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March 16, 2005


Francis Morrone writes

Dear Blowhards,

It looks like curtains for the old Gallery of Modern Art at Columbus Circle.

Do you know this building?

Gallery of Modern Art.jpg

On February 25, David W. Dunlap wrote in the New York Times (site registration required):

After being delayed more than a year by litigation, the plan to reclad and recreate 2 Columbus Circle as the new home of the Museum of Arts and Design is poised to proceed after a court decision in its favor yesterday.

A five-judge panel of the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court unanimously upheld the earlier dismissal by Justice Walter B. Tolub of a lawsuit against the reconstruction project by three preservation groups--Landmark West, Historic Districts Council and Docomomo.

"Now, we're full steam ahead," said Laurie Beckelman, the director of the new building program at the museum. She said the project, designed by Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works Architecture, might begin by the middle of this year and be completed in mid-2007.

(Here is a brief recent article from New York magazine showing the old and proposed new buildings in side by side images. Here is the web site of Brad Cloepfil's Allied Works Architecture. Click on "updates" in the upper right corner.)

That news report, together with Daniel Zalewski's recent New Yorker profile of Rem Koolhaas (not, alas, online), together with Donald Pittenger's excellent recent comments on his formal mis-education in art and architecture (here, here, and here), opened up a string of my own memories of a period (of my own schooling) in which the conventional historiography of modern architecture, and in particular New York architecture, changed irrevocably. Here's a brief chronology:

  • 1975: The Museum of Modern Art presents the exhibition The Architecture of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts
  • 1978: Delirious New York by Rem Koolhaas is published by Oxford University Press
  • 1981: Tom Wolfe's From Bauhaus to Our House is published by Farrar Straus Giroux
  • None of these means very much to me anymore, though each struck me with some force at the time, for each seemed to vindicate the love of certain kinds of architecture that had been written out of history.

    Let's start with the MoMA show. Wow. Who would have ever thought such a thing possible? Ada Louise Huxtable in the Times was very equivocal in her assessment. Yes, she said, that 19th-century Beaux-Arts stuff was all right in its time and place (and to say that was a big concession when for years Nikolaus Pevsner, the most influential architectural historian of the 20th century, had been saying that virtually the entire 19th century had been one big mistake), but, Huxtable said:

    It is hard, even for would-be revivalists, to rationalize the logic and costs of the grafting of classical forms and orders intrinsic to masonry construction onto the totally different requirements of modern steel and concrete. It is equally hard to fit the straitjacket of academic classicism on the many new building forms required by the 20th century, even if craftsmen were not extinct.

    Can't you just imagine that some Ada Louise Huxtable of ancient Rome was around saying: "It is hard to rationalize the grafting of orders onto the totally different requirements of arch and vault construction"? And isn't it amazing how that "straitjacket" proved so adaptable to such new building types and forms of the 19th century as railroad stations, public libraries, museums, and tall office buildings?

    Rem Koolhaas certainly wasn't interested in classical forms and orders. But he was interested in some of the rest of what the official historiography had sent down the proverbial memory-hole. Daniel Zalewski has written a lengthy and telling profile of the Dutch architect in the New Yorker of March 14. Koolhaas, for some of us, stands for what is most spurious in the archi-culture of today. But when he burst upon our consciousness in the seventies, the times were very different. He came to us, as so many of the up-and-coming architects of that time did, not with a building but a book: Delirious New York. He called it a "retroactive manifesto." Modernist artists and architects have loved to issue manifestoes. But suppose, Koolhaas suggested, that Manhattan, as she is in all her grit and glory, were somehow the realization of a manifesto? How would that manifesto read? That was the not un-brilliant premise of his book.

    In fact, he suggested that "Manhattanism" was to a certain extent the product of manifesto, or at least theory--by such men as Raymond Hood, Harvey Wiley Corbett, and Hugh Ferriss. These were the genius designers of the "Modernistic" (as opposed to "Modernist") city of towers of the twenties and thirties. Like many of the architects of today, they were theorizers. They championed the city of congestion, of skyward thrust, of slam-dancing commutes, of what one of their number, the real-estate developer Irwin Chanin, called "the mise-en-scène of the romantic drama of American business." Though many of the leading designers of that era rejected the Beaux-Arts Classicism of their skyscraper-designing forebears, they built on their forebears' legacy in transforming Manhattan into a forest of shimmering limestone (in the strong Manhattan light, Indiana limestone shimmers) towers of distinctive silhouettes and glorious crowns--a dirigible mooring mast atop the Empire State Building, a stainless-steel Mycenaean helmet atop the Chrysler Building, filigreed radio-waves atop the R.C.A. Victor Building. (By the way, most of the major "Modernistic" architects, including William Lamb who designed the Empire State Building, Raymond Hood who designed the McGraw-Hill Building, William Van Alen who designed the Chrysler Building, Harvey Wiley Corbett, Ely Jacques Kahn, and others were trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts! See David Garrard Lowe's fine new book Art Deco New York. As the president of the Beaux-Arts Alliance, Lowe makes the point that "Art Deco" represents the last flourish of the Beaux-Arts in New York architecture.)

    They created a city like no other on earth--at the time. At the time, one came to Manhattan and one's jaw dropped to the ground. Not another city on the planet, circa 1945, looked remotely as Manhattan looked. Chicago? When the Empire State Building soared 102 stories in the air, Chicago had not a building higher than 44 stories (the Board of Trade, 1930). Asia hadn't built skyscrapers yet, nor Europe, nor indeed did any American city have a concentration of such megstructures as Manhattan possessed. Gosh, how I try to project myself back, to think what it must have been like to look at Manhattan for the first time once upon a time, before "Manhattanism" overtook the world, or before skyscraper forests sprouted from Shanghai to Route 202. Manhattan, circa 1945, is, dare I say, the dominant artistic fact of the 20th century.

