The latest news on New York architecture.

  • Preservation Nation

    Photo: © Jorge Salcedo
    The leafy streets of Boston’s landmarked Back Bay neighborhood.

    Is landmarking a shield or a sword in the fight against overdevelopment?

    By Ben Adler
    Among urbanists in America, the advent of landmark-preservation laws in the 1960s is usually viewed as an inspiring time in urban planning: Concerned communities, academics, and fans of architecture banded together to protect beloved old buildings from the grand plans of rich developers and powerful politicians. And, remarkably enough, the Davids usually defeated the Goliaths. But have they acquired too much power? So say a growing contingent of critics who believe preservation has gotten out of hand. They include left-leaning economic policy wonks, architects, and architectural critics. Landmarking is under attack on two fronts: architectural and economic. Critics in the first category are not opposed to landmarking, but worry that architecturally undistinguished buildings and neighborhoods are winning landmark status for political or sentimental reasons. The result, they say, is a public that embraces architectural nostalgia rather than innovation. At the same time, some economists and policy experts maintain that cities are limiting their economic potential by constraining the supply of new housing and commercial development through too much landmarking. The outcome: Most desirable cities are too expensive for middle-class families. This past year, Harvard economist Ed Glaeser, in his book Triumph of the City, attacked landmarking, along with such restrictions as zoning that limits density or requires parking lots. Glaeser points to the case of a proposed 30-story addition, designed by Norman Foster, at 980 Madison Avenue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, that was rejected by the Landmarks Preservation Commission even though it would have kept the original 1950 limestone gallery building as well. “The cost of restricted development is that protected areas become more expensive and exclusive,” writes Glaeser. Legions of urban policy bloggers around the country agree. The aesthetic critique of landmarking is also gaining currency. Rem Koolhaas mounted an exhibition at New York’s New Museum last spring that was a broadside against landmarking. “[Koolhaas] paints a picture of an army of well-meaning but clueless preservationists who, in their zeal to protect the world’s architectural legacies, end up debasing them by creating tasteful scenery for docile consumers while airbrushing out the most difficult chapters of history,” reported the New York Times. These issues may be most extreme in New York, where the razing of McKim, Mead & White’s Pennsylvania Station in 1963 still stings. But similar controversies have erupted in older cities across the country. What the Washington City Paper calls “the weaponization of preservation” includes the efforts of the Tenleytown Historical Society to prevent American University from expanding its campus by pushing landmark status for an entire block to protect the fairly banal 1904 Immaculata Seminary. In Boston, tradition often trumps the new. “The South End is very restrictive about what you can do to your buildings, in many cases with very good reason,” says architect and preservation expert David Fixler. Yet people can be prevented from making changes just “to keep things the way they are.” Sometimes officials require new construction be designed in an architecturally contextual manner, even when the building is an inherently modern structure. In San Francisco, on the other hand, the Historic Preservation Commission has responded to criticism that Modernism is underappreciated by seeking protection of such undistinguished modern buildings as the 1959 North Beach Branch Library. Critics and defenders of landmarking tend to agree on one key point: that the drive to landmark buildings of questionable significance is caused by a larger problem of communities feeling powerless to stop unwanted development. “Preservation has become an all-functioning tool for all sorts of operations,” says Sarah Williams Goldhagen, architecture critic for The New Republic. “It’s being used to prevent or to determine the direction of development because city planners are so disempowered, rather than because these buildings or districts are by any objective standards worth preserving.” Yet preserving historic buildings is important for cultural and even economic reasons. In the 1980s, New York City theater owners near Times Square were tempted to sell their buildings to developers who would put up office towers in their place. An economist like Glaeser might applaud such market efficiency. But New York’s historic theaters are part of the city’s identity. When the city landmarked the theaters, it allowed owners to sell development rights to adjacent parcels. Today, Times Square has tall office buildings as well as a vibrant theater district. “Tens of millions of dollars go into Broadway, and it’s a major economic engine for the city,” notes Simeon Bankoff of New York’s Historic Districts Council. “They’re only there because they’re landmarked.” Preservationists believe that central cities are economically successful because of landmark laws, not in spite of then. What Glaeser and others fail to appreciate is that there is excess demand to live in Manhattan or San Francisco precisely because of the architectural quality of the built environment. Ben Adler is a contributing writer for The Nation.

    Read more...
  • Park Avenue Armory

    Herzog & de Meuron
    Pattern Language: In an ongoing restoration and renovation of a New York City landmark, the architects bring subtlety and boldness to the process.

    By Suzanne Stephens

    Certain modern architects view the restoration of historic buildings like an archaeological dig that exhumes alterations over time and places the resulting evidence on display. Basel-based architects Herzog & de Meuron (with Platt Byard Dovell White as executive architect) approached the restoration of the Park Avenue Armory between 66th and 67th Streets in New York in this manner. The architects also introduce an intriguing process where their own interventions add a new layer to their exposure of the sediments of history.

