting. But Modernist critics pronounced it an architectural gem, and when the 12-year-old building was threatened with demolition, the architectural establishment arose in righteous indignation.

The first case involves the former home of the Folk Art Museum, designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. The story of how this building sank the Folk Art Museum is too lengthy to get into here. The relevant point is that the neighboring Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) bought the vacant building primarily because MoMA wants the land for expansion. When MoMA announced it would demolish the 12-year-old building, the heavens opened and a torrent of vituperation from the architectural community rained down on MoMA.

The Architectural League of New York State suddenly found preservation religion and went public with a letter urging MoMA not to raze “this significant work of contemporary architecture.” The letter had 35 signatures, including such big guns as Richard Meier, Robert A.M. Stern, Hugh Hardy and Thom Mayne.

These preservation converts rhapsodized over Williams’s and Tsien’s “architectural gem,” with Architectural Record magazine gushing it was “a beautiful and inventive jewel of a building that enriched its streetscape and the city.” To others (including this writer), the Folk Art Museum building is uninviting and awkward, both inside and out. It bears no relation to its neighbors nor to the folk art it was supposed to serve. The public seemed to agree and stayed away in droves. Nonetheless, the anger from the architectural establishment grew so loud that MoMA partially relented and hired Diller Scofidio & Renfro  to see if there’s any way to incorporate the building into its expansion.

Throughout the uproar, it’s been clear that what matters most to the protesters is the building’s roots in orthodox Modernism – and that it was designed by architects in good standing with the Modernist hierarchy. MoMA was essentially being accused of infanticide. Who in the upper caste can be safe if a Modernist institution like MoMA destroys the work of anointed designers?

BEFORE: For the Huntington Hartford Gallery at 2 Columbus Circle, architect Edward Durell Stone used Venetian palazzos as inspiration for his white marble tower. In general, the public was charmed or bemused by the extraordinary building, but Modernist purists despised its historical references and decoration – and declined to fight for its preservation.

BEFORE: For the Huntington Hartford Gallery at 2 Columbus Circle, architect Edward Durell Stone used Venetian palazzos as inspiration for his white marble tower. In general, the public was charmed or bemused by the extraordinary building, but Modernist purists despised its historical references and decoration – and declined to fight for its preservation.

Lest that seem overly cynical, let’s look at a similar situation: the remuddling of 2 Columbus Circle. In this case, instead of protesting, the architectural establishment looked the other way – the major difference being the bona fides of the designers of the two museum buildings. Two Columbus Circle was completed in 1964 by architect Edward Durell Stone to house the personal art collection of Huntington Hartford, heir to the A&P supermarket fortune.

The key to this story is that both Stone and his client were considered outsiders by the intellectual elite. Huntington Hartford was ostracized by the art elite because he despised abstract art, and Edward Durell Stone, once a champion of European Modernism, was considered an apostate by the architectural elite because he had abandoned austere Modernism in favor of a more romantic, historically inflected architecture. Stone, who was arguably the most famous architect in America in the 1960s, used stylized elements adapted from Venetian Gothic for his Huntington Hartford Gallery.

Predictably, the architectural press panned the building. Ada Louise Huxtable was among the most devastating, likening the columns at the base to “lollipops” – thereby coining its popular nickname: “The Lollipop Building.” After Huntington Hartford ran out of money, the building went through various owners, ending up with the City of New York. The long, sad, unsuccessful nine-year saga to get this remarkable building landmarked has been meticulously documented in a time line prepared by the New York Preservation Archive Project.

AFTER: The new shroud over 2 Columbus Circle replaces Stone’s soft decorative elements with hard edges. Glazed terra-cotta panels supplant the original white Vermont marble, and channels are carved in the façade to serve as windows. Even Modernist critics who hated Stone’s building have trouble loving this remuddled version.