    What sensitive souls found consternating--as Donald Pittenger eloquently pointed out--is that you'd look in the art and architectural history books and, well, none of it was there, quite. Yes, the skyscraper was celebrated. Or, rather, Louis Sullivan was celebrated, followed by Mies van der Rohe. But while the former, a formidable genius of American design, helped conceive the aesthetic form of the tall building, and thus contributed to this signal aesthetic fact of the century, not more than nine of his tall buildings was ever built, and only one of them in New York, and it not in any of the city's skyscraper districts. (The Bayard Building


    on Bleecker Street is to die for. Its terra-cotta façade, ornamented with a richness worthy of Pugin, is one of the most startling sights in Manhattan, the way it looms into view as one walks north on grimy Crosby Street. Yet somehow, what is evident to everyone, that Sullivan was first and foremost an ornamentalist out of the Arts-and-Crafts tradition, went totally unmentioned in the architectural history books.) As for Mies, he led the way away from the city of tumbling towers, of romantic spikes and spires and minarets and helmets and domes and lofty arabesques.

    Look at Sigfried Giedion. I have before me the fifth edition of his Space, Time and Architecture: The Growth of a New Tradition. This textbook originated as the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard in 1938-39. The first edition of the book appeared in 1940, the edition I own in 1966. This was once the standard academic text on the development of modern architecture. Yet it contains not a single mention of the Empire State Building or of the Chrysler Building.

    So it was that at the same moment that we all learned it was OK to love the Beaux-Arts--when Arthur Drexler and MoMA finally caught up with Henry Hope Reed (see below), and when in London Gavin Stamp said it was OK to love Sir Reginald Blomfield's buildings on Regent Street (the London 1900 exhibition at the Royal Institute of British Architects, 1978)--we all also learned that it was OK to love "Art Deco." That term, coined by an art historian named Bevis Hillier in the 1960s, is a catch-all, but then so is Beaux-Arts, so is Baroque, so is, for crying out loud, Greek Revival. Labels are a pain in the ass.

    "Manhattanism" was a label we could like. And I liked Rem Koolhaas's book, or a lot of it, its spirit if not its substance, its style if not its politics (or its sloppy grammar), when it came out.

    Here's how the book is arranged:

  • "Prehistory": the 1811 grid plan; the "Crystal Palace" exhibition at Reservoir Square in 1853, with its Latting Observatory
  • "Coney Island: The Technology of the Fantastic": Luna Park, Steeplechase, Dreamland
  • "The Double Life of Utopia: The Skyscraper": early skyscrapers, the 1916 Zoning Law, Hugh Ferriss, Harvey Wiley Corbett, the Chrysler Building, the old and new Waldorf-Astoria Hotels, the Empire State Building, the Downtown Athletic Club
  • "How Perfect Perfection Can Be: The Creation of Rockefeller Center": Raymond Hood, Hood's McGraw-Hill Building, the genesis of the Metropolitan Square project, variant schemes and realizations, Wallace K. Harrison, Radio City Music Hall, the saga of Diego Rivera ("Kremlin on Fifth Avenue")
  • "Europeans: Biuer! Dalí and Le Corbusier Conquer New York": Manhattan and Surrealism, Manhattan and the Ville Radieuse
  • "Postmortem": the fate of Harrison ("Manhattan's last genius of the possible"), the U.N., the 1939 and 1964 World's Fairs, X-City, Lincoln Center, the X, Y, and Z Buildings ("Harrison has finally unlearned Manhattanism; X, Y and Z are the last letters of the alphabet. But on the other hand, after the Z follows A again")
  • Here a generation learned a whole new historiographical scheme for the architectural history of New York. Goodbye, Pevsner! Goodbye, Giedion! Now we have a place for the Empire State Building, for Radio City Music Hall.

    (Before anyone yells at me, let me state that I am fully aware that Koolhaas did not begin the Art Deco revival. But I do feel that his coupling of it with "Manhattanism" gave it historiographical oomph.)

    Koolhaas came three years after the MoMA show. Three years after Koolhaas came Tom Wolfe.

    In 1981 Tom Wolfe came out with From Bauhaus to Our House. This was an often scathingly funny attack--though also an obvious one--on a certain strain of Modernist architecture. It was not anti-Modernist. Wolfe loved Frank Lloyd Wright. But he also held up Morris Lapidus, Eero Saarinen, John Portman, and Edward Durell Stone, each as an example of a Modernist architect whose individualism, like that of Wright, the establishment failed to take seriously.

    Then something curious happened. Each of those architects became fashionable. When Lapidus died in 2001, his obituaries treated him as one of the great architects of the 20th century. As for Saarinen, it is hard for anyone to believe he once had so many detractors. Portman? Last year, the Municipal Art Society, in New York, working with Docomomo, had an exhibition on "landmarks of the future." It showed photos of buildings along with text placards that contained projected or predicted landmark-designation reports for, among other buildings, the Marriott Marquis Hotel. Five years earlier, this could have been a Warholian stunt, but these guys were in dead earnest. And Stone? Ada Louise Huxtable has joined with Tom Wolfe and Robert A.M. Stern and others (including me) in championing the preservation of the Gallery of Modern Art.

    (Go here for the indispensable Wired New York site's typically comprehensive roundup of articles, including Tom Wolfe's two-part New York Times op-ed, and pictures on the Gallery of Modern Art controversy.)

    Wolfe suggested that we take seriously the Pop Baroque Miami Beach hotels of Morris Lapidus, the "bullet elevators" in the soaring "gardens of Babylon" atria of Portman's Sunbelt hotels, the exuberant expressionistic spreading wings of Eero Saarinen's TWA Terminal at JFK, and Ed Stone's "little seraglio" on Columbus Circle. And, by golly, just about everyone did start to take these things seriously.

    In New York, though, the lovers of Wolfe's romantic modernism have faced not one but two setbacks in their preservation efforts: Morris Lapidus's Paterson Silk Building, on the south side of Union Square, which had only a few years ago been sparklingly restored by, of all the unlikely patrons in the world, Odd Job Trading, has recently been truncated by a new owner, over preservationists' strenuous objections and, what's worse, the inaction of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. The commission, which since its 1960s founding has done some splendid work, is lately falling down on the job in the worst way since the commission's founding. And it is a municipal scandal.

    The commission has decided that many of the old buildings it once deemed worthy of preservation are not really so hot after all, and it's OK if an architect of sufficient reputation seeks to destroy it through an addition or "parabuilding" of outrageously inappropriate style--like the thing put on the front of the Brooklyn Museum, for which there can be no justification but that of the most preening trendiness.

