The latest news on New York architecture.

  • Killing Modernism with Fuzzy Math, Bad Information and False Choices

    Modernism, despite the popularity of Mad Men and shelter magazines like Dwell, is under assault. Iconic works of architecture and landscape architecture from the 1960s and 1970s have a particularly high mortality rate, though because of cultural and other biases, it's usually the endangered buildings we hear about and not the landscapes. Two places, both recognized as Modernist masterworks, are currently facing complete destruction; one received front-page New York Times coverage on April 7, 2012, and the other deserves the same level of national attention.

    Orange County Government Center designed by Paul Rudolph. Image © Theodore Prudon and reproduced courtesy written permission of Theodore Prudon.
      The Paul Rudolph-designed Orange County Government Center in Goshen, New York, writes New York Times reporter Robin Pogrebin, is considered a landmark by some and an eyesore by others. However, the decision on whether to renovate or demolish it apparently hinges not on aesthetics, but on costs. According to Pogrebin: "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." Obviously, someone needs to check the math -- budget figures, like economics, statistics and opinion polls, can be manipulated to yield a predetermined outcome. I'll leave you to read Pogrebin's piece and turn to the case that deserves national attention.
    Peavey Plaza, Minneapolis, MN. Image courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation.
      In Minneapolis, the M. Paul Friedberg-designed Peavey Plaza is also slated for demolition because the city says the site is in poor condition and restoration would cost too much money. For those who don't know about Peavey, it's located downtown adjacent to Orchestra Hall and a block from Target's corporate headquarters. Peavey is a two-acre "park plaza," as Friedberg calls it, "a mixture of the American green space and the European hard space" that was completed in 1973. According to the AIA [American Institute of Architects] Guide to the Twin Cities, "The plaza is considered a highpoint of modern-period landscape architecture in Minneapolis." Even today, nearly 40 years after its completion, the integrity of this Modernist gem is very high and the design largely intact. Nevertheless, officials at Orchestra Hall, which is undergoing a $45 million renovation, have decided Peavey doesn't work for them and should be replaced.
    Peavey Plaza, Minneapolis, MN. Image courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation.
      Peavey Plaza does need help. I know because, as I've written before, M. Paul Friedberg and I were on the team led by the Minneapolis-based landscape architecture firm Oslund and Associates the city selected to develop plans for the site. Unfortunately, Paul and I were shut out of the process before we could propose solutions that would maintain the integrity of Peavey's design while meeting contemporary demands and requirements, such as accessibility. The city seems to have skillfully stacked the deck against Peavey by creating a false set of choices; essentially, restore Peavey to its original condition or create something new. Strangely, the only people insisting complete restoration is an option are city officials. Friedberg and I never advocated that, as we explained in an October 27, 2011 Minneapolis Star Tribune commentary, and preservation organizations locally and nationally have all endorsed the idea of adapting Peavey to address accessibility and other issues, while maintaining the integrity of its major design elements. Indeed, Friedberg has offered to share design solutions that address these concerns with Mayor RT Rybak, the City Council and others who have been pushing to demolish Peavey.
    Peavey Plaza, Minneapolis, MN. Image courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation.
      Unfortunately, the city seems determined to get its way and has come up with some head-spinning lines of reasoning. For example, the city's Department of Community Planning and Economic Development (DCPED) in a recent report supporting demolition has implied that adding an accessibility ramp to Peavey's existing design is a bad idea. Why? Because DCPED says it "would substantially alter the original design." Their solution? Destroy Peavey altogether. Can someone explain the logic of this argument? That's about as sane as saying the light bulbs in your house aren't energy efficient, so we're tearing down your house to solve the problem. They city has also cited the poor condition of Peavey, yet in their recently filed demolition permitthey admitted their direct role in the problem:
    An intentional effort has been made in recent years to hold the line on maintenance costs, including the decision not to repair some fountains and other infrastructure and to reduce the staff time at the plaza.
      The city also says complete restoration of Peavey Plaza, which they claim is the most expensive option, would cost $8.7 million. However, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, in their editorial endorsing a new park design, estimates the total cost for the new park at $8 to 10 million, which means the complete restoration false choice is comparable or possibly less expensive. Setting aside that complete restoration false choice thing, if the city insists on pushing this argument, someone needs to check the math. How did the city come up with this number? What's it based on? And, more importantly, against what other budget is this being compared? Where's the budget for the new park?
    Peavey Plaza, Minneapolis, MN. Image courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation.
      The city has also said: "Any rebuilding/renovation scenario will require millions of dollars in donations/private dollars." Shouldn't we ask those potential donors what they think? Let's go through the likely candidates, starting with those on the Orchestra Hall board: Wells Fargo, U.S. Bancorp, General Mills, and RBC Wealth Management, or maybe their neighbor Target. OK, but the city has also said, "potential funders will not contribute millions of dollars to restore the plaza to its original design because it cannot address accessibility, safety, and sustainability issues adequately." A couple of problems here: 1. There's the circular logic of that complete restoration false option again (does anyone else feel like they're watching a cat chase its tail?) 2. It's sounds like the city has already poisoned the well for any options other than destruction. Once Rybak gets his big hole in the ground, funders will miraculously come tumbling of the sky like so many putti from the clouds in an Italian Baroque painting to pay for the new park.
    Peavey Plaza, Minneapolis, MN. Image courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation.
      The next phase is a hearing before the city's Historic Preservation Commission (HPC), which released the DCPED's demolition recommendation on April 6 (both Passover and Good Friday! Talk about burying a story). They can decide to approve or reject the demolition, or postpone it for 180 days to allow for additional review. One of the commission members is Linda Mack, a former Minneapolis Star Tribune architecture critic who helped select the architect for Orchestra Hall's renovation and was, as the Star Tribune noted, a "communications adviser to Oslund and Associates," who led the Peavey redesign process. I think it's fair to ask if Ms. Mack has had any involvement whatsoever, including any formal or informal discussions with other commission members and staff, about the future of Peavey, and whether she will be voting on the DCPED's demolition recommendation. The city, if it offers any rebuttal, will go through its usual litany of talking points about open and public process, and so on. Sorry, but repeating something often enough doesn't make it true -- remember that whole thing about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? Friedberg recently told me that while working on Peavey in the 1970's he, "was so impressed with the integrity that [Minneapolis] had, [it] stood out as a special place, their politics, their civic duty. They made sure everyone had a voice." Not anymore.
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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.
    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.