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Curbed Roundtable: Critical Mass for 2 Columbus Circle

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Though the scaffolding came down long ago, emotions still run high over the renovation of 2 Columbus Circle, architect Edward Durell Stone's "lollipop" building, current home to the Museum of Arts and Design, and the subject of much public outcry during its controversial overhaul by architect Brad Cloepfil. Lost in the brouhaha, however, was what some now consider to be an oversight propagated by the Bloomberg administration: in a rather unusual move given the project's profile, the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission failed to hold a public meeting prior to the makeover of Stone's facade back in June 2005. Water under the bridge? Not to some.

Preservation advocate group Landmark West has revisited the subject in a survey of sorts, convening some of the city's heaviest hitters to opine on the project and its politics—to ask, essentially, "What can we learn from 2 Columbus Circle?" The commentary below was submitted by a panel of public figures, including politicians, critics, and advocates alike; following their assessments, we invite readers to jump into the fray in the comments. Executive Director of the Historic Districts Council Simeon Bankoff and architectural historian John Kriskiewicz will step in to moderate the discussion, so let's play nice in the sandbox.

The Moderators:

Simeon Bankoff has been the Executive Director of the Historic Districts Council, the citywide advocate for New York's historic neighborhoods, since 2000. He has more than 15 years of experience with preservation non-profits in New York, having worked in programming and development with the Historic House Trust, the Historic Landmarks Preservation Center and the New York Landmark Foundation.

A native New Yorker, John Kriskiewicz is an architectural historian. As a teacher, researcher, and curator, he has a special interest in and affinity for the vanishing Mid-Twentieth Century Modernism of this city.

The Critics:

Lisa Ackerman, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, World Monuments Fund

I wasn't yet at WMF when 2 Columbus Circle was placed on the World Monuments Watch list but I am aware how strongly the Watch panel believed 2 Columbus Circle was both an endangered site and emblematic of the extreme threats facing significant mid-20th century modern buildings. While a city like New York cannot remain static and not all buildings can be saved, one hopes that buildings exemplifying design excellence, introducing new materials or that typify an era will endure or at the very least will have the chance to be reviewed appropriately before succumbing to the wrecking ball to make way for new designs, uses, and building materials. Lessons learned from 2 Columbus Circle are myriad: don't underestimate the groundswell of support that can develop for a building; while aesthetics are an important component of landmarking, they are not the only criteria and tastes evolve over time; today's quaint building might have been deemed a horror a generation earlier; landmarking is meant to help showcase the evolution of a community through its architecture and Modernism is an important piece of that history, both because of the buildings produced and the philosophy embodied in the structures. While some will lament the loss of Edward Durrell Stone's 2 Columbus Circle and others will herald the arrival of the new building, the fact remains that an iconic structure is gone from the streetscape and other buildings erected from the 1950s to the 1970s are disappearing from our communities. There was a period of great excitement and an embracing of modernism in communities throughout the country. Suddenly public libraries, schools, suburban houses were moving away from neo-classicism and heralding a new era of American Modernism. If we lose these buildings, how will this era in American culture and architecture be expressed. Is the lesson from 2 Columbus Circle fight earlier and fight harder? Is the lesson not every building can be saved? is the lesson, preservationists need to explain that even buildings that appear hard to love contribute to our streetscape and contribute valuable information about the march of time in our city? A local building gained national attention because it was threatened, but also because it was a highly significant example of a mounting threat to an era's cultural legacy.

Tony Avella, New York City Council Member, District 19, Queens

While the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) has made considerable progress over the years, they have clearly not gone far enough to respond to community requests to identify and landmark worthy properties such as 2 Columbus Circle. As a result, in 2006 I introduced legislation (Intro. #393/2006) to amend the administrative code of the City of New York directing LPC to hold a public hearing on proposed landmark designation sites or neighborhoods suggested by the City Council. Unfortunately, this bill has since languished within the City Council. I have also proposed/introduced the following pieces of legislation to effectuate change within LPC:

· Intro. #678/2008: Promotes the adoption of specific qualifications for candidates appointed to serve on LPC. These qualifications include: knowledge of historical and architectural heritage of the city, experience in safeguarding this heritage, and independence in exercising judgment strictly on the merits without regard to political pressure or outside lobbying interests.
· LPC Designation Supercedes Demo Permit’: A Local Law to amend the Administrative Code and/or the Charter of the city of New York to allow the Landmarks Preservation Commission to supercede an existing demolition permit should the Commission determine that said building is eligible for “landmark” status.
· Rest assured the preservationist leader in the City Council, I will continue to fight for these legislative changes to ensure that LPC does more to respond to community requests and preserve very unique and precious buildings before they are lost forever.