    But what's just as upsetting is that the commission would not even hold a hearing on the Gallery of Modern Art.

    Stone's building has had a controversial history, that's for sure. When it opened in 1964, the architecture critics, led by Ada Louise Huxtable at the New York Times, were merciless in their condemnations.

    Today, many of these same critics admire the building. Why?

    Such changes of heart are nothing new. The Chrysler Building was generally hated--by critics, by architects, even by the public--when it was built. A few years ago, though, a worldwide poll of architects judged it the second greatest work of architecture of the 20th century. (Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water was first.) And New Yorkers love it as they do no other building in their city.

    (Here is Claudia Roth Pierpont's interesting piece on the Chrysler Building from the New Yorker in 2002.)

    The Gallery of Modern Art is no Chrysler Building. But it does speak to us. It speaks to us partly as an example of a particular period attitude. Architect Edward Durell Stone, who had in 1939 co-designed (with Philip L. Goodwin) the Museum of Modern Art, had a change of heart in the 1950s and veered from the rigid orthodoxies of Bauhaus Modernism. (Note the difference between MoMA, 1939, and Stone's U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, 1954.) He sought to create what some critics nowadays call "romantic modernism." In a 1960 article in Architectural Review, the architectural historian William H. Jordy called it "New Formalism." Vague historical allusions, sumptuous materials, Orrefors glass, curvy forms, whimsicality, pierced screeens, quasi-monumental terraced elevations--these were all qualities that presaged 1980s post-Modernism and the movement away from the glass box grids of the 1950s and 1960s. We forget how much of this New Formalism got built. The late Philip Johnson purveyed it in greater or lesser degree in several 1960s and 1970s projects (see his Amon Carter Museum, New York State Theatre, and Bobst Library at NYU, the last, built in 1972, with a main floor patterned after that of Palladio's San Giorgio Maggiore), before he went whole hog to post-Modernism in his AT&T Building in New York in 1984. Lincoln Center (designed in part by Rem Koolhaas's sainted Wallace K. Harrison) and Stone's Kennedy Center partook of the New Formalist ethos, which forms the kitschy glamour of the Down with Love era. Minoru Yamasaki, architect of the World Trade Center, made his name in the sixties as a "romantic modernist," one indeed whose integrations of Moorish motifs into modern structures commended him to the Saudi royal family. (See here.) Indeed, the WTC itself, with its "Saracenic" arches and Orrefors-hung lobbies, may be viewed as the most outrageously scaled "New Formalist" conception ever built.

    When the Gallery of Modern Art opened in 1964, Ada Louise Huxtable called it "a die-cut Venetian palazzo on lollypops." Later she called it “Stone’s little seraglio...more suggestive of houris behind its pierced marble screen than art.” The Times's Brian O'Doherty in 1964 called the museum an "esthetic Birch Society." The first shows were a Pavel Tchelitchew retrospective, and a survey of the Pre-Raphaelites.

    Something about the Gallery of Modern Art, however, made it the signal building of the movement, in part because its patron was Huntington Hartford.

    Hartford, the heir to the A.&P. food store fortune, founded the Gallery of Modern Art as his own personal anti-MoMA. Hartford loathed abstract painting. He felt there was such a thing as "modern art" that did not have anything to do with the MoMA canon. (Incidentally, the MoMA "canon" is, or was, a much more inclusive canon than most people are inclined to think. Alfred Barr was not at all opposed, for example, to representational painting, and it is well to remember that artists whom he gave big retrospectives to in the heady early days of MoMA included the likes of Edward Hopper.) Hartford's and Stone's building reminds us of an alternative tradition in the postwar years in New York culture. Pavel Tchelitchew? He was a favorite of Lincoln Kirstein and of Parker Tyler, too. Kirstein, who was in on the founding of MoMA, came to reject the MoMA "canon" as thoroughly as had Hartford, and came to champion painters like Tchelitchew, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Paul Cadmus, and even to attempt to lead a revival of interest in 19th-century Salon painting. (It is interesting, by the way, to note that Alfred Barr exhibited Tchelitchew's works at MoMA in the 1930s.) That said, a world of difference separated the moralizer Hartford from the aesthete Kirstein, the latter of whom saw no contradiction in the painters he admired and Balanchine's New York City Ballet, whose impresario he was.

    (The fifties and sixties also brought us Henry Hope Reed. He made a name for himself on the New York culture scene by saying out loud what many others were thinking but were too skittish to say: that our modern architecture had lost all beauty and our cities had been turned into heaps of metallic and vitreous junk, all in the name of sophisticated aesthetics. His view became widespread later on, but there Reed was, trumpeting his vision, in the pages of the old Herald-Tribune in the late fifties and early sixties. But this post is getting long, and Henry is deserving of treatment on his own.)

    As for Koolhaas, he lost his love of New York. When a couple of years ago he was the unlikely guest-editor of an issue of Wired, he ranted and lied about Rudy Giuliani, who'd somehow made Manhattan a little less "delirious." (The rant was OK--maybe Giuliani did bring the temperature down a bit. The lies were unconscionable--as when Koolhaas suggested that Giuliani had made the city less unsafe only for the white upper classes, when in fact the steepest crime drops were in the outer-borough minority neighborhoods.) But some people I know say that what soured Koolhaas on New York, and has sent him to his new delirious city, Beijing, is that several of his New York projects plum fell through, apparently to his astonishment at the complexities of the city's regulatory overload. One might think his putative Communism would endorse the culture of regulation, but he found that in Communist China he could build with an impunity not possible in putatively capitalistic New York.

    Daniel Zalewski's New Yorker profile starts out with Koolhaas saying things that sound like, well, me. It begins with a discussion of his addition to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg:

    Koolhaas, who is sixty, is a champion of the new who is bitterly disappointed by most new things. In fact, the Hermitage project was inspired by his contempt for the clichés of current architecture--in part, as he had explained, "the nauseating contemporary impulse to impose spectacular glass additions on spaces that already have their own aura." Koolhaas is simultaneously a builder and a wrecking ball, and his remark was aimed at such celebrated museum expansions as I.M. Pei's glass pyramid outside the Louvre and Sir Norman Foster's vast glass-tiled canopy for the courtyard of the British Museum. (In lectures, Koolhaas has accused Foster of turning an icon of the Enlightenment into a kitschy homage to the Mall of America.)..."St. Petersburg does not need a Guggenheim Bilbao," he said.

