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March 17, 2005

Stoned Again

Francis Morrone writes:

Dear Blowhards,

Perhaps through my own fault (OK, definitely through my own fault), in my last post, which I found very difficult to structure so as to strike the right emphases, I set off a discussion of whether Ed Stone's Gallery of Modern Art deserves to stay or deserves to go. I say stay; Michael, and others, say go.

Here's Michael in the comments to my last post:

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?

And here is commenter Chris:

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.

Michael well knows that I deplore most Modernist buildings as much as, if not more than, he does.

So why do I guardedly support the campaign to preserve interesting examples of Modernist design?

It so happens that last night (actually, early this morning, around 2:00 a.m., when I do some of my best reading) I was catching up on back numbers of the British magazine Apollo, in my opinion the best art periodical in the world. It is all the better in recent months since Gavin Stamp, my favorite architecture critic, has joined the magazine as a columnist. I read his column from January, called "Anti-Ugly." (Apollo has an awesome website allowing access to the magazine's full issues. Registration is required, but is free. But it also means I can't make direct links. The site is easy to navigate, so the piece I'm referencing is easy to find once you do the registration process.)

Do you know Stamp? Until recently he was teaching up in Glasgow, where he led campaigns to save the undervalued buildings of the great Alexander "Greek" Thomson from the philistine vandalizers who are surprisingly even more numerous in some cities than in New York. In 1978, Stamp curated the London 1900 exhibition at the Royal Institute of British Architects. London had long undervalued, indeed outright disrespected, its extraordinary heritage of late-Victorian and Edwardian buildings just as New York had mistreated her own wealth of Beaux-Arts beauties. Visitors to London would see these 1900 buildings all over the city, love them, yet be stunned to find that what commentary existed--and it was little--was terribly belittling. That exhibition, together with other events and books, went a long way towards establishing the currently respectable view that the "Edwardians" did not wreck Regent Street; indeed they enriched it and produced a via triumphalis the equal of any in the world. Before London 1900, Stamp apparently had made a bit of a sartorial splash. The September 13, 2003 Spectator ran this article by Harry Mount, entitled "The Young Fogey: An Elegy." Remember the Young Fogeys? I do. Alas. In the 1970s and 1980s, some young British writers and others affected an old-fashioned appearance as well as some old-fashioned opinions. The Young Fogey had first been described as such by Alan Watkins in a Spectator piece (not, so far as I can find, online) in 1984. Here is Mount:

The term 'fogey' dates from the 18th century, and is related to the slang word 'fogram', of unknown origin, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. 'Old fogey' was used of old-fashioned people for several hundred years before the Young Fogey came along. Alan Watkins acknowledges that 'the phrase had first been used by Dornford Yates in 1928'. He also specifically acknowledges that he borrowed the phrase from the literary journalist and Proust translator Terence Kilmartin, 'who had used it of John Casey'.
But it is Mr Watkins who put flesh and tweed on the skeleton. As he wrote in his Spectator piece, the Young Fogey 'is libertarian but not liberal. He is conservative but has no time for Mrs Margaret Thatcher and considers Mr Neil Kinnock the most personally attractive of the present party leaders. He is a scholar of Evelyn Waugh. He tends to be coolly religious, either RC or C of E. He dislikes modern architecture. He makes a great fuss about the old Prayer Book, grammar, syntax and punctuation. He laments the difficulty of purchasing good bread, Cheddar cheese, kippers and sausages....He enjoys walking and travelling by train. He thinks the Times is not what it was and prefers the Daily Telegraph.'

All of which sounds pretty great to me--fogey that I am.

The most famous exemplars of Young Fogeydom were a Cambridge don named John Casey and the novelist and biographer A.N. Wilson. Mount goes on:

There was a significant sartorial element to the Young Fogey. Dr Casey remembers the architectural historian Gavin Stamp matriculating at Cambridge in 1968, at the height of the Paris Revolution, wearing 'tall collars, very wide lapels and double-breasted waistcoats'. And that fed in turn into Dr Stamp's architectural interests and the emphasis on High Victoriana - the books on Alexander 'Greek' Thomson, George Gilbert Scott junior and the late Gothic Revival.
But it wasn't just clothes that defined the movement. 'Roger Scruton had a strong architectural Young Fogey reaction,' says Dr Casey, 'but he never followed the sartorial line.'

