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20 Architecture Critics Call on NY Public Library to Reconsider Norman Foster Renovation Plan

Ada Louise Huxtable, patron saint of NYC architecture critics Photo by Melanie Flood for New York Observer

Ada Louise Huxtable, patron saint of NYC architecture critics
Photo by Melanie Flood for New York Observer

The skeptical sensibility of our city’s preeminent architecture watchdog, Ada Louise Huxtable, lives on through her devoted disciples.

Some 20 architecture critics, including such notables as Martin Filler, Joseph Giovannini, Cathleen McGuigan, Victoria Newhouse and Suzanne Stephens, have shot off a letter to the NY Public Library’s board, citing Ada Louise’s “last essay (Wall Street Journal, Dec. 3, 2012) [that] criticized the New York Public Library’s plan to remove its seven stories of stacks in the main branch at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue to make room for a circulating library designed by Foster + Partners.”

Planned circulating library in area currently occupied by book stacks

Rendering of planned circulating library, in area currently occupied by book stacks

Urging the NYPL’s trustees “to reconsider their plans for the 42nd Street building,” the letter’s signatories wrote:

We, like [Michael] Kimmelman [my link, not theirs] are convinced the proposed intervention would do much to damage the architectural character and experience of Carrère and Hasting’s magnificent Beaux Arts landmark. The scholars among us do not object to the public or to teenagers sharing this space. But considering all the trade-offs, the library should seriously reconsider renovating the 40th Street branch for a circulating library where Foster’s talents could be used more appropriately.

Why is the board of the New York Public Library in such a rush that it remains deaf to the well-publicized misgivings of so many in the community? Before such an irreversible decision is made, we ask the board to stop and open the proposal affecting such a significant public institution to significant public discussion.

Although not a signatory to the letter, Bloomberg architecture critic James Russell has also expressed misgivings about Foster’s design.

In a letter published in Kimmelman’s own newspaper (NY Times), Norman Foster recently exploded in anger at the critic’s disapproval of his design plans, stating that Michael’s “diatribe about our design is both offensive [emphasis added] and premature.”

Foster

Norman Foster

Foster argued in his letter that “the option of doing nothing with the book stacks does not exist; they do not comply with current fire safety codes or book conservation standards. They cannot be adapted to comply, and therefore there is an opportunity to create a major public space for New Yorkers. The structural solution for removing the stacks uses tried-and-tested techniques, so there is no inherent risk of cost overruns.”

Speaking of “cost overruns,” the Times subsequently ran an article by Robin Pogrebin that cast doubt on the cost estimates put forth by the Library. Pogrebin quoted a letter sent to the NYPL’s board by it chairman, Neil Rudenstine, stating that “our…budget estimates [$300 million for the project] are reasonable, but even they cannot be refined with any precision [emphasis added] at this stage.”

I haven’t taken sides in this controversy, because I haven’t seen and analyzed the plans myself and I’m certainly not qualified to judge the engineering. But I do have deep respect for concerns expressed by so many distinguished critics. The NYPL and Foster should show similar respect, not responding with impatience or invective to reasonable disagreement.

Once the plans are finalized, the Library’s officials need to present to the public a more complete, detailed case for the design and its costs, with complete transparency and candor. They should then entertain comments and criticism, perhaps even making modifications based the feedback.

I will offer one opinion on the details of the plan: As much as I now like my life in New Jersey, this native New Yorker (who grew up in the branch libraries) thinks that the idea of shipping out more than a million books to be stored in my present home state is privileging modern amenties over the central library’s most basic raison d’être—to have on hand all the research resources that the library owns and that researchers might conceivably need. The NYPL board needs to keep its priorities straight.

I’ll say one more thing: Don’t mess with Ada Louise, even posthumously!

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