AFTER: The new shroud over 2 Columbus Circle replaces Stone’s soft decorative elements with hard edges. Glazed terra-cotta panels supplant the original white Vermont marble, and channels are carved in the façade to serve as windows. Even Modernist critics who hated Stone’s building have trouble loving this remuddled version.

The salient point is that the fight to save 2 Columbus Circle was led by the preservation community, not the architectural community. With the notable exception of Robert A.M. Stern, the same architects who are screaming about the Folk Art Museum building did not lift a finger to save Stone’s creation. The result of that disdain is shown in the last image.

These two case histories illustrate the architectural caste system at work. Brahmins on top of the architectural hierarchy are heavily invested in the theory that Modernism is superior – morally and aesthetically – to Traditionalism. When this theoretical supremacy is challenged, the establishment lets loose an avalanche of rhetoric, sophistry and archibabble to defend Modernism’s privileged status. But because he had been excommunicated from architecture’s inner circle, no such effort was expended to defend the legacy of Edward Durell Stone.

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Buildings That Eat Their Owners

June 6th, 2013

In hopes of attracting a rich donor, Cooper Union borrowed $175 million to erect this grotesque building for its engineering department. No donor materialized, and, as a result, the school’s 155-year-old policy of free tuition has vaporized.

The lunacy that causes cultural institutions to build ever-more-bizarre – and expensive – “iconic” buildings has claimed another victim. Cooper Union in New York City has, for 155 years, not charged tuition for its highly regarded courses in art, architecture and engineering. But that all changes next year – due in large part to the $175-million mortgage the trustees took out to build a ludicrous new engineering building by starchitect Thom Mayne. Students will now need to pony up around $20,000 per year to cover the mortgage and other costs – thereby demolishing the legacy of visionary founder Peter Cooper.

This disaster results from Cooper Union’s trustees being seduced by the siren song of celebrity architecture. The trustees naively believed their fund-raising problems would be solved if they created a “naming opportunity” by constructing a signature building designed by a brand-name architect. The trustees were sure a deep-pocketed donor would come along, anxious to get his or her name affixed to a trophy building. The trustees were wrong; no mega-rich donor materialized. And now the students will pay the price for the trustees’ gullibility.

Of course, Cooper Union is not the first institution to be devastated by pricey starchitecture. The American Center in Paris was an early casualty. The Folk Art Museum in New York is a more recent instance. The museum floated a $32-million bond issue so architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien could design a trendy new building on Manhattan’s 57th Street.

New York’s Folk Art Museum floated a $32-million bond issue to build its bronze-paneled dream home, then defaulted and had to sell the building. The fiasco crippled the institution. Photo: Ozier Muhammad, The New York Times

The Museum eventually defaulted on its bonds and had to sell the building to the Museum of Modern Art (which wants the land, not the building).  The Folk Art Museum is now reduced to a shadow of its former self in much smaller rented quarters, while the Museum of Modern Art hopes to raze the ill-fated structure – despite howls of protest from fans of Modernism.

I. M. Pei’s much-hyped 1978 East Wing of Washington’s National Galley of Art employed “breakthrough technology” to attach marble veneer panels to the core structure. The untested technology failed, costing taxpayers $85 million to remove and re-attach every single marble panel.

The agony of these institutions – and others like them – stems from becoming mesmerized by the “Bilbao Effect.” They chose to ignore Vitruvius’s admonition that a building should embody firmitas, utilitas, venustas; that is, a building should be solidly constructed, appropriate to its function (including the budget) and good-looking. Instead, many of today’s cultural clients look primarily for novelty and provocation.
Unfortunately, when you design a one-off sculpture-building that’s never been seen before, all details have to be devised from scratch. This is both expensive and error prone. Even when clients are rich enough to survive cost overruns, they are often soon confronted with costly surprise repairs.