2 Columbus Circle: Architect Brad Cloepfil's vision (right) and the finished product (left).
· Rendering/Reality: Museum of Arts & Design [Curbed]

Rick Bell, Executive Director, American Institute of Architects, New York Chapter Youth on Parade

In 2004 the Museum of Arts & Design burned a promotional compact disk titled MAD FOR JAZZ which included 18 classics, among them I’ve Heard That Song Before by Harry James. The second verse of that song starts “I know each word because I’ve heard that song before / The lyrics said ‘Forever more’ / Forever more’s a memory.” Many, including this writer, thought that the Edward Durrell Stone building at 2 Columbus Circle was a lovely song, and still remember just when they saw its lolli-pop rhythm for the first time. Now, not unlike a musical cover, we hear the same old song, but with a different beat. I like the new building by Allied Works Architecture, and am not embarrassed to say so among those who have an old familiar score to settle. Brad Cloepfil’s building plays with light and materiality in a way that fits well with the mission and collection of a vibrant and exciting cultural institution. What have we learned from the fights, from the process, from the results? That “a theme can recall a favorite dream”? That the scale, the curve and the use matter most? That people again are flocking to 2 Columbus Circle, not to get even, but to get MAD.

Thomas K. Duane, New York State Senator, 29th District, Manhattan

We, as a coalition of elected officials, preservationists, artists and neighborhood activists, must learn from the tragic example of 2 Columbus Circle that securing the preservation of worthy historic buildings and districts must begin long before they are threatened by inappropriate renovations, redevelopment or demolition. The battle to preserve 2 Columbus Circle was extraordinary, and I sincerely believe that, had we mobilized earlier, Edward Durell Stone’s “Landmark-in-Waiting” would have survived unscathed. People can disagree about the merits of the Museum of Arts and Design’s new façade, but that is irrelevant given the loss of its incomparable predecessor.”

Christopher Gray, architectural historian and New York Times columnist

To quote James Gardner, “Manhattan, where some of the world’s most interesting architects have done some of their dullest work.” (New York Sun, January 16, 2008)

Paul Gunther, President, Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America

For one thing, the 2 Columbus Circle landmarks battle, framed as it was by the Commission's refusal even to hear it, cemented once and for all 20th century design expression as a valid and vital designation category. Such awareness is hardly new -- going back as it does locally to the successful protection of Lever House in the late 80's thanks in large measure to the Municipal Art Society and the subtle engagement of Jacqueline Onassis with what was the then decisive Board of Estimate. Nonetheless I am convinced that until recently many in power still doubted the necessity or legitimacy of such modernist consideration. This failure compounded by the result of the Cloepfil design not to mention the fact of the Dahesh Museum's former eagerness (and well known financial capacity) to have restored it in the first place as a cultural facility means it will not be repeated -- at least not by the Commission staff and members themselves, as evidenced today at St Vincent's O'Toole Medical Services Building (aka National Maritime Union of America ) by Albert Ledner. Two Columbus Circle will prove the Pennsylvania Station demolition watershed of 20th century design in New York.

In addition, the catastrophic downturn in New York's economy and the inevitable curtailment ahead of city capital expenditures, not to mention what will likely be a massive decline in individual and institutional giving for cultural capital projects (and especially for the ongoing operating costs that follow in the wake of such expansion and which is far less "marketable" than the name-naming pizzazz of new construction campaigns), means that the adaptive re-use of historic properties -- whether or not officially designated -- needs to be appreciated anew for its relative economy. The less the demolition and the less the need for new construction, the greener and cheaper the project becomes no matter how environmentally enlightened and progressive the resulting structure may be. (And there are still plenty of design opportunities within this pecuniary context!) Was it necessary to destroy the Stone edifice as much for financial and green reasons as aesthetic and historic ones? Should design practitioners and the elected and bureaucratic officials in place to guide their work give greater attention to both short- and long-term budgetary repercussions particularly in the wake of the explosion of construction of the last decade? In other words, can the city afford to destroy worthy sites even when decision-makers disagree about their respective design merits? As an accident of timing, Two Columbus Circle may provoke such broader civic discussion. For opponents at least such a perspective heightens what is seen as an unnecessary loss.

