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  • Architecture’s Ugly Ducklings May Not Get Time to Be Swans

    Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
    The Orange County Government Center in Goshen, N.Y., has been closed since it was damaged by storms in September.
    By
    Published: April 7, 2012
    GOSHEN, N.Y. — As Modernist buildings reach middle age, many of the stark structures that once represented the architectural vanguard are showing signs of wear, setting off debates around the country between preservationists, who see them as historic landmarks, and the many people who just see them as eyesores. The conflict has come in recent months to this quaint village 60 miles north of New York City — with its historic harness-racing track, picturesque Main Street and Greek Revival, Federal and Victorian houses — where the blocky concrete county government center designed by the celebrated Modernist architect Paul Rudolph has always been something of a misfit. “I just don’t think it fits with the character of the county seat and the village of Goshen,” said Leigh Benton, an Orange County legislator who grew up in the area. “I just thought it was a big ugly building.” Completed in 1967, the building has long been plagued by a leaky roof and faulty ventilation system and, more recently, by mold; it was closed last year after it was damaged by storms, including Tropical Storm Irene. Edward A. Diana, the Orange County executive, wants to demolish it, an idea that has delighted many residents but alarmed preservationists, local and national, who say the building should be saved. The county legislature is expected to decide whether to demolish or renovate it next month. Those who want to save it call it a prime example of an architectural style called Brutalism that rejected efforts to prettify buildings in favor of displaying the raw power of simple forms and undisguised building materials, like the center’s textured facade. “Preservation is not simply about saving the most beautiful things,” said Mark Wigley, the dean of Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. “It’s about saving those objects that are an important part of our history and whose value is always going to be a subject of debate.” A similar debate is going on in Chicago, where preservationists have been fighting to save Prentice Women’s Hospital, a concrete, cloverleaf-shaped 1974 structure designed by Bertrand Goldberg that the National Trust for Historic Preservation has placed on its endangered list. In New Haven, the 1972 Veterans Memorial Coliseum was demolished in 2007 despite a campaign to rescue it. In Manhattan, 2 Columbus Circle, the 1964 “lollipop” building by Edward Durell Stone, escaped demolition but was renovated in 2008 in a way that stripped away its original facade. Preserving charming confections from the 18th- and 19th-century can be a struggle; convincing people to keep more recent, decidedly uncute structures built from 1950 into the 1970s can be a battle of an entirely higher magnitude, especially if they’ve sprung leaks. “The phenomenon of a building that’s about 30 to 40 years old being severely out of style and leading to people wanting to alter it or demolish it is very real,” said Frank Sanchis, the director of United States programs at the World Monuments Fund page, about the Orange County Government Center here. The fund put the Goshen building on its 2012 watch list. Opinions are even stronger when it comes to Brutalism, a style closely associated with the Swiss architect Le Corbusier, and one that tends to produce weighty monoliths like the F.B.I. headquarters in Washington and Boston City Hall. In an interview Theodore Dalrymple, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute who has written about the architecture of Le Corbusier, described Brutalist buildings as “absolutely hideous, like scouring pads on the retina.” “One of those buildings can destroy an entire cityscape that has been built up over hundreds of years,” he said. Barry Bergdoll, the chief curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art, said: “Brutalism was supposed to bring back all sorts of things like craft — the concrete wasn’t smooth, you could feel the hand of the worker there. But it was perceived in almost the exact opposite way. It’s one of the great public relations failures of all time. Most people think of Brutalist architecture literally — as aggressive, heavy, boding and forbidding.” Rudolph, who died in 1997, was a prominent Modernist architect who also designed Yale’s Art and Architecture Building, among others. Architectural historians say the Goshen government center, which features protruding cubes and a corrugated concrete facade resembling corduroy, represents Rudolph at his best. “I would easily identify this as one of his top 10,” said Sean Khorsandi, a director of the Paul Rudolph Foundation. But Mr. Benton, the county legislator, called it “a world monument to inefficiency.” Each camp has its own estimate for how much it will cost to renovate the center — the preservation side says about $35 million, the county says $65 million. For an additional $20 million, county officials say, they would be able to build a new center (probably traditional) and to improve several other county buildings. The government offices that were in the center have dispersed around the county. “I’m a pretty modern type of person when it comes to architecture and paintings,” said Mr. Diana, the county executive. “If the building functioned in the right manner and was effective and efficient, I’d leave the building right where it is.” Economics aside, many say the Rudolph building simply has never belonged in Goshen and never will. “It’s just so out of place,” said Barbara Hatfield, a longtime county resident. “Goshen is the county seat. There’s a lot of history there.” But others argue that the building is part of the area’s history, too. “It reflects a snapshot in time in the late ’60s and ’70s, when our history was turbulent,” said Patricia Turner, a resident trained as an architect who wants to save the building. “Isn’t that just as relevant as something that happened in 1868?” John Hildreth, a vice president at the National Trust, said architectural taste changes over time and then can change again. “There was a time when people weren’t concerned about saving Victorian houses, bungalows, Art Deco buildings — all were not favored styles,” he said. “You have to focus on the significance of the building and not its style, because styles will come and go. We’re at a point where we’re evaluating the recent past and coming up against that.” Historians also say appreciating architecture can require an education. “It’s like saying, ‘I don’t like Pollock because he splattered paint,’ ” said Nina Rappaport, chairwoman of Docomomo-New York/Tri-State, an organization that promotes the preservation of Modernist architecture. “Does that mean we shouldn’t put it in a museum? No, it means we teach people about these things.” But Mr. Dalrymple said the notion that the public needs to be educated to appreciate Brutalism is like saying that people “need to be intimidated out of their taste.” No expertise is needed to decide that a building is ugly, he said, adding, “It’s an aesthetic judgment.”
    This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Correction: April 10, 2012 An article on Saturday about a dispute over whether to restore or demolish the Modernist county government center in Goshen, N.Y., designed by Paul Rudolph, misspelled the surname of an influential painter cited by a preservationist who said people should be taught to appreciate some works of modern art and architecture. He was Jackson Pollock, not Pollack.
    A version of this article appeared in print on April 7, 2012, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Architecture’s Ugly Ducklings May Not Get Time to Be Swans.