Then for a while Stamp wrote a marvelous column in the Spectator, my second favorite after Paul Johnson's among that magazine's columns, called "Not Motoring." Stamp refuses--bless him--to drive a car. His column chronicled his sometimes complicated car-less travels. One week might be in praise or despair of some train line. Another might be something like his hilarious account (I want to get my hands on this to re-read it) of getting from Denmark to England with a rather large Thorwaldsen statue he'd acquired and wouldn't allow out of his sight, and doing it entirely via public transportation.

Most of all Stamp is a brilliant architectural historian and critic, an expert on Thomson, of course, but also on Lutyens. His architectural values are basically conservative, and he has been considered a supporter of New Classicism--while at the same time regarding much of it as rubbish. That has put Stamp at odds with some of the "movement Classicists," and led to a lively and sharp exchange between Stamp (con) and the estimable David Watkin (pro) on Quinlan Terry's Downing College Library at Cambridge.


Me, I'll stay out of that high-toned debate.

Stamp's "Anti-Ugly" takes its start from a well-publicized amusing proposal by George Ferguson, president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, that the nation (i.e. Britain) make up an "X list" of buildings that should be torn down. It of course brings immediately to mind the quite worthy demolition of Minoru Yamasaki's notorious Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis.

Pruitt Igoe.jpg

(Suffice it to say that Yamasaki was not in his "romantic modernist" mode when he designed Pruitt-Igoe.)

Michael seems to be saying--"knock 'em down when their time comes"--that the Gallery of Modern Art might well be an "X list" candidate. Lord knows, we all have our candidates.

Now, what's wrong with that?


Here is Stamp from "Anti-Ugly":

if such a list had been drawn up fifty years ago it would have contained many 'hideous Victorian' buildings an earlier generation had been taught to despise major monuments like St Pancras Station which we now, rightly, cherish.

This is St. Pancras Station:

st pancras.jpg

These Victorian buildings were loathed by the Modernists--indeed they are not high on the list of many of today's Classicists. In the 1950s, when Philadelphia chose to honor its colonial history, it did so by creating "Independence National Historical Park," which involved the clearing away of some 200 buildings, including vast swaths of the city's Victorian fabric, among those swaths being, by my own estimation, some six buildings by Frank Furness. This was all so as to isolate a handful of important colonial relics.

Stamp goes on:

The real point is that there is no need for an X-List. When bad buildings come to the end of their useful (and sometimes largely useless) lives and the statutory listing system detects no merit in them, they can be demolished and replaced by something better. It is getting something better that is the problem.

This relates to the Gallery of Modern Art in two ways. First, though this may seem an issue of parochial interest to New Yorkers, is the question of why we couldn't have even had a hearing on this building. Second, what's proposed to replace it, the Cloepfil building, does not strike me--from the architects' own presentation--as an attractive alternative.

My own feeling is that Modernist urbanism has got to go--and we can deal with that through appropriate channels. It's a city planning not a historic preservation issue--though I'll grant that in some cases the two fields are closely related.

My point, I guess, is that sensitive designers might well weave together an urban fabric that uses traditional means and manners to help Modernist buildings work better in an urbanistic way. This seems to be the route taken by Robert A.M. Stern. Stern is a historian as well as an architect. No one since Henry Hope Reed has done more than Stern not only to help us to appreciate the traditional fabric of New York places (in part in two books co-written with Friend-of-Blowhards John Massengale) but also to foster the notion that we might still design in traditional modes, where appropriate. For me, a signal accomplishment of Stern's firm is a building that doesn't get a lot of attention, or at least the right kind of attention. It's his Brooklyn Law School, in downtown Brooklyn. I'm not reproducing an image here, because I can't find one online that shows the building appropriately in context, which is the whole deal with the building. It negotiates a gulch between an earlier Brooklyn Law School building, a Modernist monstrosity by Praeger-Kavanagh-Waterbury, the architects of Shea Stadium (nuff said), and the stolidly stripped-classic 1920s Brooklyn Municipal Building. Across the street is the historic 1840s Greek Revival Brooklyn City Hall. Stern expertly inserted a building of just the right scale with just the right traditional detailing that pulls off a magical feat. It's one building that draws all the surrounding buildings into an improbably harmonious ensemble, and provides a handsome wall enclosing the Modernist plaza of the earlier Brooklyn Law building.