    There is nothing there I couldn't agree with more. I loathe what Foster did to the British Museum.

    A bit later on, though, there is this:

    Koolhaas has what he calls a "socialist sensibility," and he was convinced that the Russian state, even in its current capitalist phase, was an ideal client for him. He rejects the idea that Communism became a relic of history in 1989. In a recent essay, he acknowledged that Communists were responsible for a "body count that hovers around a hundred million victims," but he argued that "every architect carries the Utopian gene," and that "the more radical, innovative, and brotherly our sentiments, the more we architects need a strong sponsor." At the St. Petersburg airport, he had stopped to visit an empty Stalinist terminal. "It's very festive, isn't it?" he said about a ceiling fresco that depicted paratroopers floating amid the clouds, like armed putti. "What I love about Russia is that the fantasy level here is higher than anywhere else."

    Oh my God. Where to begin in "deconstructing" that paragraph? It's funny how in reading one anticipates the completion of a sentence. I read: "the more radical, innovative, and brotherly our sentiments, the more we architects are willing to accept a body count that hovers around a hundred million victims." Those weren't his words, but isn't that what he was saying? Oh, and what of the fact that the Communist Koolhaas happily designs boutiques for Prada in SoHo and Beverly Hills? One of those "contradictions of late capitalism," I guess.

    As for Russia's "fantasy level," well, duh.

    (Koolhaas's most famous work in the U.S. is his Seattle Public Library, which opened in 2003. Here are some comments by Seattle resident David Sucher, and if you poke round his excellent City Comforts blog you may well find a lot more.)

    Koolhaas, by the way, was a screenwriter before he became an architect. His only produced screenplay was for De Blanke Slavin (White Slave), "the then most expensive film in Dutch history," according to another source. It was directed by a cult director named René Daalder. Koolhaas then attempted a collaboration, which like his Whitney Museum expansion fell through, with Russ Meyer. Yes, that Russ Meyer.

    A failed Russ Meyer screenwriter is now the new formgiver to Communist Beijing. You never know what tomorrow will bring.

    I've tried in these jottings to lay down the sketchiest of outlines of an emergent alternative tradition that is itself riddled with works and practitioners of wildly varying seriousness and accomplishment.

    But always keep an eye on the periphery. Somewhere, sometime, the periphery and the center can collide in some utterly unexpected and unforeseeable way and create something greater than has ever been created before. You never know what tomorrow will bring.



    posted by Francis at March 16, 2005


    "'It's very festive, isn't it?' he said about a ceiling fresco that depicted paratroopers floating amid the clouds, like armed putti."

    I suspect it's just a failure of imagination on my part, but somehow I would never have thought to describe a paratrooper assault as "festive". Live and learn, I suppose.

    Posted by: Doug Sundseth on March 16, 2005 03:08 PM

    You've hit on many things, but one especially pet peeve: the way so many architecture-history books (at least back when I was spending time with them) treated Louis Sullivan as a precursor to the modernist-skyscraper, and nothing but. Had these writers actually visited a Sullivan building? As you say: what a great ornamentalist. Plus, what we was obviously about was adapting traditional forms and approaches to the possibilities new tech had opened up. He didn't want to set the steel frame free from its classical clothing; he was interested in how to dress the steel frame in classical clothing so it didn't look ugly or awkward, so it was beautiful. A precursor to the modernist-box skyscraper -- feh to that.

    Lovely posting. A question: did the Columbus Circle building ever work well? I went in only once while it was open, and it was dark and not very enjoyable. Now that it's unused, it's stained and crumbling, and there's chain-metal fencing and bums around the base. So I'm assuming it's never worked very well, whatever its goofy visual appeal. But I could be wrong. And it could all be a matter of its location anyway -- it's an odd block it occupies, not one anyone would choose to visit, just to hurry past.

    Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 16, 2005 03:30 PM

    Yes, MB, that Columbus Circle building is currently a disaster area. It looks like the new building will present an example of bad to worse. Don't kid yourself, built right, that place could be an excellent residence or office space: on Columbus Circle, in an improving and fun young neighborhood, cross two streets and your in the park, northern view of the park, southeast a bit of Broadway.

    Posted by: Chris on March 16, 2005 03:39 PM

    Yes, the Gallery of Modern Art is in horrendous condition--its current owners have wanted it to look as bad as possible to garner support for their plan to destroy it. And sure it's a goofy building. But it does a few things well. First, it was for many years the ONLY building on the circle that had a concave facade. Second, it was scaled right in relation to the Columbus column, a glorious thing, in the center of the circle. Third, the marble was beautiful and was the same as that on a Carrere & Hastings building behind and across the street from the gallery building. How many buildings in 1964 did three sensible things?

    Michael, were you in it when it was the Hartford gallery? It was, alas, only briefly, then it was operated by Fairleigh Dickinson University then, ugh, the City of New York--each year running down a bit more, becoming danker. In its Hartford days, it had a Polynesian restaurant (1964, yeah!) and an espresso bar when half the population had never heard of espresso. I bet it was a jolly place, especially with the Pre-Raphaelites on the walls.

    Posted by: Francis Morrone on March 16, 2005 04:00 PM

    FM, I'm interested in the scale issue. Maybe it's a good point. Some of the circles in Europe are beautiful and it must have something to do with the buildings around them being in proportion to the monuments and spaces. I'm thinking of Madrid. But was there ever a real chance that the area/neighborhood would stay scaled to the monument? The Empire State Building went up in the 1930's. Across town and 20 blocks up (1 mile) was going to limit itself to 20 floors or so? Woulda been nice, but wasn't it probably impossible to zone like that in the gridded city?

    On the marble I can't agree with you. It's four walls of marble. It could be a wall of red diamonds and it would still be ugly for its wallness, if you will. I like windows. As if it's a building for people. Which is why the new building will be a disaster.

