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Bartholomew Voorsanger's delightful pavilion to be lost at The Morgan Library

But he has created another one at The Asia Society

 

 

By Carter B. Horsley

These are pretty good days for architecture in New York City. After a generation or so of generally lackluster designs, many new projects of considerable interest have begun to sprout and have raised the city's depressed architectural standards considerably. Although architecture has flourished with great imagination and flair around the world and in other parts of the United States, New York City's strict/restrictive building regulations and even tougher community input and lack of political leadership have stifled creativity with the result that most new construction projects of the past several decades has been banal and uninspired. Luckily, the city's inventory of great buildings is huge, which has probably exacerbated the problem because they distract attention from the missed opportunities and tend to encourage a complacency of sorts.

It is not from a lack of architectural talent, of course, that this situation has existed, for New York City's local stable of architecture overflows with it. Much of the problem lies with community activists who have mastered the arts of public protest and bullied politicians. When the city created its system of community planning boards, it recognized, correctly, that neighborhood concerns should be aired and considered before final decisions are made about new projects that require public approvals. The city's uniform land use review process, which is known as ULURP, mandated that public hearings be held at the local community board level before being voted upon by the City Planning Commission and the City Council. The process does not state that the community board votes are binding. They are only supposed to be advisory, but in practice they have very rarely been reversed by the planning commission or council and these bodies have been loathe to antagonize the local communities. In far too many cases, however, the community boards have not always acted in the best interests of the city at large, or of good architecture and have been swayed by local anti-development interests - the so-called Not-In-My-Back-Yard (NIMBY) groups - often more concerned about protecting their own views. By and large, many of the anti-development groups have very good intentions but not a lot of architectural savvy. In their arsenal, however, they have the "cause" of preservation and a lot of justified anger at past mistakes as well as some quite literate rallying theoreticians such as Jane Jacobs who have dramatically called attention to urban design and planning issues and emphasized the importance of "context" and the encouragement of designs meant to improve existing neighborhoods. There is no question that community input is very important and has often resulted in very good modifications of some plans. On the other hand, however, it has defeated far too many exciting, or at least, very good plans. There is no reason to reform the ULURP process. The community input is very important, but it should not be de facto binding on the planning commission or council. What does need to reviewed, of course, are the city's labyrinthine building, zoning and landmarks preservation regulations. Many of these regulations, of course, are fine and important, but the city evolves over time and periodically they should be reviewed and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 have provided the city with the need to reconsider some important issues about its future and the intense interest in what should be done at the former World Trade Center site offers an excellent opportunity to consider larger architectural issues.

This article, however, is not about what needs to be reviewed in those regulations, but about architecture choices at two of the city's most prestigious cultural institutions, one of which, The Morgan Library, has decided to demolish a very graceful pavilion, and the other, The Asia Society, which has recently created a very handsome new pavilion. Both pavilions are by the same architect, Bartholomew Voorsanger.

The good news is that Voorsanger's redesign of the interior of The Asia Society building on the northeast corner of Park Avenue and 70th Street is quite exciting and includes a very beautiful new skylit café.

 

The bad news is that his ten-year-old pavilion, known as the Garden Court, at The Morgan Library, which is located on the northeast corner of Madison Avenue at 36th Street but occupies the avenue blockfront to 37th Street, is to be replaced in a major new expansion designed by the Renzo Piano Building Workshop and Beyer Blinder Belle.

The Asia Society building at 725 Park Avenue was originally designed in 1980 by Edward Larrabee Barnes, who also designed the former IBM tower on the southwest corner of Madison Avenue and 57th Street with its great bamboo atrium. Barnes's red-granite design for the society was very conservative and not very exciting, and its most notable feature was the hanging of two large banners on the avenue frontage that disrupted vistas.

Voorsanger's redesign did not tamper with the building's avenue frontage, but is visible on the sidestreet where the glass walls of the café are quite visible and frankly are a bit incongruous with the building and the rest of the block, which has some of the most impressive and elegant townhouses in the city. The glass walls are somewhat rakishly angled and distinctly different from the rear treatment of the Barnes building. They do, however, have an "oriental" sense and fortunately provide an intriguing incentive to go inside the building. The glass walls rise above the existing parapet wall so pedestrians cannot see what is contained behind them and most likely they will assume that it is an added floor. Wrong!