I am writing this in a room in my home which is my and my wife's carefully conjured and deeply comforting combination of Mission style, Art Deco, and Orientalia, with some Henry Kloss audio gear that I find superior Modernist design. The Classical elements are built-ins, mainly the fireplace moldings, delicate Adamesque half-columns and swags and astragals. Cities can work in the same way.



posted by Francis at March 17, 2005


Francis, I agree with your emphasis that " Modernist urbanism has got to go."

But I'd suggest that it is not merely sensitive designers who can create a good urban street in a modernist style. Even banal designers -- uncouth fools even! -- can do so if they simply understand and then follow The Three Rules.

Posted by: David Sucher on March 17, 2005 8:05 PM

In my view the question isn't so much how to decide which buildings stay and which ones get razed as it is who gets to decide. Too often "urban planning" means urban central planning as bureaucratic committees try to predict the future. They are rarely successful, and when they're on the wrong course they can do a huge amount of damage before they are stopped.

Perhaps it would be better if more municipal governments got out of the urban planning business. Private individuals and businesses are likely to do an adequate job of deciding where to locate and what to build -- it's their investments that are at risk, after all -- and private hubris tends to be self-limiting because it leads to losing money and going out of business. OTOH, governmental hubris tends to perpetuate itself as the groups receiving largesse lobby for more government involvement.

Posted by: Jonathan on March 17, 2005 9:01 PM

Hmm. Looks like I need to master this fogey thing. Lemme see -- I prefer the Telegraph (which carries Mark Steyn) to The Times, but I like Thatcher so much the I detoured off the A1 into Grantham to see her childhood home (BTW, the greengrocery had been replaced by a real estate office). But, from one of the quotations, that combination won't quite do. Note to self: try harder!

More seriously, it is hard to decide which buildings are worth preserving, especially given the fact that tastes change. There must be a substantial literature about this, and I'm almost certain there is no easy answer.

So, in the spirit of my ignorance of the literature, let me offer the thought that it misght be best to preserve NEIGHBORHOODS rather than stray buildings except in cases where an isolated building has a compelling reason to be saved. Examples of cases would be (1) something historical happened there, as with Fraunces Tavern in lower Manhattan or (2) the building was designed by a noted architect, such as those Frank Furness buildings Francis mentioned or (3) the building is one of few examples of its kind left.

The nice thing about preserved neighborhoods (and it wouldn't be necessary that they be architecturally "pure") is that they provide an example of what it was like to live in a certain era. An instance is the Society Hill area in Philadelphia. (Was that where the Furness buildings were? Makes sense, because Furness was 100 years after Colonial times, which was the object of preservation.)

Sometimes neighborhoods (or even entire towns) preserve themselves via the method of economic obsolescence. Seattle's preserved but not-exactly-gentrified Pioneer Square area contains many brick-faced buildings that went up following the 1889 fire. Over time, the commercial center of gravity moved uphill from First Avenue to Fourth Avenue and north from Yesler Street to University Street and later Pine Street. This was by the mid-60s, when preservation and restoration started to kick in (the drift in the same directions has continued a bit since then). In 1960, the Pioneer Square area was a slum, home to sailors between voyages, winos, and the ilk. Most businesses were pawn shops, taverns and missions. The area was called Skid Road (supposedly the original "skid row" -- Skid Road refered to a log-skid down the hill to the sawmill at the foot of Yesler Street, whereas "skin row" takes on the connotation of people skidding down the social scale to its bottom).

You see entire towns preserved in what became (for a number of decades) economic backwaters such as farming centers in Vermont and mining towns in Montana and Nevada. Same thing in the Cotswolds district in England when the wool trade shifted.

I offer no program, but it might be interesting to come up with neighborhoods that haven't changed much since, say, 1950 and earmark them for future preservation.

And maybe reconsider what was "preserved" from time to time. My prime current example is the Mobil building on 42nd Street, mentioned in a comment to Francis' first post on this subject. What reason was given for its new status? I surely can't think of any.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on March 17, 2005 9:21 PM

A couple of points? Which, since I'm playing the role of Designated Fogey here, I'll try to make with a slightly straighter face than I actually feel like wearing?