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  • Market Nears A Landmark .

    By LANA BORTOLOT

    Whole Foods Market Inc. faces a series of City Council votes starting next week to win final approval for construction of a 52,000-square-foot supermarket next to a 140-year-old landmark in Gowanus, Brooklyn.
    Eric Haugesag for The Wall Street JournalThe Coignet building today next to the planned Whole Foods grocery site
    The new store is planned to wrap around two sides of the vacant Coignet building, the city's earliest known concrete building, at the corner of Third Avenue and Third Street. After expected council approvals, the grocery chain would be allowed within five feet of the old building and wants to have its first Brooklyn store open in 2013. Built in 1872 for the New York & Long Island Coignet Stone Co., the 2½-story building is the sole survivor of a five-acre industrial park built along the Gowanus Canal in the early 1870s. The elegant Italianite mansion provided office space for Coignet and subsequent companies, including its longest-running tenant, the Brooklyn Improvement Co., from which Coignet leased the land for its stone works. "It's a lonely little building," said Jennifer Gardner, a researcher at the Gowanus Institute, a local think tank. "To some degree, the plans for that site will limit the opportunity for the [Coignet] building, but also provides a potential draw for people to see it and appreciate it in a different way." The building received city landmark status in 2006. Two City Council panels overseeing landmarks and planning will vote next week on whether to reduce the Coignet building's lot size to about 1,720 square feet from 6,250 square feet, a measure that's already been passed by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. If approved, a full City Council vote on the measure is slated for April 18. Some residents and preservationists still fear the landmark building will lose its prominence as it is enveloped by the store,
    Marlene Donnelly, Friends & Residents of Greater GowanusAn undated rendering of the Coignet building in Gowanus
    "It's strange to be shrinking a landmark site; it allows any site to be looked at as a development," said Nadezhda Williams of the Historic Districts Council, a preservation organization lobbying for rejection of the variance. "We need something more sympathetic, that doesn't take away its prominence." Ms. Williams and others point to the Fairway supermarket in Red Hook—which integrated unlandmarked Civil War-era warehouses into its design—as a model for treatment of the Coignet. The Brooklyn Navy Yard faces a related issue with its recent acquisition of Admiral's Row, which abuts the parcel designated for a 74,000-square-foot supermarket. Whole Foods doesn't own the Coignet building, but the food retailer plans to "give it a facelift" approved by the landmarks commission, said company spokesman Michael Sinatra. The grocer has no plans to rehab the interior or to use the historic building, whose owner, Richard Kowalski, couldn't be reached. Designed by William Field & Son, the curious building was a showcase for Beton Coignet, a new concrete developed in France by François Coignet in the 1850s. The Brooklyn mansion was built of the very material it championed and displayed various architectural features and ornament cast from molds, showing that concrete could replicate the stone-and-chisel method of old. "It was definitely an advertisement [for the company]. They put it on the most visible position on the lot," said Matthew Postal, a landmarks commission researcher who studied the Coignet building, "This is a building that was testing a new technology; it would be an engineering landmark." Noteworthy commissions using the new building material included portions of St. Patrick's Cathedral, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Cleft Ridge Span in Prospect Park, the oldest such arch in the country. Coignet also supplied concrete for new residential developments, simultaneously rising to prominence with the Brooklyn Improvement Co., founded by Edwin Clark Litchfield. Indeed, the Coignet stone works was the impetus for Mr. Litchfield to reactivate the Gowanus creek as a working waterway for transport of raw and finished materials. "It was a fully integrated site. One can only imagine the scale of that operation when it was fully activated," said Gregory Dietrich, a preservation consultant who is surveying the site for possible inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. Despite its successes, the Coignet company filed for bankruptcy in 1873 and the factory closed in 1882. The Coignet building housed the offices of Mr. Litchfield's company until 1957 and a variety of tenants until its final occupants left in the mid-1970s. "It's quite lovely and by any objective standards it represents an important architectural element in the Gowanus corridor that resonates with neighbors," said Craig Hammerman, district manager of Community Board Six, which includes Gowanus and which has supported the new Whole Foods store. "It is so highly distinctive I could see it easily being a museum—it has such an interesting story," Mr. Dietrich said. "It's a diamond in the rough." A version of this article appeared March 29, 2012, on page A24 in some U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Market Nears A Landmark.

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