Upon entering the redesign interior, the visitor to the society will be startled to find swooping, curved walls and staircases, marvelous round tables whose tops are large, built-in computer screens, and, where the museum's gift shop used to be a new and large, double-height café that is contained in the space behind the glass walls seen from the street.

The café is immensely attractive. Indeed, it may well be the handsomest dining space in the city, which is quite an accomplishment and one that should significantly increase surrounding property values as well as eventually attracting many more visitors to the society. It is even lovelier than the delightful Café Sabarsky that also opened recently in the very fine Neue Gallerie of German and Austrian Expressionist Art at 1048 Fifth Avenue at 86th Street overlooking Central Park. In a city noted for flamboyant restaurant design, it is quite remarkable that two great new moderately priced restaurants should open in museum settings at about the same time, a giant step for the city's culture.

(The Asia Society's book and gift shop has been relocated in the redesign and now is directly at the society's entrance and visitors will be hard-pressed not to spent lots of money on its many varied and enticing offerings that are beautifully displayed in one of the nicest retail settings in the city.)

Visitors will also marvel at the new staircases that are curved and have bright blue tubular supports that have nothing whatsoever to do with the building's sedate red-granite facades. The staircases are quite spectacular and actually deserve a far more high-tech setting, perhaps something like the Javits Convention Center, which was designed by I. M. Pei's architectural firm.

The setting here actually is high-tech but some visitors may not immediately notice. There are a few low circular tables whose surfaces are actually computer screens that are activated by rather large "stones" that act as computer mice, albeit without the tail of cables. These tables, at least their surfaces, are the epitome of high-tech although their form from a distance seem like conventional 1950's style garden furniture.

The café interior itself does not break new ground architecturally, but it is a smashingly lovely space that has a definite contemporary Asian style. The $30 million redesign of the institution's interior doubled its public and exhibition spaces. (The Asia Society is open from 11 AM to 6 PM, Tuesdays through Sundays, and on Fridays it is open until 9 PM. Admission is $7 but seniors and students are admitted for $4.)

Voorsanger obviously is more comfortable with curves with rectilinear solutions and his curves are subtle and graceful and a most welcome addition to this city of grids. One could quibble that the computer tables and the staircase's tubular supports might have been covered in wood or perhaps red to be more in "context" with the traditions of the society. Nonetheless, Voorsanger has taken a relatively non-descript, unattractive building and given it an awesomely cool interior that reflects the best of "Oriental" design, which is saying a great deal. While this interior is not as serene as the great sculptures of Isamu Noguchi it elegantly reflects the refined modern aesthetics of the East and certainly transforms the rather esoteric society into a major destination.

The Asia Society café nestles within the walled sidestreet elevation of the institution whereas Voorsanger's café at the Morgan Library was the centerpiece of a highly visible expansion of that institution that was completed in 1992 and connected its two buildings on 36th Street with the large brownstone townhouse on the southeast corner of 37th Street and Madison Avenue. The townhouse was erected in 1853 for Isaac N. Phelps and was later occupied by Anson Phelps Stokes and from 1904 to 1943 by J. P. Morgan Jr. It then became the property of the Lutheran Church i America that would subsequently successful contest its designation as an official city landmark but was rescued from demolition by its purhase by the library. J. P. Morgan's original mid-block building on 36th Street was erected in 1906 and was designed by McKim, Mead & White. The annex at the northeast corner at Madison Avenue and 36th Street was designed by Benjamin W. Morris in 1928.

Voorsanger's solution at The Morgan Library was the erection of a large glass pavilion with a wonderfully sinuous curved skylit roofline that created one of the city's most serene spaces.

The institution, however, won approval in early 2002 from the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission to demolish this beautiful space to make room for another major expansion, designed by Renzo Piano, the architect of the great high-tech Georges Pompidou Centre, known as Beaubourg, in Paris, one of the 20th Century's most important works of architecture, and Beyer Blinder Belle.