* I'm not as convinced as Francis and David are that Modernist architecture and Modernist urbanism can be that easily severed from one another. The plazas, the setbacks, the treatment of spaces-between as mere "empty space," the blanknesses, the violations of conventional understandings and typologies -- it seems to me that if you throw those elements of Modernist urbanism out, you don't have much Modernist architecture left. Glass walls, I guess.

* I guess I'm also more suspicious of Modernist architects than some others here are. They've been raised and trained on ideas about creativity which are inimical to good urbanism -- creativity being a matter of standing-out, not fitting in, of novelty being good for its own sake, of innovation being per se exciting ... I remember someone (Krier? Duany?) talking about Seaside, and about how, despite how explicit the rules were -- and how obvious the intentions of the rules were -- the Modernists who designed homes and buildings there did what they could to violate the spirit of the place. (While no doubt feeling very brilliant and mischievous -- and creative!) Basically, I can't help thinking that a lot of Modernists set out quite deliberately (if not consciously) to screw traditional satisfactions up, because they've been trained and raised to think that doing so is a good architectural thing to do. Ask 'em -- require 'em -- to play by the Three Rules, and it won't be long before they're doing their best to violate the humane qualities that the Three Rules are intended to create and enforce.

* It'd be lovely to have a committee that decided which awful Modernist buildings should go. Of course, such a committee would have to be completely trustworthy, and no such committee will ever exist. Which is why I'm with Jonathan: when the useful life of these buildings runs out, let 'em go. No need for a committee. And, given how they were built, they aren't going to last forever. But no need to try to prevent them from going either.

* I don't see anyone wrestling with something that strikes Sir Old Fogey here as pretty fascinating, which is the way the modernist establishment has co-opted the preservationist movement. They've targeted preservationism and done their best to make it serve Modernism, which of course was never the intention of preservationism. Some fancy arguments, some casting things in general-principle-mode rather than specific-case-mode, and voila, you've got the National Trust standing up for the kind of modernist buildings that the National Trust was created to fight. Sly and canny of the modernists. But there's no need for us to be blind to what they're up to. Preservationism was created to fight the horrors of modernism (as well as preserve the glories of the pre-modernist past). Allowing the modernists to cast themselves as "history worth preserving" and thereby win over the preservationists deprives the rest of us of our best weapon against modernism. I don't think we should be allowing the "which Modernist buildings to officially preserve and landmark" conversation to occur at all. I'd also suggest polling the membership of the various preservationist groups and asking them how thrilled they are to see their fees go towards preserving Modernist buildings.

I'm curious, by the way: how was it that the London buildings you discuss were never destroyed? Did some kind of preservationists step in? Were they just lucky enough to endure to a time when they started to be appreciated?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 18, 2005 12:35 AM

"I am writing this in a room in my home which is my and my wife's carefully conjured and deeply comforting combination of Mission style, Art Deco, and Orientalia...The Classical elements are built-ins, mainly the fireplace moldings, delicate Adamesque half-columns and swags and astragals."

Francis--it is really not necessary to demonstrate for us each time that you are the ultimate arbiter of taste and sophistication. The smug tone grows tiresome!

Posted by: martine mallary on March 18, 2005 10:36 AM

Michael says, "I don't see anyone wrestling with something that strikes Sir Old Fogey here as pretty fascinating, which is the way the modernist establishment has co-opted the preservationist movement. . . . Some fancy arguments, some casting things in general-principle-mode rather than specific-case-mode, and voila, you've got the National Trust standing up for the kind of modernist buildings that the National Trust was created to fight. . . . ."

Some of us in New York City know that Francis Morrone himself has eloquently wrestled with the way that, as Michael rightly suggests, the modernist movement has co-opted the preservationist movement. Francis may have spoken about other aspects of the issue elsewhere. To my knowledge he approached the issue for the first time when he skewered the requirement--from those same co-opted preservationists, mind you--that new additions to traditional buildings must be "of our time." This was in a summer lecture at Sotheby's in conjunction with the Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America a year or so ago.

Francis will speak on this issue again on April at the National Arts Club, where I am on the Architectural Committee. I shall hope to issue a general invitation soon. I am in the process of trying to arrange a larger space. I promise to update 2blowhards.