American taxpayers just discovered this unpleasant fact when Congress was asked to fork over $85 million to re-install the marble veneer panels on the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The I.M. Pei building consists of complex interlocking shapes and planes. To give the large planar surfaces a smooth unbroken look, the architect devised what he termed a “breakthrough technology” to attach marble veneer panels to the structural core. The innovative system failed, however, and every single veneer panel is being removed from the building and re-attached.

The National Gallery’s older (1941) West Wing by John Russell Pope used traditional construction methods to attach its marble veneer panels. Though the Classical design of the West Wing is derided by Modernist architectural critics, its solid construction has enabled it to avoid expensive repairs.

In the meantime, while these expensive and unexpected repairs are being made to the East Wing, which is always lavishly praised by architecture critics, the gallery’s original West Wing sits next door in quiet dignity. The West Wing by John Russell Pope is also sheathed in marble veneer panels – attached using traditional construction methods. Though 37 years older, the West Wing has never needed the extensive repairs its younger sibling is undergoing.
Let’s hope these expensive disasters will inspire clients to pay more attention to the eternal relevance of Vitruvius’s advice: firmitas, utilitas, venustas.

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Oops! Those Glass Towers Were a Mistake

April 29th, 2013

It’s usually the traditionalists who are pointing out the shortcomings of Modernist glass curtain-wall towers. But in a fascinating turn of events, in the Grand Central area of mid-Manhattan, the “tear ‘em down” charge is now being led by real estate developers. And it’s preservationists who are urging that at least some of the buildings be preserved as existing urban context.

At the root of this unusual role reversal – as you might suspect – are real estate values. The New York City Planning Commission is proposing to rezone East Midtown, a 73-block area surrounding Grand Central Terminal, to permit dramatically taller buildings. The rationale is that New York needs more “Class A” commercial space to remain competitive with other global cities. The prospect of constructing giant new buildings has set off a feeding frenzy in the real estate community.

However, to build colossal new office towers, developers will have to tear down existing buildings – which are a combination of traditional pre-WW II structures, plus many Modernist glass towers built after 1955. Anticipating objections to wide-scale demolition on environmental grounds (“the greenest building is one that’s already built”), the Real Estate Board of New York has cleverly co-sponsored a study that sets out to prove that for many glass curtain-wall commercial buildings constructed between 1955 and 1975, demolition and replacement are the environmentally responsible things to do.

RIPE FOR DEMOLITION: 675 Third Ave., a 1966 building by Emory Roth, is a single-glazed curtain-wall structure 385 ft. high. A new report claims it would be environmentally desirable – and economically feasible – to replace it with a new energy-efficient building about 560 ft. high. Image: Richard Berenholtz/The Durst Organization

It’s amusing to see the real estate community suddenly discover all the drawbacks of single-glazed glass towers that critics of Modernist orthodoxy have long enumerated: energy inefficiency, inoperable windows, low ceilings and the inability of the structural frames to accommodate the weight of modern insulating skins. To prove that older glass towers should be demolished rather than retrofitted, authors of the new report (“Mid-Century (Un)Modern”) did a detailed analysisof one of Manhattan’s better-built single-glazed glass towers: 675 Third Ave. (see image).

In analyzing 675 Third Ave., the authors first considered what could be accomplished via energy-conserving retrofits. Then they looked at totally replacing the existing FAR 15 building with a new FAR 21.6 building that raised floor-to-floor heights from 11.5 ft. to 14 ft. – and which added 44% more floor space. Surprise! They concluded that the replacement building was the energy-responsible alternative. The report asserts that even taking into account the embodied energy in the older tower, energy savings in the new building would pay back total energy costs of the bigger replacement building in about 20 years. (Of course, many skeptics doubt that the projected energy savings would be as rosy as predicted.)

Also left unsaid in the report was the effect of height. It’s estimated that the new tower – with 44% more space and its 14-ft. floor-to-floor heights – would mean replacing a 385-ft.-high building with one approximately 560 ft. high. Height increases of this magnitude throughout the zone would dramatically deepen the “dark canyon” effect.

