The latest news on New York architecture.

  • MoMA taps DS+R for expansion

    Robin Pogrebin reports for The New York Times on the latest developments in MoMA's expansion and the future of Williams & Tsien's AFAM. AFTER impassioned protests from prominent architects, preservationists and design critics, the Museum of Modern Art said on Thursday that it would reconsider its decision to demolish its next-door neighbor, the former home of the American Folk Art Museum, to make room for an expansion. In a board meeting on Thursday morning, the directors were told that a board committee had selected the design firm Diller Scofidio & Renfro to handle the expansion and to help determine whether to keep any of the existing structure. “We’re going to try to create the best building we can create,” Jerry I. Speyer, the real estate developer and MoMA chairman, said in an interview. “Whether we include Folk Art or not, as is, is an open question.” That question, MoMA said, will be guided by the extension’s architects. “The principals of Diller Scofidio & Renfro have asked that they be given the time and latitude to carefully consider the entirety of the site, including the former American Folk Art Museum building, in devising an architectural solution to the inherent challenges of the project,” said Glenn D. Lowry, MoMA’s director, in a memo sent on Thursday to his trustees and staff. “We readily agreed to consider a range of options, and look forward to seeing their results.” In a statement, the Diller firm, which was responsible for the redevelopment of Lincoln Center’s campus, said MoMA had granted its request for “the time and flexibility to explore a full range of programmatic, spatial and urban options.” “These possibilities include, but are not limited to, integrating the former American Folk Art Museum building, designed by our friends and admired colleagues, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien,” the statement continued. In its original announcement last month, MoMA officials said the former Folk Art building needed to be razed because its opaque facade did not fit in with the glass aesthetic of the rest of the museum, and because the floors would not align. One person involved in the plans, who was not authorized to comment and therefore spoke on condition of anonymity, said that MoMA was still likely to arrive at the same conclusion. “Everybody likes the building, but it’s hard to keep it — the floors don’t line up,” the person said. “If I showed you the plans, you would say, ‘I don’t know how to do it.’ “ The Folk Art building, at 45 West 53rd Street, was well received when it opened in 2001, partly for its striking bronze facade and partly because it signaled the city’s recovery from Sept. 11. But the museum was also criticized as a cramped place in which to view art, because of its narrow galleries. The MoMA expansion would consist of five buildings, including an 82-story residential tower just west of the folk museum. Designed by the French architect Jean Nouvel, the high-rise is being developed by Hines, a Houston company, and will also include exhibition space for the museum. The museum’s initial decision to raze the building stirred dismay from its architects, Mr. Williams and Ms. Tsien. “I do think it’s a one-of-a-kind building and I’m sorry that it couldn’t become part of MoMA’s collection,” Ms. Tsien said in an interview at the time. Ms. Tsien and Mr. Williams were traveling in Egypt on Thursday and unavailable for comment. Many prominent architects joined the outcry, including Richard Meier, Thom Mayne, Steven Holl, Hugh Hardy and Robert A. M. Stern. They added their names to a letter written by the Architectural League of New York, a nonprofit organization, and signed by members of its board of directors. “The Museum of Modern Art — the first museum with a permanent curatorial department of architecture and design — should provide more information about why it considers it necessary to tear down this significant work of contemporary architecture,” the letter said. “The public has a substantial and legitimate interest in this decision, and the Museum of Modern Art has not yet offered a compelling justification for the cultural and environmental waste of destroying this much-admired, highly distinctive 12-year-old building.” Many architecture critics also objected. “If a commercial developer were to tear down a small, idiosyncratic and beautifully wrought museum in order to put up a deluxe glass box, it would be attacked as a venal and philistine act,” wrote Justin Davidson in New York magazine. “When a fellow museum does the same thing, it’s even worse — it’s a form of betrayal.” MoMA’s 2004 renovation, designed by the Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi, increased the museum’s gallery space, but the museum said it still needs more room for exhibitions. The expansion is expected to give the museum about 10,000 square feet of additional gallery space at the former folk art site and about 40,000 in the Nouvel building. The Modern wants its second, fourth and fifth floors to line up with those in the other two buildings. (The second-floor galleries are double height.) The content of these new galleries and the cost of the project are still to be determined, MoMA has said. The folk art museum had hoped the location next to MoMA would help stimulate its growth. But it struggled and ended up selling the property to MoMA to pay off $32 million it borrowed to finance an expansion. The folk art museum now operates at a smaller site on Lincoln Square, at West 66th Street.

