Sunday, March 22, 2009

Norman Foster May or May Not Vandalize The New York Public Library

Among the few clearly positive consequences of The Great Rebalancing going on now in financial markets is the extinguishment of Norman Foster’s plans to deface The New York Public Library first announced just as the economic avalanche was beginning in October. The timing suggests a divine consciousness at work.

It’s the greatest project ever!” The New York Times reported the starchitect saying after the “trustees” of the library awarded him the $250 million project to update the pretty much already perfect building.

“We had to have someone as good as Carrere & Hastings,” said Paul LeClerc, the president of the library without a trace of bitter irony. “We had to create a second masterpiece.” 

(picture credit: TS Carlisle)

This sort of nonsense is so common in architecture that it barely even registers on the bullshit detector anymore. 

 There is no need to “update” what is already considered a masterpiece. I suspect that if I proposed to pay Kayne West a couple of million bucks to write an extra verse that would permanently be inserted into middle of John Lennon’s “Imagine” these same trustees would be utterly outraged.

Fortunately the disfigurement will have to wait. 

A big chunk of the $250m was supposed to come from the sale of the Donnell branch of the library, an unassuming and friendly modernist that sits empty across the street from the Museum of Modern Art now that its buyer has bailed. The Donnell seems to have died for our sins.

Back in October, Sir Foster blathered on about how he was drawing inspiration from the local library in a suburb of Manchester that he visited as an insufferable teenager.

Here is the library. 
Seems rather pleasant and scaled for ordinary human beings.

Of course, what the library looked like was not the source of Foster’s inspiration. “If it hadn’t been for that library,
 I probably wouldn’t have gone to university,” says the most self important architect on the planet. “I discovered a whole world of literature and also a world of architecture, like the original books of Corbusier.”

I’m as adamantly opposed to book burning as George Orwell but I would make an exception for the “works” of Corbu. The world would be a better place if his contributions to the catalog of human knowledge were simply deleted.

What are the chances that Foster’s new masterpiece resembles anything like the modest library he claims as his inspiration? Slim to absolutely nil. About the same probability that his update will inspire anyone as much as the brand manager of Windex.

The Times reports that the trustees considered more traditional architects but in the end chose to commission "a distinctive piece of contemporary architecture.” According to the library’s chairwoman, Catie Marron, “one has to embrace one’s time.”

But why? Why can’t we embrace our times by embracing the beautiful works of art that preceded us instead of disfiguring them? Because our times are selfish and myopic, that’s why.

The presumption is that the Carrere & Hastings building belongs to another age and we need a structure that reflects contemporary society. Actually, the Library exists now, in our age. It functions spectacularly well, now, in our times.

Any Fosteresque alteration would indeed embrace our times in all its banality, mediocrity, transience, conceit and most of all its presumption that any architect alive today could match what Carrere & Hastings created a century ago.

Nicolai Ouroussoff, the Times’ current arbiter of taste approves of this latest attack on the Beaux Arts legacy, particularly the potential for “delicious tension that could be created between old and new.”

Funny how no such tension was desirable when Paul Rudolph’s high rise bunker at Yale was renovated and added to recently. “The Gwathmey design is intentionally restrained and recessive,” says Ada Louise Huxtable the fictional architecture critic at The Wall Street Journal.   But that’s another story.

Says Ouroussoff, who occupies the Muschamp Chair for Advanced Elitist Studies at NYT:

"Some believe that the only way to show respect for an old building is to dress
it up in a cute period style.”

Don’t worry. Our ubermensch narrator is not one of those people.

Even though at 98 years the Library is not an old building by historical standards. Also, the building is a masterpiece even though it is dressed up with anthemion, triglyphs, and colossal Corinthian columns – the style of a period that predates the Library by 2000 years. In fact, it is the timelessness of this style that makes faithful consistency with it the only way to show it respect.

“This approach trivializes history by blurring the distinction between old and

Actually, just the opposite. Attaching something “new,” meaning developed in the last six months, onto something “old,” which in this case means developed over the four millennia of western civilization, is an act of vandalism not trivialization.

“The result is watered-down history – or worse, kitch.”

And frankly, what could possibly be worse than that?

Yet, a Norman Foster prosthesis on The New York Public Library would equate a passing fashion with the grandeur of history and be nothing more than adding chrome tailfins on a timeless structure.

“In choosing Mr. Foster the library is signaling confidence in the ethos of our
own era while nodding to a distinct past.”

Adding Hannah Montana stickers to the works of Leonardo would also signal confidence in the ethos of our era. 

I, for one, have no confidence at all in the ethos of our era. Leaving to the future a decrepit Norman Foster doodad would only prove to our grandchildren not only how small-minded and incompetent we were but also how we brimmed with self-esteem.  I can think of more useful things to bequeath.

Ironically, the shameful ethos of our era ultimately will make Foster’s plans unrenderable. There’s no money left, and now that the trustees of the library have lost the $59 million they were counting on to jumpstart the project, the hole just got a lot bigger.  

Big enough, with any hope, to swallow the entire scheme. And maybe in the aftermath some time to allow and new ethos for a new era to emerge.


Anonymous said...

The "One Library" plan to sell the Mid-Manhattan and the Donnell & close the SIBL, and to use the funds from the RE sales to transform the Main Branch into a techno-behemoth, which could somehow absorb the materials and users from the 3 Library Centers listed above, was a catastrophe which has now collapsed as the RE mkt & economy in NYC collapsed.

We are trying to express our concerns that the 3 Library Centers be saved (or in the case of the Donnell, restored to service) to our elected officials etc.

Please join us -- we are organizing a committee through the neighborhood Block Association (53, 54, 55 St BA) which lost the Donnell last year; we are trying to lobby public officials to have the Donnell restored, and would welcome
your help or to speak to our group.

My email is

LukeM said...

Well I'm convinced. Do you think anyone within shouting distance of the vandals will read your piece here?

You're an excellent writer by the way. I'm glad you are posting again. I had the privilege of seeing the new and old city hall buildings in Boston not too long after reading your article about them, and otherwise I might not have even realized they were related.