    Posted by: Chris on March 16, 2005 04:43 PM

    Hey, the "Modern Marvels" episode on the Chrysler Building was a good one. You can buy a DVD of the show here.

    Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 16, 2005 04:51 PM

    Chris--I agree with most of the criticisms of the building. And it makes it kind of hard to advocate for the preservation of a deeply flawed building. isn't without virtues, and--here's a bit of damning with faint praise--is probably the best building ever put up on Columbus Circle.

    As to the scale issue, the city could have long ago solved that through zoning so as to encourage appropriate development around a circle that is a stunning urban asset in the gridded jungle. The column whence the circle derived its name was PERFECT. The whole rest of the history of the circle is a total urbanistic disaster. Stone, I have said repeatedly, is the only architect who even TRIED.

    That said, I never intended for my post to be a defense of the Stone building, so much as a sketch of a sketch of alternative historiographies of New York buildings. In that context, it makes a major difference whether the Stone building upsets one because it "broke the rules," or because, rules or no, it just sucks.

    Posted by: Francis Morrone on March 16, 2005 05:07 PM

    I've only had a chance to skim Francis' original post (hope to read it more carefully later). But if anyone is interested in reading an extensive "dialogue" regarding the building and the fight to save it (or at least get the NY Landmarks Preservation Commission to hold a PUBLIC hearing on it), I recently wrote a "rebuttal" to a skeptical NY Civic article, which the head of NY Civic, Henry Stern (also a former NYC Parks Commissioner), has graciously posted as a "Response" on his website.

    I think between the two of us we cover a lot of issues, and I hope I clear up some of the misinformation about the fight to save the building that I've seen on the web and elsewhere.

    Here is a direct link to my response:

    To see both Henry Stern's original piece as well as my response, just do a search for "New York Civic" for its home page. Look down the home page, and there is a section called "Most Recent Articles." It is a response to the 3/4 article, "Court Won't Save Hartford's Gallery."

    (Eventually the article and the response will be moved, I assusme, to "The "Archive" section, a bit further down the page.)

    P.S. -- I did go to the building when it was a museum and, in my opinion, criticism of its interior are overdone by the buiding's critics.

    Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on March 16, 2005 05:26 PM

    Francis, wonderful post. I shall miss Edward Durrell Stone's version of Two Columbus Circle. You are a historian. Perhaps you can tell us whether architectural history has been different from political history. Have architectural and political historiographies taken parallel paths?

    Posted by: Mary Campbell Gallagher on March 16, 2005 06:03 PM

    Just read Ben Hemric's letter and it puts the matter really beautifully. Thanks for that.

    Posted by: Francis Morrone on March 16, 2005 06:07 PM

    Thank you, Francis, for the mention.

    And I would like to direct attention is my Koolhaas Library pre-construction analysis in which I analyze the design in terms of The Three Rules.

    Posted by: David Sucher on March 16, 2005 06:34 PM

    A few sidebar items...

    Agreed, the current Gallery of Modern Art is worth preserving and the new version will only detract from the setting (Francis: any opinion regarding the new Time-Warner complex down the street?).

    I visited the Gallery of Modern Art (or Huntington Gallery or whatever) when it was in its original guise, though I can't remember when. The event was an exhibit of works by Aubrey Beardsley, a strange, sickly young Englishman who specialized in pen-and-ink illustrations in contemporary (for him) Art-Nouveau style with a Japonoise-compositional twist. I don't remember much about the interior of the building other than that the stairways and galleries seemed cramped and poorly laid-out, and that there was wood paneling on some walls (I forget where...perhaps near the stairs). Sorry that I don't recall much else.

    The building was indeed spurned by critics when it opened. Some of it had to do with Stone's decorative facings along the corners of the exterior (see the first picture in Francis' post). Now I suspect that there might have been a "hidden layer" of criticism related to resentment of Huntington Hartford's taste in art and (moreso?) his attempt to turn back modernism. That is, I suspect critics didn't like what he was up to, and that gave them all the more reason for disliking what Stone wrought.

    As for Stone, his U.S. embassy in New Delhi, perhaps his first with the decorative grid motif (I'm too lazy to research this), was treated with interest by the architectural press when it was built -- that is my recollection, anyhow. I'm ambivalent about Stone. I did like the embassy, perhaps because it was new and interesting. But his later stuff struck me as formulaic -- modern with a decorative veneer of one kind or another. The project I came to hate personally was his State University of New York Albany (SUNYA) campus. And the detail that literally hurt the most (back in 1970-74 when I lived in Albany) was the door handles at building entrances. These were square-section steel bars perhaps 1/2 inch across that formed part of the exterior patterning. The door handles were simply these unadorned bars with space around them to allow the hand to grasp them. Now, imagine what it would be like to grasp a steel bar with fairly sharp corners and tug open a heavy door -- it can hurt your fingers!! Ah, the triumph of Art over ergonomics.

    Living near Seattle, I have the dubious privilege of seeing Koolhaas' Seattle Public Library far more often than I would like. Some folks, including The Lady Friend, like it. The Seattle newpapers and art establishment liked it when it opened. I hate it, but will spare you a rant, at least for now.

    Posted by: Donald Pittenger on March 16, 2005 08:32 PM

    Donald, thanks for comments. You're right about the New Delhi embassy. Many critics were guardedly supportive of "New Formalism" at first. I believe Jackie Kennedy liked it. And Ada Louise also actually applauded the hiring of Yamasaki to design the WTC--until she saw his plans. So it's a complex story, to be sure, and a lot of the scorn for the Gallery of Modern Art had to do with Hartford. And note the quote from the Times art critic: "esthetic Birch Society." Ouch.

    As for the Time Warner Center...hmmm...I loathe modern architecture that traffics in knife-edge imagery. But I like two things about it (it might be three if I were rich enough to dine at Masa): It actually has brought some streetfront liveliness to the circle, which the circle had never had in my lifetime at least. And the views from the atrium-mall within, outward onto the circle and the park, are for me quite thrilling. The mall, aside from the fact of its being a mall, is dull, dull, dull. God, what were they thinking?

    But you know, when the best thing you can say about a building is that the views from within it to the outside world are its best feature--World Trade Center, Tate Modern, Time Warner Center--you know it's likely a pretty damned bad building.