Mary Anne Hunting, PhD. From her forthcoming book, Edward Durell Stone: Modern Architecture and Mass Culture

The animated debate about the preservation of the former Gallery of Modern Art building at Two Columbus Circle revealed that in spite of a quarter century of postmodernist criticism and modernist revision, mid-twentieth-century architecture still provokes fervent responses—not just by the miniscule minority of historians and critics but, as its architect Edward Durell Stone had hoped, “everyone, the man in the street, the uneducated man, the uninformed man.”

But as the recent circumstances of this courageously provocative building demonstrated, the many facile critical judgments—all too often punctuated with erroneous misconceptions about its initial success—failed to capture the important role played by modern architecture in mid-century America in the political, social, and economic realms. Further, it made clear that a crucial historical understanding of the pluralistic definitions of Modernism, embodying the American ideologies that high modernist dogma failed to sufficiently include, is still called for in order to inform the fervent debates that will continue to transpire as other key monuments reach their fifty-year mark.

Even though the recent critical evaluations of the Gallery of Modern Art effectively utilized diverse methodologies and insights from other disciplines (by the late Herbert Muschamp, for example), which led to more inclusive views than in the past, neither historians nor critics have thoroughly investigated the complex yet successful interrelationship between Stone, the general public, and the influential mass media. Consequently, it is not often recognized that the Gallery of Modern Art absolutely matched public expectations. By grasping the salient characteristics of the postwar consumer culture and articulating them in an aesthetic of extravagance and glamour, the building perfectly represented the historical moment in which it was formulated.

Although a celebrity architect, Stone still is not comfortably situated in the history of modernism. Texts do not take into consideration the fact that he democratized taste as he broke away from the confines of orthodox modernism. His architecture responded to the public demand for more variation and individual expression, the conveyance of American values and its cultural supremacy—in essence it reflected a consumer-driven, capitalistic society. Consequently, Stone exposed the anxieties of the avant-garde whose exclusionary stance echoes the Greenbergian theory that there can be no positive exchange between high art and the mass culture, the relationship between the two being one of “relentless refusal.” Since these steadfast modernists fatefully cannot see that his buildings destabilized the hostile barrier between high modernism and the quotidian concerns of the upward middle class, they also cannot recognize the innovative set of relations Stone established in his architecture. If they could appreciate his effort to integrate popular cultural forms and ideas with modern strategies then they could better understand the dominant forces that shaped mid-twentieth-century America.

Reed Kroloff, Director of Cranbrook Academy of Art and Art Museum

perhaps ironically, even after its dramatic revision, 2 Columbus Circle remains a captive of history. it began its life that way, of course, with ed stone's trend-bucking embrace of venetian ornamental motifs. over the next several decades, the building's notoriety only grew as it first failed as a museum and then suffered ignominy as a ward of the city. Conflict flared again as the old museum faced potential demolition, pitting those who thought it represented an important early challenge to modernist orthodoxy against those who thought it was simply a poorly designed building whose lease on life had been too long extended by its controversial past. and now he we are. the building is clearly new again, but even renovation architect brad cloepfil of allied works can't escape the past: he preserves the building's signature lollipop columns at the base, encasing them in a protective membrane, and we all continue to discuss the project. certainly this has something to do with the freshness of the change, and of course, the building's location. But i wonder if anyone will talk about it at all 5 years from now. if not, it will finally have shed the most significant part of its history.

Initial construction on Edward Durell Stone's "lollipop"
· 2 Columbus Circle Update: Lollipops Under Glass [Curbed]

Francis Morrone, architectural historian

Looking back on the 2 Columbus Circle debacle, I see two glaringly wrong things that it exposed. The first was the utter dysfunctionality of the landmarks process in New York. It's one thing to say you don't believe in landmarking. It's one thing to say a particular building is not worthy of designation. But it's something else entirely to say you believe in landmarking but that 2 Columbus Circle lacked merit enough for a hearing. There is no level of cynicism, disingenuousness, and narcissistic animus to which powerful people in this city will not stoop. And no degree of sycophancy to which their minions will not stoop. The second wrong thing is the thing that replaced 2 Columbus Circle. That is what it was all about? I don't know if the episode has taught us much that is new. I don't imagine this is the last time that political pressure will cause the circumvention of the proper processes of city agencies. And it won't be the last time that a New York institution places all its bets on the shiny and chic, nor the last time the chic and shiny thing turns out to be a dud. One other thing: Too many people thought the preservation community was asking for 2 Columbus Circle to be landmarked. That's how it was spun by the people who wanted to destroy it. In fact, preservationists were calling for a hearing, not a designation. The distinction got blurred.

