The latest news on New York architecture.

  • A new report could uncouple environmental sustainability and historic preservation

    Should NYC Raze Its Wasteful Modernist Skyscrapers to Go Green? nyc-skyline-1 Kelly Chan investigates for Blouin Artinfo Last year marked the first year New York City’s commercial buildings were mandated to publicly disclose their energy usage levels, and with that, some of the city’s most esteemed works of architecture were subjected to a new wave of scrutiny. While the recently completed 7 World Trade Center clocked in with an admirable score of 74, the much-admired 1958 Seagram Building scored an abysmal 3, casting midcentury design in a troubling new light. Could certain icons of the built environment be too harmful for the natural environment? Last month, a research and consulting firm known as Terrapin Bright Green addressed this exact query. With their recently published report “Midcentury (Un)Modern: An Environmental Analysis of the 1958-73 Manhattan Office Building,” the group brought two ethical debates in the field to a head by articulating the long-term environmental benefits of demolishing and replacing the city’s first wave of glass curtain wall office towers — the architectural cohort of Seagram. If the conclusion of the report is accepted, it could uncouple what the it terms the “sister ethics” of environmental sustainability and historic preservation and justify potentially invasive development in some of Manhattan’s most iconic neighborhoods. For the authors of the report, the initiative most closely linked to the new research is PlaNYC, a Bloomberg administration agenda that lists a 30 percent reduction in the city’s carbon footprint by 2030 among its many long-term goals. “We realized that in 2030, 85 percent of the buildings that will exist then are already here,” Bob Fox of COOKFOX Architects, a design firm deeply involved with Terrapin’s research, explained to ARTINFO. “So if all the new buildings had no carbon footprint, we still couldn’t reach the goal without either seriously retrofitting or dealing with the existing buildings in New York City in a very serious way.” With this challenge in mind, Terrapin Bright Green identified the first generation modern office tower, a typological mainstay in midtown and parts of lower Manhattan, as a candidate for serious reevaluation. For Terrapin, these iconic buildings provided multiple opportunities for improved energy efficiency. The group, which has historically advocated for the retrofitting of buildings such as the White House, the Pentagon, and the Empire State Building to reach new sustainability goals, concluded that retrofitting the midcentury skyscrapers in question could yield an impressive 44 percent reduction in energy usage. But the report also goes on to explore a second avenue, arguing the advantages of demolishing and replacing midcentury towers with brand new high-performance buildings. There is no disputing that New York’s midcentury office towers cannot compete with most new constructions on the energy savings front. Terrapin’s case studies suggest that even while considering the energy required to raze an existing building and construct a new one, the energy savings of a new skyscraper — if designed properly — could compensate for its initial negative impact on the environment in 16 to 28 years. What is open to debate, however, is how Terrapin links the two halves of their analysis. “Midcentury (Un)Modern” hangs its argument on several key assumptions that get buried in the stream of charts, graphs, and bullet points: The report prematurely concludes that, under current conditions, deep retrofitting is an impractical option because owners of these office towers have little economic incentive to invest in extensive renovation: The tight column spacing, low ceiling heights, and inefficient structural organizations of these buildings make for undesirable workspaces by contemporary standards, problems no retrofit can resolve. With no potential to increase rent or occupancy, the retrofitting option emerges as a poor investment. In fact, William Browning, a primary author of Terrapin’s report, believes such buildings have not already been replaced because many of them are “overbuilt,” meaning their developers exploited a short-term loophole to construct these buildings in greater bulk — and thus with more rentable floor area — than current zoning will allow. These assumed economic impediments to retrofitting set the stage for counterarguments to Terrapin’s analysis. For Simeon Bankoff, director of New York City’s Historic Districts Council, another Bloomberg initiative — one that falls outside of PlaNYC’s eco-friendly agenda — paints Terrapin’s rhetoric in a darker way: the proposed rezoning of Midtown East, which offers, as Bankoff explained ARTINFO, to “up-zone the entire area in order to encourage ‘signature architecture’ and to revitalize what has been described by proponents of the plan as obsolete or underperforming buildings. With the emergence of this plan, it became evident that the ground had shifted, and that 17-story buildings could be replaced with 30-story buildings.” Bankoff points out that by the same logic Terrapin introduces in its report to say that retrofitting is impractical, the high-performance replacement buildings being recommended would have to be significantly larger — exceeding zoning regulations as they stand now — and have significantly more rentable floor area to incentivize developers to invest in razing and rebuilding office towers. “They were taking as one of their principles that they would be able to build much, much bigger,” Bankoff explained. This supposition is based on yet another assumption: that New York needs bigger and more high-profile office towers. “They’re premising what businesses will need in five years based on what businesses needed in hindsight five years ago,” Bankoff added. The takeaway, then, is that the green element of “Midcentury (Un)Modern” is premised not only on hard-and-fast facts about the environment but also on predictions about something mercurial and manmade: the market economy. Whether or not it is the intent of the report to exploit current environmental concerns to green-light private development, as Bankoff implies, if its research is misinterpreted, it could potentially rationalize the aggressive reorganization of Manhattan at the expense of some important rudiments of the city’s architectural heritage. While Terrapin is not encouraging the complete erasure of this chapter of architectural history — the Seagram Building, the U.N. Building, and the Lever House are exempt, for instance — authors Browning and Fox have stressed that the towers the report addresses were actually not built to last: “They were all cost-driven. Speed of construction was very important,” Fox said, speaking from his experience as a practitioner during the midcentury era. “I don’t think anyone who was building them then envisioned that they would still be here — we thought they would last for 20 years.” This brings up a new question of whether or not the intent of an architectural design dictates the fate of the architecture once it is realized. But for Bankoff, the architecture has taken on a life of its own. “Those buildings were mostly built under old zoning,” he explained. “From an urban design and art perspective, it’s a very interesting response to the confines of zoning using modern materials.” He stressed how these provisional solutions have become a part of the enduring imagery of the city, how the signature zigzagging setbacks of these glass-and-steel towers provided the backdrop for countless television shows and movies, becoming an iconic milieu that could stand to disappear if not properly safeguarded. “They were incredibly evocative of what America was doing at the time,” he said, speaking of an era that is slowly gaining currency in contemporary historiographies. “Those buildings are the natural environment of Don Draper.”