OK FOR RETROFIT: The new report concedes that traditional masonry-clad buildings in the target zone (like the Yale Club shown here) are much better candidates for energy upgrades than single-glazed Modernist glass towers. Image: Patrick Andrade for the New York Times

To their credit, the report authors at Terrapin Bright Green LLC did concede that traditional pre-WW II commercial buildings with “mass wall” construction, high ceilings, smaller windows and natural ventilation are better candidates for energy-efficient retrofits than are first-generation glass curtain-wall structures. Thus the older traditional buildings were exempted from the report’s general conclusion that it’s earth friendly to tear down and build anew. Even so, many preservationists worry that the nuances in this study will be ignored and that developers will be targeting every older building in the 73-block zone for the wrecking ball.

The best commentary on these massive proposed changes was provided by architect and urban historian, Robert A.M. Stern. He points out that the new zoning would double the permissible floor area on some sites – and allow some buildings to soar as much 1,300 ft. – dwarfing the Chrysler Building at 1,046 ft. And in all the excitement about giant new buildings, no one is talking about new infrastructure – subway stations, escalators, water, sewer, electrical service and open space – that would be needed to accommodate thousands of additional office workers.

As Robert Stern reminds us: Runaway real estate development is not a substitute for thoughtful, holistic urban planning.

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End of the Line for Gehry’s Eisenhower Memorial

March 25th, 2013

The change is quite amazing. A year ago, it looked like Frank Gehry’s proposal for the Eisenhower Memorial on the National Mall was a done deal and construction was set to begin. But now critics of Gehry’s ill-considered plan (this writer among them) have reason to hope that a new, better plan is being called for. Over the past months, objections to the Gehry proposal have mounted as details of the planned monument filtered out to the public. They became so noticeable that Rep. Rob Bishop from Utah has now introduced legislation calling for a brand-new design competition and the elimination of nearly $100 million in financing for the Gehry plan. Essentially, Congress seems ready to call for a “do-over.”

In testimony before Rep. Bishop’s subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation, most supporters of the Gehry plan did not laud specifics of the proposal but rather fell back on the “appeal to authority,” the essence of which is: Gehry is a genius; therefore his design must be wonderful. This line of reasoning was epitomized by the letter that the American Institute of Architects (AIA) filed with the subcommittee.

The letter stated that “the AIA doesn’t offer any assessment on whether the Eisenhower Memorial Design is good or bad.” Nevertheless, the AIA’s letter insists that the legislation to halt funding for the Gehry plan “ . . . is nothing more than an effort to intimidate the innovative thinking for which our profession is recognized at home and around the globe.” The AIA’s position seems to be that even if the monument’s design is bad, taxpayers should fund it because it is “innovative.”

The AIA’s letter was at least civil and professional. Other proponents, such as Christopher Knight, architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times, got downright nasty about opponents of the Gehry plan. Mr. Knight became especially apoplectic over testimony offered by Justin Shubow on behalf of the National Civic Art Society (NCAS). But instead of refuting criticisms of the memorial’s design and its selection process, Knight let loose an ad hominem rant about the opponents, accusing them (among other things) of a “McCarthyite attack” and “shrieking like Hecuba.”

WHICH ONE DOESN’T BELONG? The top three images show presidential memorials that are part of the National Mall: the Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln Memorials. The bottom image shows part of the proposal for the sprawling Eisenhower Memorial. Some of the many criticisms of the Gehry plan are that it lacks focus and detracts from the existing architectural character of the Mall.

While supporters have been vague on the merits of the sprawling monument, critics have been quite specific about what’s wrong, not only with the design, but also with the secretive process that produced it. Testimony from the NCAS offered a detailed dissection of the opaque selection process that picked Gehry and also provided an extensive analysis of the design’s aesthetic and symbolic shortcomings, dubious cost estimates, longevity problems with specified materials and even life safety issues posed by chunks of ice falling from the metal mesh “tapestries” that are part of Gehry’s design. An even more extensive analysis of the memorial’s flaws is contained in the NCAS’s special online report.