 

Piano's design calls for the creation of new vault space that will represent a significant expansion for the museum and will also result in making a new entrance to it in the middle of the avenue blockfront between 36th and 37th Streets. The museum now has an avenue entrance in the brownstone townhouse structure that leads into its book and gift shop and another in the museum's annex building on 36th Street. The original building's entrance in the middle of 36th Street between Madison and Park Avenues has long been closed.

As one of the world's greatest libraries with a fabulous collection of drawings as well as some good Old Master Paintings, the institution is one of the city's great cultural treasures. The city should welcome and encourage its expansion and it has. Unfortunately, the design of this expansion calls for the replacement of Voorsanger's delightful glass pavilion with a cube-like structure that would appear to be windowless except for the entrance based on a photograph reproduced March 1, 2002 in The New York Times in a short article by David W. Dunlap. The article noted that the design was approved unanimously by the Landmarks Preservation Commission and that the $75 million plan is to begin in 2003 and will require the museum to be closed for two years.

The photograph in Mr. Dunlap's article indicated that the museum's handsome wrought-iron fence along its avenue frontage will be moved but it was not clear from the picture whether the entrance will be approached by a short ramp or stairs since it is elevated a few feet from the sidewalk. The article quoted Sherida E. Paulsen, chairwoman of the preservation commission, as stating that the plan was a "brilliant design."

Two phone calls and one e-mail from The City Review to the institution's communications department for a press kit about the plan elicited no response, unfortunately.

A February 10, 2002 column in the Arts & Leisure section of The New York Times by Herbert Muschamps, the newspaper's architecture critic, reproduced an elevation sketch by Piano for the project that indicated it would have four underground levels and a rear glass-enclosed pavilion of at least five stories.

In his article, Mr. Muschamps made the following observations:

"Piano's designwill replace three structures completed between 1962 and 1991. Roughly half of the $75 million project is to be underground. This will allow the design's visible portions to be lower than the rooflines of the library's existing buildings. Beneath grade, Piano proposes to cut into the bedrock of Manhattan schist on which the library sites. Into this cavity he will insert a four-story subterranean vault, containing stacks. These lead off from an atrium lined with metal stairs. A 250-sear auditorium, site of the spoken word, is also located here. The space is Piranesian, Borgesian, even Pythian. The design above ground is 'infill' architecture: a set of three new pavilions, acing into a glass-roofed courtyard, that will be inserted between three of the exiting buildings: the J. P. organ house the original library building and its subsequent annex. Since these structures differ in style, materials and relationship to the street, their context is one of contrast, scale and sequence. It is a context of time as well as space, in other words, one of adding to rather than fitting in which. Piano's design responds straight forwardly to this context. It adheres to the scale of the existing structures but departs from them in form, materials and proportions. The palette is glass and painted steel, the color as yet undecided. The forms are stark but not brutal. For example, the steel panels of the main facades sit glat on the ground.but the panels are recessed within frames and grooved at the edges, to evoke the image of moldings. Stair towers are faced with glass, and the airy spring of the metal stairs again reveals Piano as architecture's great poet of circulation. The courtyard, however, ist he focal point of the design's circulation system. It replaces the inelegant Garden Court designed by Voorsanger and Mills and completed in 1990. But the architects of the addition were constrained by its relatively unambitious scope. With an overall plan that radiates from the center of the site to the three streets bordering it, the new courtyard will be integrated more organically into the new complex. The courtyard's glass roof is a refined version of the 19th Century engineering projects that inspired many architects in the early years of the 20th.The design doesn't fit the rancid image of modern architecture still held by many New Yorkers who should know better. No where is Piano's departure from the image more evident than in his design for a new gallery that will be inserted between the Morgan house and library facing 36th Street. A windowless steel cube, 20 feet on each side, the room is intended for displaying individual books of exceptional rarity. But its real function is to show off the beauty o classically proportioned space. If you are classically inclined, you are always on the lookout for the Good, the True and the Beautiful. As I see it, the Good means service to others; the True means truth to self; and the Beautiful articulates the continuous union and separation of selves and others over time. Piano's design is as complete a rendition of these virtues as New York has seen since the Seagram building. It s most classical aspect is that it is a work of connective tissue, not an independent object free-floating in space. Service to others is the critical issue raised by this project.Piano is an outsider, and therefore vulnerable to attack by local architects who shy away from criticizing one another. Robert A. M. Stern, objecting to elements of the design in a letter to the Landmarks Commission, adopted the tone of a great Beaux Arts master admonishing a callow apprentice. This was predictable. Stern represents a brand of theme park design that has misrepresented itself as classicism - as architecture, for that matter - for three decades. The brand was built on a false polarity between Classicism and Modernism, the latter taken to be a 'style' developed in the 1920s and 30s. The brand's stock, which has been tumbling in recent years, stands to fall still further as work like Piano's alerts people to the flimsiness of its underlying premise. This is not the first time a New York project by Piano has been targeted by a local architect. In 2000, at a symposium organized by the Museum of Modern Art on the subject of pragmatism, Peter Eisenman caused a slight commotion by showing a slide of Piano's design for a 52-story headquarters for The New York Times on Eighth Avenue opposite the Port Authority Terminal.Eisenman offered the crudely rendered image as self-evident proof that the design, and therefore the philosophy, were objectionable.All the ideological posturing simply reinforces the creative stalemate that has gripped New York architecture in recent decades. What may have once resembled intellectual positions are now just sales positions: marketing tricks. These architects are only serving their own brands. Because of them, the public has come to regard most architects as preening egos. Piano's design may cause some of them to reconsider. It should also remind people that truth to oneself and service to others are not incompatible.In recent decades, the city has been excessively vigilant in rooting out architectural individuality as if it were a crime against the people. Piano's design for The Morgan Library shows us that the street runs both ways. There are times when the public should surrender a portion of its collectivity in order to have the sense of community restored to it, at a higher level by an architect of exceptional talent."