    The Armory, a Gothic Revival brick fortress designed by Charles Clinton in 1880 for the Seventh Regiment of the National Guard, required repair work on the exterior along with requisite infrastructural and code-compliant upgrades. In addition to the revitalization of a 55,000-square-foot drill hall, the team confronted an array of 18 period rooms originally fitted out by legendary designers, architects, and decorators such as Louis C. Tiffany's Associated Artists, Stanford White, and the Herter Brothers. Some of the art-encrusted rooms used by the affluent volunteers to the National Guard remain almost intact; others were shabbily altered. In 2006, the nonprofit Park Avenue Armory Conservancy, with Rebecca Robertson as president and executive director, leased the five-story structure from the state to create an adventurous arts venue for dance, theater, and art performances, plus exhibitions, along with artists-in-residence studios. (And it will still continue to house 100 homeless women in its upper reaches.) The $200 million restoration—of which $84 million has been spent—is expected to be completed in five years.

    While the Conservancy wanted to keep the lushness of the late-19th-century architecture and design, Robertson feared the stiffness and embalmed quality of meticulous period restorations. She turned to Herzog & de Meuron, impressed by the firm's inventive deployment of materials, surfaces, and craft in its work. “Seeing the copper-clad Signal Box in Basel [1995] was crucial,” she says. In the fall of 2011, two period rooms by Herzog & de Meuron opened to the public. As partner Ascan Mergenthaler explains, the team worked with each room's basic identity, choosing not to eliminate all traces of later modifications. The idea was to show the evolution of the rooms “as a wash of time,” in Robertson's words. The tortuous task involved delayering (manually or chemically stripping recent accretions from the surfaces) as well as overprinting (see below), which simulates abstractly underlying patterns—in addition to cleaning and restoration. With the second floor's Renaissance Revival room for Company D, designed in 1880 by Pottier & Stymus, the team restored the original mahogany woodwork, plus a herringbone parquet floor that replaced the 1880 one.

    Originally, the ceilings and walls were stenciled, but later had been covered by Adamesque plaster scrollwork and painted, with other areas concealed by plasterboard. Where areas were damaged by the removal of the scrollwork and other scars of use, the team glazed the surface with a reddish field color discovered to be typical of the background's metallic paints. The stenciling under the plasterboard remained intact in the delayering. In the next part of the process, the architects printed a new pattern on top of the original circular stenciling to create an integrated tracery that picked up the background's copper tones. The stenciled, laser-cut pattern appears distinct from the original stenciling owing to its abstraction of basic geometric shapes, but retains the size and proportions of existing patterns, albeit emphasized with a metallic shimmer. The architects also designed a chandelier similar in proportion to the original gaslit one, but this time with copper arms and tinted-glass globes over halogen lamps. New copper chain-link curtains add a gleam to the room while shielding glare from the windows (aided by window coverings).

    All of this subtle surgery creates an evocative space for small dinners and receptions and requires more than one keen glance to know that a modern architect was there. Another room on the second floor, for Company E, also decorated in 1880 by Pottier & Stymus in the Renaissance Revival style, offers an easier setting in which to detect the presence of the modern architect. A new gridded bronze lighting fixture dominates the space. Here, too, Herzog & de Meuron removed the Tudor Revival plaster strapwork and wallpaper, added in 1892, to reveal the earlier stenciling, and repaired damaged spots with plaster in a copper field color matching the surroundings. Since the room will be used for small theatrical and musical performances, the team wanted a lighting fixture that could be raised and lowered. While the modern fixture seems ungainly in comparison with the firm's more nuanced gestures, it fits in with the raw, austere look of the cleaned oak paneling. One of Herzog & de Meuron's more daring future proposals concerns the Colonel's Reception Room on the south side of the first floor, originally designed by the Herter Brothers. Its French black walnut paneling has remained reasonably intact, yet almost everything above a certain datum is too far gone to be delayered. So the architects suggest covering upper woodwork—which had been added later—plus walls and ceiling with a removable white paint. Since the space is planned to be used as a conductor's suite and for other events, the mixed time warp arguably would provide an arresting backdrop. Nearby they envision converting a room into a copper-lined “megavator” to take heavy loads to the second floor, and for a moving performance space.

    Not every move is as provocative: Herzog & de Meuron is making few visible interventions in the Wade Thompson Drill Hall, now the arena for a number of theatrical and dance productions. Nevertheless, the firm hopes to strip the lower parts of the hall to reveal the full arc of the room's barrel-vaulted cast-iron trusses. Then on the first floor, the Field and Staff Room, also designed by Pottier & Stymus, replete with taxidermied animal heads, will be redone as a bar, with a new copper ceiling, chandelier, and fittings. The architects' proposal for the mostly intact library on the other side of the main corridor involves taking the room originally designed by Louis C. Tiffany's Associated Artists, with a young Stanford White as consultant, back to its 1880 decorative scheme, lost in part after its conversion to a trophy gallery.

    For its new use as an archive for the history of the Armory, Herzog & de Meuron plans to repaint the ceiling where the original panels are too far gone, and reinstate bookshelves. The restoration should complement the intact Veterans Room next door, also executed by Tiffany, White, et al. The architects' efforts so far have generated a refulgent ambience with a warm coppery glow, a burnished gleam in the walls and ceilings, and a lustrous sheen of the wood paneling. As Jorge Otero-Pailos states (page 42), Herzog & de Meuron's work specializes in echoing the original, transformed by time.

    The ingenious approach shows that today's modern architects can still capture a sense of the new, while enhancing and revivifying the old.

    Architect: Herzog & de Meuron

    Executive Architect: Platt Byard Dovell White

    Location: 643 Park Avenue, New York, USA

    Completion Date: (partial) October 2011

    Gross square footage: 190,000 square feet

    Cost: $84 million to date

    Read more...