    Oh, and I love Aubrey Beardsley. I think I would have loved a lot of the shows at the Hartford Gallery, philistine that I am.

    Posted by: Francis Morrone on March 16, 2005 09:11 PM

    I finally got a chance to read Francis' excellent post more fully -- but still hope to re-read it and further explore some of the byways mentioned in it.

    But I'd quickly like to point out one possible error (and also one possible error in my own "New York Civic" piece that I refer to in my previous comment in this thread): judging from an opinion column that Ada Louise Huxtable wrote in the "Wall St. Journal" in early 2004, she is most definately NOT in favor of landmarking 2 Columbus Circle. Here's the link:

    (In case the link doesn't work, it is a January 7, 2004 article entitled, "The Lollipop Building: The best way to preserve 2 Columbus Circle? A makeover.")

    The possible mistake in my own piece is the statement that Huxtable praised the interiors of the building in her original review of the building. I didn't have time to look up her original article, so I made my statement based upon what someone else had remembered and my own foggy recollection. But I still do think she praised it (along the lines that it was a clever solution to a very difficult problem) and perhaps changed her mind in the intervening 30 or 40 years.

    Another example, by the way, of Huxtable changing her mind -- as we are all entitled to do -- is in her opinions of the original World Trade Center. I believe it was James Saunders (of "Celluloid Skyline" fame) who wrote a monograph detailing her changing opinions of the WTC complex.

    In any case, I do hope to look up her original review of the 2 Columbus Circle as soon as I get the chance.

    Although everyone is entitled to their own opinion, I respectfully disagree with Donald about the interiors. (I hope to post a link to a photo of the interior in a moment.)

    In my opinion, the interiors may have seemed smalled, dark and cramped -- but only because people are so used to very expansive, "open," modern spaces in a "museum" or "gallery." But looked at from a different angle -- say as a private club that happens to let the public in to see its private collection of paintings -- I think the "museum" doesn't seem small, dark or cramped at all.

    Also the interior, windowless spaces (many of them humdrum) of standard modern museums tend to be painted all white and very brightly lit -- an entirely different aesthetic from the wood-paneled "gentlemen's" club aesthetic of the Huntington Hartford.

    I'd also like to restate more explicitly a point I try to make in my response to the Henry Stern piece: I think that the design "community" is being snookered by orthodox modernists into an unexamined acceptance of a modernist double standard when it comes to landmarking. For modernist "favorites" (e.g., a ramshackle steel- arched "subway" bridge over 125th St., or a homely, banal Socony Mobil Building on E. 42nd St.) any shred of a landmarking creditial will do -- not only for scheduling a public hearing, but for full blown status as a designated, protected landmark. (How many people really care if either of the aforementioned structures are altered or rebuilt? -- a rather unlikely set of scenarios in any case.)

    But for buildings that are highly esteemed by the (current)"losers" in the culture wars (i.e., the non-modernists), their proposed landmarks must meet standards that are much higher by many multiples -- the buildings must be breathlessly and flawlessly beautiful. By the way, this is a standard that is not only much higher, but one that ignores that fact that "beauty" is not the only criteria for landmarking a building anyway (see my quote from Harmon Goldstone in my NY Civic piece).

    (I hope people interested in this debate will also go to the Landmarkk Preservation Commission website and look at how "stunningly" and "flawlessly" beautiful recently designated landmarks, like the Socony Mobil Builiding, really are.)

    What follows are links (hopefully) to some interesting photos of 2 Columbus Circle interiors -- both photos are from the photo section of the webpage. You can enlarge the photos if you double click on them.

    A photo of one of the galleries:

    A photo of the 154-seat(!!!) auditorium:

    If the links don't work, please go to the home page and click on the "Photos" link at the top of the page.

    Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on March 16, 2005 10:01 PM

    Quite right Ben. I just did a Lexis-Nexis search to see if she'd ever been in favor of landmarking it, and best I could find (Times 12/11/98) is a David Dunlap piece where she says the building now gives her pleasure--but says nothing of landmarking.

    I'm now curious why we all thought she was on the bandwagon. Whenever that happens, I wonder if it was me who started the rumor.

    God, I SO WISH I had seen the original interiors!

    Posted by: Francis Morrone on March 16, 2005 10:15 PM

    Benjamin -- Thanks for the link to the gallery pic. Given that I was there 40-ish years ago for only an hour and was concentrating on Beardsley instead of the building, I'm kinda amazed that I even remember the wood, let alone hazard an impression as to the size of the galleries. (There was a pretty good-sized crowd the time I was there, so that might have given me the impression that the place was a bit cramped.

    You say the 42nd Street Mobil Building is now a landmark? Good grief! I remember architecture magazine reviews twittering about the creased metal panels on the curtain walls, but I always thought the building was pretty much a zero, right up there with those early post-war terraced (floor-by-floor setback) topped office buildings on Mad Ave or maybe Lex or Third up in the low 50s or therabouts. (Of course, at least one of them ought to be preserved just so folks will be able to appreciate what they were like.)

    Posted by: Donald Pittenger on March 16, 2005 11:24 PM

    "the then most expensive film in Dutch history,"

    This doesn't say a lot. The Netherlands didn't have a feature film tradition then. It took Paul Verhoeven and his contemporaries to get something going in the 1970s.

    Whenever I think about Koolhaas I think about his design of the Kunsthal (Art hall) in Rotterdam. Where the entrance is the exit [two narrow doors] and people going to the giftshop are passing through as well. Never have claustrophobic spaces and grandeur been mixed so splendidly together.

    That about sums it up for me.

    Posted by: ijsbrand on March 17, 2005 10:23 AM

    I think that the big mystery about Koolhaas is the source of his reputation. The comment above by IJSBrand reminded me of the unpleasant de facto main entrance to the Seattle Public Library.

    It, along with other details of the building such as its circulation make me wonder if Koolhaas is even a good architect, much less a "great" one.

    There is a really interesting study/book here: how the public reputation -- step by step -- of a starchitect is crafted. And crafted it is.