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  • Robert A. M. Stern on Midtown East Rezoning

    A Modern City in East Midtown? By ROBERT A. M. STERN Published: April 21, 2013     Last summer the Department of City Planning released its East Midtown study, envisioning a taller, denser, shinier future for the neighborhood around Grand Central. New and more liberal regulations that will allow bigger office towers are on their way to the City Council for approval before the end of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s current term. But what is a modern city, exactly? And is New York really in danger of falling behind new global cities like Shanghai? With district improvement bonuses, the City Planning study proposes to double the developable floor area on some sites around Grand Central, allowing enough additional square footage to give us a neighborhood of towering office buildings, some as tall as 1,300 feet or more. (For reference, the Chrysler Building is 1,046 feet to the top of its spire.) I’m nearly always an advocate of density: it’s socially beneficial and environmentally responsible. And I like tall buildings as much as the next architect, especially if I’m asked to design them. But the advantages of density can go only so far without the infrastructure to support it. And the appropriateness of tall buildings is a question of where and when, and what they contribute to the public realm. Let’s all admit that the Pan Am Building, now MetLife, was a mistake in 1963, and is still a mistake from an urbanistic point of view. It disrupted the vista down Park Avenue that had become an essential part of our city. Are we preparing to make the same mistake again, on multiple sites? The rezoning study makes no mention of protected-view corridors. Can we guarantee that in the future the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building will not be lost in thickets of taller buildings? And what of our streets and subway platforms? I commute through Grand Central several times a week, and at 6:20 a.m., when I catch my train to New Haven, the terminal is already full of people. When I return at 6:30 or 7 p.m., I can hardly make my way to the stairways and escalators that lead to the Lexington Avenue subway platforms. How will the added workers quartered in these new buildings get from their trains to their desks? The plan says that special assessments and payments in lieu of taxes will guarantee “pedestrian network improvements as development occurs.” There is nothing wrong with privately financed infrastructure improvements. But the study, if I read it correctly, gets it backward: first you put in the infrastructure, then you build the buildings. Look at the example of Grand Central, the private enterprise that spurred all this development in the first place. What lessons should we take from other great cities? In the early 1990s, Shanghai organized a special economic zone that led to the development of a financial hub in Pudong, on land previously occupied by warehouses and wharves. Towers sprouted to create an instant iconic skyline, but with a regrettable, scaleless urban moonscape below. Should we in New York in 2013 emulate the Shanghai of the 1990s? Or should we heed the lesson the Chinese themselves have subsequently learned, that saving old buildings and neighborhoods is essential to the continued vitality of great cities? In Shanghai, the pre-World War II buildings along the Bund, which loom so very large in the city’s appeal, have been saved and repurposed. Nearby, at Xintiandi, a historic residential neighborhood of stone houses and tight alleys has been transformed into a chic, walkable retail and entertainment district. Terminal City, a sophisticated mix of hotels, clubs, office buildings and residential blocks at the heart of East Midtown, was built on platforms bridging the rail yards north of Grand Central. It was a bold plan to create valuable real estate where once there had been urban blight. As much as anything, this development created what the world knows today as Midtown Manhattan. Some judicious pruning is no doubt appropriate, but are the right areas being targeted? In the center of the study’s bull’s-eye diagram are buildings worth preserving: George B. Post’s Roosevelt Hotel, the Yale Club by James Gamble Rogers, Carrère & Hastings’s historically important Liggett Building and Arthur Loomis Harmon’s extraordinary Shelton Club Hotel, now a Marriott, which inspired artists like Georgia O’Keeffe to some of their best work. Those and other distinguished buildings have come to define the area around Grand Central, but are not yet official landmarks. Instead of blindly targeting what is oldest for replacement, as the study does, why not develop a thoughtful preservation plan that takes a broad look at what is worth saving? In fact, the best path toward ensuring the future of East Midtown may well be that of preservation. Preservation, which too many in the real estate community reflexively oppose, has been a better stimulant for development than rezoning. SoHo and the Flatiron district were two of the most moribund parts of the city in the 1960s and ’70s; once they were designated as historic districts, the fortunes that poured in made them more vital than ever. We can do the same in East Midtown. The historic hotels and older office buildings of Terminal City could be repurposed for residential uses (and, I might add, the Yale Club is doing just fine). Some of these older buildings, their futures uncertain, may look a little dowdy today, but I’m confident that the stability that landmark designation provides would lead owners and developers to rediscover their intrinsic value. Our diversity, and the fact that we don’t look like Pudong, is the reason many creative types choose New York over the bland banalities of Silicon Valley, just as in London, they’ve chosen Clerkenwell over Canary Wharf, and in Paris, just about anywhere over La Défense. Why do tourists flock here? Because we are what we are. As we go forward, we need to evolve, not copy someplace else. We can’t sacrifice our legacy for the benefit of a small group of property owners, especially when other, less controversial sites, with the potential for visionary large-scale urbanism on par with the potential that Terminal City seized 100 years ago, are gaining momentum. At its most fundamental level, the problem with the so-called planning study is that it’s not a plan. It trusts that developers will build world-class buildings, and that we’ll sort out the public realm as we go. It looks to improve East Midtown by adding world-class office stock, but it dices the neighborhood into independent development zones with little broader thinking. There’s nothing of the unified vision that gave us Rockefeller Center, with its iconic Channel Gardens, its world-famous ice rink and its shop-lined indoor passageways that connect office buildings to subways. The proposed East Midtown up-zoning doesn’t give anything back to New York. It’s all about real estate and not about place-making, or should I say, place-saving. Even with 80 percent of its building stock over 50 years old, East Midtown is today, in the words of the planning study, “the best business address in the world.” Let’s keep it that way. Robert A. M. Stern, architect, is dean of the Yale School of Architecture and a co-author of a series of books about architecture and urbanism in New York.

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