Even though the arguments offered by opponents of the Gehry scheme seem quite persuasive, they might not have thwarted the project’s momentum were it not for the outspoken opposition of the Eisenhower family – especially Susan Eisenhower, Ike’s granddaughter. Ms. Eisenhower offered several well-reasoned misgivings about the design, the most important of which is that the memorial does not focus on Eisenhower’s towering achievements during World War II and his two terms in the White House.

When asked what type of memorial she would envisage for her grandfather, Susan Eisenhower said, “The Lincoln Memorial is a wonderful example of strength and theme. And this is what I want this memorial to be – an inspiration for who we are as a people, and what we accomplished during those years.”

That sure sounds right to me.

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The Bold and the Traditional

February 5th, 2013

Arched entryway, Kol Israel Synagogue, Brooklyn, NY

It’s a joy to discover something that turns conventional wisdom on its head. I made such a discovery this week.

Architecture critics normally apply breathless adjectives such as “bold,” “innovative” and “forward-looking” only to creations by their favorite Modernist “starchitects.” Likewise, when confronted by traditional architecture, these same critics automatically reach into their bag of negativity and yank out tired put-downs like “insipid,” “stale,” “Disney-esque” and the ultimate insult: “historical pastiche.” Such knee-jerk assessments lie at the heart of mainstream conventional wisdom.

Having grown weary of these ideologically driven judgments, I was delighted by a small compendium of traditionally based architecture that recently came to hand. Thumbing through its pages, I realized that any objective observer would also call the historically influenced work therein “bold, innovative and forward-looking.” And the work presented is also entitled to additional adjectives like “rational,” “harmonious” and “context sensitive.” The buildings display novel variations on traditional patterns, imparting not only a contemporary feel, but also a consistent attitude toward form, so the viewer never finds them alien or disorienting.

Oriel window, Weill Hall, Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI

The compendium I’ve been looking at is a book titled Evidence, which is a survey of work from Robert A.M. Stern Architects. I normally don’t pay much attention to architectural monographs because although they are pretty to look at, most don’t have much to teach. This book is different because the focus is on specific elements of buildings, rather than sweeping panoramas. The work incorporates the basic principle that underlies all successful traditional architecture: precedent plus invention. From the Greco-Roman era through the Renaissance and into our present time this transformative concept has guided traditional design. The architecture illustrated in this new volume refutes beyond question the Modernist assertion that historically influenced design is merely feeble imitation.

The book’s sections on entryways, windows, stairways, porches, façade articulation and passive energy conservation provide a post-graduate course on how imagination can integrate the past with the present. (Several photos of Stern’s work from the book are shown at left.) Robert Stern describes his firm’s design process as “a dialogue with the past carried on in the present with the future in mind.” The work proves that traditionalism is infinitely flexible and can readily adapt to different needs and locales – without resorting to tortured geometry that creates dissonant, dehumanizing spaces.

Curving porch, private residence, Highland Park, IL

One thing that Stern’s innovative architecture lacks is shock value. To me, that is high praise. But the sad truth is that many civic and cultural institutions are still seduced by the allure of the ludicrous – and are awarding commissions only to designers who generate controversy and notoriety. Recent example: For creation of a new Holocaust Memorial in Columbus, OH, the finalists are Daniel Libeskind, Ann Hamilton and Jaume Plensa. When the finalists are a radical Modernist, a multi-media performance artist, and an avant-garde sculptor, it’s obvious that the capacity to provoke is the main selection criterion. And when the American Institute of Architects (AIA) proudly describes its selection for the 2013 AIA Gold Medal as “the bad boy of Los Angeles architecture,” it’s clear the establishment is still determined to reward bombast rather than civility.

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