    Posted by: David Sucher on March 17, 2005 10:55 AM

    I think I didn't visit the Hartford until very late in its run. But I'm with Donald on this -- I found it dark and depressing. Benjamin knows better and is more familiar with the place than I ever was by a long shot. But, though I don't remember any details, I do remember feeling as though someone had locked me in a dark closet. I guess I'm going to play town grump on the way the place looks too. To my eye it looks like an Ikea bureau made from cheap plywood, jigsawed with a bit of whimsy to give it some "design" interest. There's no building there -- just a certain amount of volume that's been enclosed with some planes. A classic semi-decorated vertical shoebox, basically. Knock it down, sez I.

    But that's what I say about nearly all these modernist buildings -- knock 'em down when their time comes. I can't think of many that (IMHO, of course) add to the city. I think it's one of the greatest con jobs ever that the modernists have managed to get the preservationists and landmarkers to give modernist work any respect at all. Who knows for sure, but my bet would be that most landmarkers and preservationists detest modernism, and may even have become landmarkers and preservationists as a way of fighting what modernism has done to cities. Why cede an inch to the enemy?

    I work near Columbus Circle, and though I dislike much about the Time Warner center, it seems to be working out in some ways much better than it initially promised to. (I watched it being built, when it looked like it'd be a disaster -- "Darth Vader architecture" is how people in the office used to laugh at it.) But it fronts and defines the Circle very well, and it's been amazingly successful at making Columbus Circle (which people used to rush through, pulling their coats closed against the wind) into a semi-destination of its own. I'm with Francis on the design of the place -- why all the shimmery surfaces and sharp edges? Like we don't have enough of those in our TV graphics? I'm happy to bitch about it for other reasons too. But Borders, Whole Foods, the restaurants, the big view from the inside out, the way it makes walking around the curve of the Circle a semi-pleasure -- hats off to it for all that. It may be nothing but showbiz, but it's effective showbiz, and the neighborhood needed some. The neighborhood desperately needed Whole Foods, too -- the store's presence has made many people very happy ...

    Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 17, 2005 11:55 AM

    But doen't that Whole Foods have the oddest lay out? We went for a cup of coffee and it struck us as very confusing. Of course as out-of-towners, everything about NYC is mystifying. (Most often in a pleasant way.)

    Posted by: David Sucher on March 17, 2005 01:52 PM


    Thanks for the comments --and the post. You've hit it. For me, this is a law: the breaking of rules tends towards suckiness; the breaking of rules is only permissible to adhere to higher rules. With the Stone building, it is interesting to me that, as you note, the three most praiseworthy things about it were, if you will, its adherence to rules: concaveness matching the circe; scaling in relation to the monument; good materials matching neighborhood.


    Recall discussions of generations.

    I agree with your "knock 'em down" prescription. Why don't they? Francis and others agree the Stone building is flawed --deeply flawed, in fact. Many agree that many of the modernist buildings and art works are similarly flawed. But then the powers and critics in charge say "but." "But it's historical."

    I say, historical what? Crap? Historical crap?! We should save it!? What's going on? It's a madness.

    Seeking an explanation for this disorder, I think there is a group of people that is somehow nostalgically/psychologically attached to these modernist works. It's a mental block. As if tearing these things down would remind certain people of their mortality, their limits, or somehow render their lives less significant, less lived.

    That plus the fact that the buildings are at least more or less functional and useful means we're stuck with'em until the modernist generation or moment passes. The art might go quicker. [Rudeness alert] [Check out this piece of nonsense that I walk around once a week or so. --sixth photo down. If a "Day After Tomorrow" situation arises, I'm smashing that thing before I go to the library.

    [Keeping these things around instead of knocking them down is like when one looks back in the bowl, sees an exceptionally massive dump, and pauses for a moment before flushing. Look what I made Mommy.]

    We're in the midst of a generational or idea pause. That's the cycle. Maybe my now-infant nephews will be able to flush it away 50 years from now.

    Posted by: Chris on March 17, 2005 03:55 PM

    I'd like to add some additional info and some clarifications, if I might.

    I was hoping to relocate a website I saw a week or two ago that had an architectural magazine-type plan and section of the building. (The drawings seemed like something you'd find in Architectural Record or Architectural Forum in the 1960s, but I haven't been able to locate them in those magazines themselves.) I believe the webpage where I found these drawings was part of a presentation given by Thomas Mellins for a forum about the building that was held a year or two ago and was posted at - 22k -

    But the website seems to be no longer accessible, and I haven't been able to locate these drawings anywhere else.

    What I found kind of interesting about the plan I saw (I think it was of the building's ground floor) is that it shows that the building's footprint is more irregular than it seems at first glance -- it's not just a rectangle with a concave wall along the Columbus Circle side. In reality, the Broadway side of the plot is a bit deeper than the Eighth Avenue side, so the building itself actually gets wider towards the Broadway side of the site. The irregular shape of the floorplates (including the need for a curving wall along the Columbus Circle side of the building), along with the idea of maximum exterior wall space and floor to ceiling windows located only in the corners, are probably the factors that made Stone go with load bearing exterior walls of reinforced concrete.

    Given what I've read on the 2 Blowhard's site, and especially Donald's recent contributions, I'm somewhat surprised that more people haven't been talking about the Dahesh Museum -- the museum that put in a bid (possibly two bids) to buy and restore the building as Stone designed it. They sent me a beautiful announcement/calendar last fall (not sure how I got on their mailing list), and here's a quote from their mission statement: " . . . The Dahesh Museum of Art is the only institution in the US devoted to collecting, exhibiting, and interpreting works by Europe's academically trained artists of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Dahesh serves a diverse audience by placing these artists in the broader context of 19th-century visual culture, and by offering a fresh appraisal of the role academies played in reinvigorating the classical ideals of beauty, humanism, and skill."

    The announcement includes photos of a number of beautiful artworks. One of my favorites, a watercolor called "A Tangerian Beauty" (Jose Tapiro Baro, ca. 1876) is also shown (using a very poorly lighted photograph, however) on their website:

    (By the way, one of Francis' colleague at the New Criterion, James Panero, seems to be suspicious of this museum because of it's "murky" origins. I read his article on the "New Criterion" website.)