Posted by: Mary Campbell Gallagher on March 18, 2005 10:54 AM

Francis writes:
"Stern expertly inserted a building of just the right scale with just the right traditional detailing that pulls off a magical feat."

This does sound like a reasonable approach when it can be managed, but magic generally is in short supply. For my money, most of the time the best way to work a modernist building into a "harmonious ensemble" will be with a wrecking ball. And this business of "knock 'em down when their time comes"... why wait? For some buildings, any day is a good day to knock them down, and the sooner the better. For some of them, it even will make economic sense to eliminate them long before their dotage. Think of the infill value of certain plazas once their ferro-cement carbuncles are excised.
Watkins implies that disliking the new Prayer Book is indicative of fogey-ism? What does a dislike of plumbing indicate?

Posted by: bald cypress on March 18, 2005 12:00 PM

Thank you, Mary. I have been kind of out in front on this issue for a couple of years. And I am now in the very strange--"only on 2Blowhards"--position of being Modernism's defender. As I said in my first post on the subject, "You never know what tomorrow will bring."

Michael, damn it, I wrote like a thousand word reply to you and somehow managed to erase it. I did so because it took so long to write that I thought I'd see if any other comments had been posted that I might reply to in the same comment, and so hit the "refresh" button--and completely refreshed away all I had written.

Don't know if I have the energy to reconstruct it.

But the gist of it was: I'm right, you're wrong.

Posted by: Francis Morrone on March 18, 2005 12:19 PM

Very interersting, Michael.
And I am very curious to see how Francis responds in more than summary fashion.
But I think you have very nicely set up the question:

"Modernist architecture and Modernist urbanism can be that easily severed from one another."

True? or False? Nice.

Posted by: David Sucher on March 18, 2005 1:30 PM

I'm very much in agreement that modernist urbanism is the "real" problem, not necessarily (orthodox) modernist architecture -- as there are a number of features of (orthodox) modernism (and its variants), and even entire (orthodox) modern buildings, that I think are really wonderful. (I've prefaced "modernism" with "orthodox" because it seems to me that orthodox modernism -- mostly modernism that's grown out of the International Style -- is only one of a number different kinds of modernism. I think it's a big mistake to cede to orthodox modernism the mantel of "modern" architecture making everything else seem old-fashioned and retrograde.)

While I basically feel that orthodox modernism is really architecture that works best in settings that are suburban (New Canaan, Palm Springs, JFK Airport), exurban (Napa) or rural (Bear Run, Pa.), it does seem to me that some aspects of orthodox modernism (e.g., its light, airy openness) can be combined with more traditional architecture to produce nice urban architecture. (And as pointed out in a previous comment, I think even some "pure" orthodox modernist buildings can work well in urban settings when they are built as special "change of pace" buildings in thoroughly traditional urban neighborhoods (as "the" foreground building amongst many, many background buildings).

I think once on the TradArch mailing list there was a thread that asked people to name favorite modernist buildings. Given my focus on cities, I tried to come up with examples of modernist buildings that I think work well on traditional urban streets -- either as special foreground buildings or (a much harder task) as just regular urban buildings.

The easy ones to think of are the "foreground" (or erstwhile foreground) buildings -- things like Lever House, Seagram, Pepsi Cola, etc.

The harder ones to come up with are the successful orthodox modernist "background" buildings. One successful orthodox modernist background building that comes to mind, however, is the Ford Foundation Building. (It's very easy to pass it by and not even realize that it is there.) I think NYC would be, to a degree, a lesser city without the Ford Foundation Building. (I "temped" there regularly at one time and some of the secretarial stations were just unbelievable. On the lower floors [ground, 1st and 2nd] there were stations [especially those overlooking 42nd St. or the Tudor City Park to the east] that made you feel as though you were working in a tree house -- and when snow fell, it was even more magical.)

(Another good orthodox modernist "background" building that comes to mind is Butterfield Houses in Greenwich Village.)

Can orthodox modernist architecture be separated from orthodox modernist urbanism? My guess is yes -- to a degree. It seems to me that two of the biggest sins of orthodox modernist urbanism were actually also sins of "city beautiful" urbanism -- buildings set apart from the city in open (sometimes green) space and the denigration (and elimination) of ground floor commercial spaces.