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  • Jerry Saltz and Justin Davidson on the ARO's Restoration of Donald Judd’s Loft

      In 1968, Donald Judd — the artist known for his boxy, implacable sculptures and wall pieces — paid $68,000 for 101 Spring Street, a graceful but dilapidated five-story cast-iron building, and began his renovation by hauling out truckloads of trash. Over the years, he kept installing art and modifying the architecture in pursuit of an ideal balance. After his death in 1994, the building sat, stilled. Starting on June 3, after a three-year, $23 million restoration, the Judd Foundation will open 101 Spring to the public for guided tours in groups of eight by reservation. Art critic Jerry Saltz and architecture critic Justin Davidson walked through it together. Justin Davidson: This house feels like the total work of art. We get to see how Judd slept in a Judd bed, ate at a Judd table, washed his hands in a Judd sink, and enjoyed the art he and his friends made. You can’t wander on your own, but the trade-off is that you don’t have to peer at a room from behind a rope. So what do you think, Jerry — is this a platonic ideal of how his life and work should be experienced? Jerry Saltz: Judd had no use for disembodied platonic ideals. He’s totally anti-mystical, very American. For him, space is a living substance, not an empty chamber that God and ideas inhabit. I’ve been in a million lofts, and this one has the most palpable, even sensual feeling I’ve ever encountered. When I’m inside the space, I’m part of it; it’s part of me. It’s trippy and physical. J.D.: I love the space, too, but I guess I’m thinking a bit more concretely. On a beautiful spring day, the light coming in those enormous windows with the rippled glass makes the art glow. That effect doesn’t come easily or cheaply: Architecture Research Office, the firm that oversaw the renovation, made a lot of great invisible decisions. They had to perform all kinds of contortions to meet fire code without just closing off a stair or slapping big old sprinklers on the ceilings. As with all minimalist architecture, achieving simplicity means hiding a lot of mess. J.S.: Ugh — Judd loathed the word minimalism. J.D.: But it’s a legitimate description of his style, isn’t it? J.S.: It’s more of a shorthand label for his whole philosophy. In the early sixties, a number of artists were working in that vein, but Judd applied those ideas to sculpture, painting, furniture, and architecture. He coined the term specific object to describe his work and that of friends like Dan Flavin and John Chamberlain. It meant that when you looked at a fluorescent-light piece by Flavin that it was no longer a fixture, or hardware, or a familiar idea of sculpture. Boom! It’s a specific object. To me 101 Spring Street has become a specific object — a great one. J.D.: It looks really handmade to me, which is sort of surprising. Judd often had others fabricate his work, but the house feels like he took out a hammer and banged everything together himself. And the result is almost a movie set. It tells a story. Look at the floors: The wavy boards on the ground level are gouged, patched, and stained, but the fourth floor is all freshly shined planks. Those floorboards narrate the transformation of a factory into the giant garbage can it was when Judd bought it, then into his home and laboratory, and now into a ravishing diorama. J.S.: Judd would yell at you for thinking that. Calling it a diorama implies being on the outside, looking in at something fabricated and artificial. Of course, I’m told he’d yell at pretty much anyone for anything. J.D.: Don’t you think there’s some irony here, though? Judd hated museums, so he created this place as a living antidote. But now it’s become — dare I say it? — a house museum. How could it be anything else? J.S.: Well, if you just go for the museum part, there are A1 masterpieces of art here by Flavin, Chamberlain, Stella, ­Oldenburg, Andre. In Advance of the Broken Arm, my favorite ­Duchamp ready-made, is here, and it’s my fave because it’s the least aesthetic of all. Could the architects have done something to make it more alive for you? J.D.: I think they got the restoration just right, mostly by being obsessive about authentic detail. Judd finished a wall with cheapo, rough commercial plaster, and you can’t get that stuff anymore — it’s all much silkier now — so to get the same sloppy effect, they had to do research and mix a custom batch. Hardly anybody would notice that, but it contributes to the texture of the experience. Of course, it would look even more authentic if they blew soot all over it. J.S.: I love that it’s been restored this way. It’s an important step in righting the Judd ship — a toehold in New York. Right now, people are able to see most of Judd’s ideas in Marfa [the small Texas town that he turned into a contemporary-art center], but not here. He’s a genuine American genius on the level of Frank Lloyd Wright and Emerson, and some of that genius is this building. It’s not a “how the great man lived” mausoleum or reliquary. It embodies how he thought about and understood environment; redefined what usage is; and explored different vocabularies of the nonlinear, nonverbal logic of experiencing space. The building and its rooms are a map for the future to decipher, an atlas of ways to plumb space. J.D.: And he did all that in a building that already existed! J.S.: You know, that makes me wonder: What do architects make of him today? J.D.: I think they’ve internalized many of his ideas about reclaiming old materials and opening up spaces without acknowledging where they came from. It’s amazing how many of Judd’s experiments later turned into clichés of industrial chic: the tension between vast rooms and little nooks, the sleeping lofts, the steel sink, the pine-board shelves. It was an idiosyncratic DIY design approach that’s since been totally commercialized. J.S. He changed the way the world looked, and the way we look at the world. I revere him. *This article originally appeared in the May 27, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.

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