    I suppose that I was a bit overly optimistic, however, when I suggested in my NY Civic piece that they again be given an opportunity to bid on the building, as they recently moved into the exhibition space in the IBM Building and spent a few million dollars on a Hugh Hardy renovation. But I do believe there are a number of museums that would find that a restored version of the Stone design would work very well for them.

    (But considering the Dahesh's mission -- and its Middle Eastern origins and name – having it in the old Gallery of Modern Art building, with its Middle Eastern overtones, would really created a magical combination!)

    A month or two ago, I also ran across an interesting article (that again I can't seem to find!) that was a puff piece about the distinguished lighting designer Abe Feder's work on the interiors of the Gallery of Modern Art. (I think the article was an online reproduction of an article from a professional lighting design magazine.)

    I'd like to clarify a bit my opinion of the building's interiors. I must admit that when I visited the museum as a teenager, I too felt some discomfort -- but not because I felt they were overly dark (too much wood paneling) or too claustrophobic (not enough windows). I liked the wood paneling and found the porthole windows to be a pleasant – and kind of "amusing" – link to the outside.

    Rather, I think these are the three "problems" that bothered me about the interior:

    1) The building does indeed have small floorplates for "museum" crowds -- about the width and depth of a large townhouse. Of course, no design, short of one that cantilevers out over the street is going to make the floorplates any larger, however. So whatever is going to occupy this site (be it a museum, office building or hotel, etc.) is going to have small townhouse-type floors. And if it is a museum, the museum will be a "skyscraper" museum – broken up into "smallish" galleries that are "inconveniently" piled one atop the other.

    2) Judging from the photo of one of the galleries on the save2columbus website, it seems to me that Stone did make a minor mistake with the circulation system-- one that could probably be very easily remedied, however -- by giving the particular gallery pictured (and perhaps others, too) only one large very wide entry point. (I guess he did this so that the elevators would open out onto one very wide "impressive" entryway leading into the gallery.)

    I think people, however, subconsciously prefer a circulation plan having two entry points (especially when visiting a crowded art gallery) -- so that one can go in one entryway and leave from another and see the artwork along the way. The Stone circulation plan for this floor (and possible others) creates, instead, the feeling of entering into a dead-end or cul de sac.

    But since these walls are very likely merely partitions, and not loadbearing walls (the exterior reinforced concrete walls are the loadbearing walls), this problem could easily be solved, if its users feel strongly enough about it, by a slightly different placement of the entryways. (It's a tradeoff: you'd lose the grand entrance "effect" from the elevators, but you'd have a better circulation plan for a museum with large crowds.)

    3) I think the third problem can also be solved, to a degree -- but it also involves a non-solvable tradeoff regarding one of the building's best features.

    The galleries on the southern side of the building step down between the main floor levels. (Essentially the building is a squared-off Guggenheim.) I think subconsciously I found this a bit disorienting (which is also a criticism leveled at the Guggenheim) -- you kind of lose track of what floor you are on. And it is also a bit annoying -- you more or less are forced into following a prescribed route (another criticism that's been leveled at the Guggenheim).

    I think the disorienting aspect of this design could be more or less solved with subtle "color" coding. By way of example, I live in a seven-story walkup (the ground floor has no number), and I've always found it kind of confusing because all the floors are painted the same color and there are so many of them. (I've always had a hard time remembering, for instance, which neighbors live on which floors.) I think this "problem" could be easily solved by grouping the floors into "two's" and giving each group a slightly different shade of paint (the lighter colors being on the darker, lower floors?). Then, psychologically I'd be dealing with only three sets of duplexes -- something that's easier to organize in one's mind.

    A subtle color coding of the half-floors wouldn't solve, of course, the "forced" march aspect of the design. But I think this aspect is a more than acceptable "quirk" of the design (just as it is at the Guggenheim). Although 2 Columbus Circle doesn't give you Wright's atrium, it does give the building some very interesting and "quirky" galleries (some of which are double-height, and one of which serves as an organ loft, I believe).

    In terms of the building's exterior, it also should be pointed out that the proposed redesign will NOT really add anymore windows or make it appreciably more transparent -- the building has reinforced concrete, load-bearing walls that cannot be cut into significantly. So the new design is just a different "slip cover" for the same building – a doctrinaire modernist slip cover that is, in my opinion, less humanistic, less urbane, less attractive and, paradoxically, less "honest" too.

    Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on March 17, 2005 05:54 PM

    "Ada Louise Huxtable has joined with Tom Wolfe and Robert A.M. Stern and others (including me) in championing the preservation of the Gallery of Modern Art."

    Correction time. ALH does NOT support "preservation" of 2CC. In fact, she's never wavered from her original 1964 Times assessment and has written in WSJ that the idea of saving or restoring the "derelict little building" (aka "shabby little punchboard," aka "sore thumb," aka "crude caricature," aka "second-rate," aka "virtually useless") is a perversion of the idea of preservation.

    She's an ardent supporter of the Cloepfil plan and a fan ot Time Warner's "astonishing and unexpected beauty"...

    See WSJ 1/7/04 for full story, including the reasons why, structurally speaking, saving the facade at 2CC is impossible.

    (Btw, I like the building's "toylike charm" and I'll be sad to see it go.)

    Posted by: Winslow Ames on April 14, 2005 12:06 AM

    I notice that others have jumped on the Huxtable correction. So I'll offer this PS as penance.

    A couple of posters have wondered about ALH's original assessment of the interior of 2CC. Here it is, from the Times, 2/25/64:

    "The theme is dignity and formality, rather than the exhilirating spatial fireworks. [paragraph] This interior planning is the building's conspicuous success, an achievement to command considerable admiration."

    ALH went on to note that the general public wouldn't notice the interior planning so much as the rich materials ("occasionally smothering") that Stone used. She continued:

    "The building works well, poses no challenges, asks no hard questions and gives no controversial answers."

    Ironic, no?

    Perhaps ALH best summed up her view of Stone in her piece on "that 630-foot no-no on the Potomac" -- Kennedy Center -- from 9/19/1971:

    "Mr. Stone is a wonderful and beloved man, dear to the profession, and he has known how to enjoy and share the success that his formula has brought. But it has also brought a plague of dreadful buildings."

    Posted by: Winslow Ames on April 14, 2005 12:39 AM

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