But it does seem to me that the orthodox modernist emphasis on unadorned (and undetailed) surfaces and/or buildings with weird shapes and shiny surfaces (glass or metal) does also limit its successful use in an urban environment. So my feeling is that, in a way, a number of the features of orthodox modernism (e.g., the emphasis on lightness, airiness and openness that I mentioned) are really too good for orthodox modernism and are best when used by contemporary architects (like Stern) who work in a more traditional mode.

Re: landmarking orthodox modernist architecture

Tentatively, and roughly speaking, I think of landmarking as creating an outdoor "museum" of immovable objects. So, along these lines, I believe that a city should probably have at least one of everything -- preferably the best or "most important" examples of each.

But an interesting question arises: what about orthodox modernist buildings that are truly terrible (but unique) or anti-urban in the extreme? Should we be landmarking those also (and thus preserving their features in perpetuity)?

The "x" building that immediately comes to my mind as one that should definitely NOT be landmarked is Portman's Mariott Marquis on Times Sq. -- and generally speaking I am a fan of his exuberant ("hog stompin" as I think Tom Wolfe calls it) architecture and his eye-popping hotels. But that building is just so destructive of the urban environment, I think it would be an awful mistake to protect its destructiveness in perpetuity with designation as an official landmark. (But I wouldn't oppose, however, even having a public hearing about it.)

For example, just look at the hotel's loading dock -- placed right next to the charming Music Box Theater (one of the theater district's best). Not only is the loading dock too large, it is even set back from the street -- to create a loading dock "plaza" of bags of garbage and whiny garbage trucks. Part of the difficulty of explaining how awful this building is is that so many wonderful NYC streetscapes have been destroyed, I'm not sure if people these days really remember how wonderful "downtown," CBD-type streets can be -- those blocks were among the nicest not only in the Times Sq. area, but in any of the city's business areas!

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on March 18, 2005 4:44 PM


I am not arguing against preservation, merely against delegating preservation decisions to unaccountable municipal committees that have taking power. Better on the whole to leave such decisions to property owners and to private institutions that buy what they wish to preserve. Who knows which of today's treasures will be considered tomorrow's drek and vice versa. Certainly the experts don't know. I'd be happy to see some wretched modernist buildings preserved, for the same reason that I'm happy to see yesterday's wretched technology in museums. (What's with the impulse to eradicate that which is out of favor -- can't we keep some of it around to remind us of what used to be?) Just maybe, property rights and the aggregate decisionmaking of diverse individuals acting independently will provide a better array of preservationist outcomes than do the grandiose central plans of bureaucratic elites.

Posted by: Jonathan on March 18, 2005 5:12 PM

I'd just like to quickly add that I agree with much of what Jonathan has posted -- especially in his first post in this thread. I've always been somewhat of a reluctant preservationist (when preservation means by government authority) -- which is one of the reasons I never became a professional in the field.

One of the ways I try to reconcile my belief in the marketplace with my support of government preservation is to see (admittedly through somewhat rose-colored glasses) the original NYC landmarks law as being more of a time delay (or circuit breaker) than an absolute prohibition against destruction. The law was originally set up to be quite flexible. (For instance, the law has provisions that allow designated landmarks to be demolished -- which is what happened to the Jennie Jerome house on Madison Sq.) A landmarks law that is, in effect, a "time delay/circuit breaker" seemed to me to be a worthwhile use of government authority because a number of important losses of landmarks (especially in the early days) seemed to be thoughtless and unnecessary.

But it does seem to me that the original letter and spirit of the NYC landmark law has been distorted over time; that a good number of buildings have been designated that probably shouldn't have; and that there are a number of buildings that should have at least have had a public hearing about designation, that haven't.

In my opinion, much of this is because of "politics" -- including the co-opting of the preservation movement by "modernists."

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on March 18, 2005 6:36 PM

Sad. Sad too that so much of what does get built is the result of anything but a totally free market, given the way things in NYC so often work ... It'd be interesting to learn the history behind the buildings that line 6th Ave in the 40s and 50s, for instance. Did they get tax breaks? Sweetheart deals?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 18, 2005 7:30 PM

MB: If I understand your post correctly, you've just hit on another one of my pet peeves -- that a lot of the destructiveness of orthodox modern architecture (e.g., the anti-urban plazas) is essentially being "subsidized" -- and actually being made economically feasible -- through government regulation. (That is that the City essentially subsidizes all those destructive "plazas" by allowing builders to build additional high rent office space at the top of their buildings.)