Mr. Muschamps evidently likes Mr. Piano and his design for The Morgan Library although his cavalier remarks about local architects and "marketing tricks" may not win him too many new friends. Presumably he was expressing his disappointment with much of what passes for Post-Modern design, which is understandable to a great extent. While Robert A. M. Stern is well-known for many Post-Modern designs he is also the author, with several collaborators of an incredible series of huge volumes on New York City's architecture since the 1880s that are brilliant and invaluable reference works. Stern is very, very, very knowledgeable about New York City architecture.

Piano is the architect with Fox & Fowle of the planned new Eighth Avenue skyscraper that will house the new headquarters of The New York Times (see The City Review article on that project). In recent years, several major new projects in the city have been "won" by famous international architects. Sir Norman Foster, for example, has been selected to design a new tower atop the low-rise Hearst Building on the southwest corner of 57th Street and Eighth Avenue and Christian Portzamparc designed the angular mid-rise LVMH building on 57th Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues. Hopefully, New York City will eventually have examples of the works of many other important "foreign" architects as well as new important buildings by the "locals," who are a pretty impressive lot.

One wonders, however, why Mr. Muschamps described Voorsanger Mill's pavilion as "inelegant." It is one of the city's few lyrical structures of the past few decades and it is elegant and pleasant and delightful. Beyer Blinder Belle is a fine local architectural firm with a long and good record involved with historic preservation properties. Voorsanger's pavilion at the Morgan is one of the city's small jewels and while the museum's important underground expansion may well require its demolition, why was he not brought on board as an associate consultant? The City Review would have asked the Morgan about Voorsanger's possible involvement in the project, but since it did not respond to three requests for information The City Review will still await an answer. The City Review has not attempted to contact Mr. Voorsanger for comment.

There are two few jewels and delightful oases in midtown and Voorsanger's Garden Court at the Morgan has been one of them and it gracefully tied together the somber brownstone, which has rounded bay windows on its south facade with the classical elegance of Benjamin Wistar Morris's annex at the south end of the avenue blockfront. Piano's steel and most blank cube is not likely to be as elegant as Voorsanger swooping curves and the loss of the fine fence seems callous. What are the preservationists thinking about these days? An underground expansion of the museum is not a bad idea, but a midblock atrium hemmed in on all sides by other buildings is not quite the same as one that faces the avenue as Voorsanger's pavilion does. Despite Mr. Muschamps enchanted raves, Piano's plan conjures only a bunker that turns its back on its neighbors.

 

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