Daniel J. O’Donnell, New York State Assembly Member, 69th District, Manhattan

The Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) is an agency of New York City government which rarely acts like a public entity. The determinations made by the LPC are often secretive, often illogical, and are rarely subject to public scrutiny and participation. The lesson of 2 Columbus Circle is that there is always significant value in full hearings on the merits of designation proposals, regardless of the ultimate decision. Two Columbus Circle is only one example of the consequences of LPC inaction. For over twelve years, LPC has refused to act on a proposal for the creation of a historic district in Morningside Heights. That proposal, whose merits are inarguable, languishes while development, demolition, and façade renovations threaten an entire neighborhood of architecturally cohesive buildings.

LPC is in desperate need of transparency, accountability, and leadership that will bring it back to its mission. Let us hold up 2 Columbus Circle as an example of LPC at its worst, demand responsiveness, and insist upon a return to preservation priorities of New York’s communities with full public participation.

Witold Rybczynski, Professor of Urbanism, University of Pennsylvania, and architecture critic, Slate

Saving 2 Columbus Circle from demolition was never about whether the building that would replace it would be better or worse, it was about preserving an—admittedly eccentric—landmark, and recognizing that a city is enriched by a dialogue between buildings of different eras and different sensibilities. The new public space in the center of Columbus Circle, which has become a sort of architectural viewing platform, underlines this point. Unfortunately, it also underlines the fact that what has replaced 2 Columbus Circle is worse. The facade of the new Museum of Art and Design is cheerless and crude. It may grow on us in time, as Edward Durell Stone’s marble gift wrapping did, but I doubt it. The lesson, if there is one, is that change is not always for the better, and a degree of skepticism is always in order.

Anthony M. Tung, author and former member of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission

When the New York City Landmarks Preservation statute was created in 1965, its purpose was not to save every old structure in New York, even if George Washington had slept there; or every loved neighborhood, no matter how beautiful; or even every transcendent work of American architecture woven into the fabric of our cityscape.

Instead, its purpose was to insure that no important building or quarter be destroyed without an informed conversation. This is the guiding principal of the landmarks law: that our community be allowed to discuss the character of the built environment that houses our lives. That in an open public forum, every interested New Yorker be given three minutes to speak. That we cull the intelligence of the metropolis. In regard to 2 Columbus Circle, the denial of that conversation by Mayor Bloomberg was a travesty, a fearful negation of democratic process. The denial of that conversation by the Landmarks Commission, itself, was an act of misfeasance: a failure under its statutory obligation to provide New York with "adequate consideration of the irreplaceable loss to the people of the city of the aesthetic, cultural, and historic values" of such an edifice. What small-minded stewards were these, who suppressed a conversation with our neighbors? So where do we go from here? The lesson of 2 Columbus Circle is never to sanction the stewardship of those who would steal our right to speak.

Tom Wolfe, author

Nobody can help but notice the gigantic H and E on the facade. Already wags insist on calling it the Human Error Building. Just days after it opened, the New York Times chief architectural critic, Nicholas Ouroussoff recommended tearing it down as one of the 7 ugliest horrors of contemporary architecture in New York. The City, owner of the building that was destroyed to make way for this one, the Gallery of Modern Art designed by Edward Durell Stone, can't say it wasn't warned. An unprecedented coalition of America's leading architects, critics, and academicians besieged and beseeched the City's Landmark Preservation Commission to hold a hearing on preserving Stone's building, which was not only his masterwork but also the precursor of the sculptural architecture of Gehry and Calatrava. The Commission, obviously under strict orders from City Hall, refused, clearing the way for Ugly Betty. The moral: Preservation commissions shouldn't be plugged into City Hall like an appliance.

· Landmark West's Blog []
· 2 Columbus Circle coverage [Curbed]