All of the modernist office buildings along Sixth Ave. that I can think of were built in the early 1960s, after the adoption of the 1961 zoning code -- so they probably do benefit from plaza bonuses. The City also finageled with Rockefeller Center to extend its underground concourse to the new buildings on the west side of the street, south of the Time-Life Building(originally the Rockefeller Center people didn't want to do it), and also finageled I believe, to get those through block rear "parks," so maybe those buildings got additional bonuses for these features also. When I get home, I'll try and check it out in a few books that I have.

By the way none of the modernist buildings on Sixth Ave. that I can think of were built in either the 1940s or 1950s. The first of the "new" modernist buildings on Sixth Ave. was either the Time-Life Building or the Sperry-Rand Building (just to the north of Radio City Music Hall). (But I think it was the Time-Life Building, which was planned in the late 1950s, I believe.)

The Time-Life Building has an interesting history because its construction is, in part, intertwined with the destruction of the fabled Roxy. (The building that replaced the Roxy is just to the west of the Time-Life Building.)

The few books that I've read that detail the history of the Time-Life Building, however, are written by people who are not particularly well-versed in zoning, so the story they present isn't totally clear to me. But they seem to imply that the form of the Time-Life Building, a slab rising from a plaza, is the result of the transference of air rights from the low-rise Roxy to the Time-Life site. (Rockefeller Center owned the Roxy in the years before its demolition.)

What confuses me, however, is that I'm under the impression (and I could be wrong) that this whole transference of air rights business is part and parcel of the 1961 code. I'm under the impression that prior to the 1961 code, one couldn't transfer air rights like that (for one thing, I don't think the F.A.R. mechanism existed in pre-1961 zoning), and that building form was strictly a result of a building's relationship to the street.

In any case, when it was built the Time-Life plaza was a magnificent addition to the City. Open space like that was so rare in those days, that the few places that had such open space were instant landmarks -- even those with actually tiny amounts of open space. People would meet in front of the Corning Building on Fifth Ave. because it's tiny amount of open space (I think it's been removed) was such a "landmark." Same holds true for the open space next to the Daily News Building annex on Third Ave. The buildings along Seventh Ave. opposite Penn Station were also literal landmarks because of their set back from the street. Along with the Seagram's Building and the Time-Life Building, that was just about it as far as office building plazas went in the late 1950s and very early 1960s!!!

So one of the great things about NON-subsidized plazas was that the financial difficulty of pulling them off made the one's that did actually get built really special.

(The same hold's true for something like the privately built Paley Park. When it first opened it was really something -- there was nothing like it anywhere in New York. Now, spaces like that are a dime a dozen -- there's even one down the block and almost next door to Paley Park itself.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on March 18, 2005 8:38 PM

As a follow-up answer to MB's question:

The only orthodox modernist ("slab") Sixth Ave. skyscraper to clearly pre-date the 1961 Zoning Resolution (with its bonus provision for plazas) is the Time-Life Building, which was completed around 1959 or 1960. Thinking over the info I've been able to find, I'm guessing that by merging the Time-Life property with the Roxy property into one zoning lot, the builders of Time-Life were thereby able to build a larger sheer tower under the 1961 zoning resolution (which allowed, I believe, an unlimited tower covering 25% of the total zoning lot).

Two buildings seem to straddle the zoning "eras": the Equitable Building (1961?) and the Sperry-Rand Building (1962). (I'm using their original names.) Don't know if their open space is "bonused" or not.

All the other orthodox modernist Sixth Ave. buildings with "plazas" utilize a zoning bonus, I believe.

The three Rockefeller Center Buildings south of Time-Life were also, in essence, given an additional bonus for the through block parks/arcade behind them. Apparently Rockefeller Center wanted to build larger buildings then even the plaza bonus would allow, so the City negotiated with them to add the through block plazas/arcade in order for them to get the extra space. (Carol Krinsky' book, "Rockefeller Center," has the most detailed info.)

To my surprise, I haven't been able to find anything about the City's efforts to get Rockefeller Center to extend its subway concourse to their new buildings on the west side of Sixth. (But I do vaguely remember reading about this in the papers, and discussing it with friends, at the time.)

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on March 20, 2005 3:34 PM

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