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Curbed Roundtable Redux: Critical Mass for 2 Columbus Circle

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"What can we learn from 2 Columbus Circle?" So was the question posed earlier in the week, as we asked Curbed readers to join us in revisiting architect Brad Cloepfil's overhaul of 2 Columbus Circle, current headquarters to the Museum of Arts and Design, and formerly known as architect Edward Durell Stone's "lollipop." Do recall the public outcry over the Landmarks Preservation Commission's failure to hold a public meeting prior to the makeover of Stone's facade back in June 2005, a rather unusual move given the project's public profile. While some are still seething over the oversight, preservation advocate group Landmark West recently convened a group of public figures -- politicians, critics, community advocates -- to opine on the aftermath in a calm, cool, and collect exchange of ideas. Executive Director of the Historic Districts Council Simeon Bankoff and architectural historian John Kriskiewicz jumped into the ring with Curbed readers, moderating what turned out to be a downright civil sparring match in the comment box. Join us below for the highlights.

On government oversight:

Comment #4: Was the Landmark Preservation Commission *prevented* from holding a hearing? If so, who prevented it? How? If not, then the commission should be held accountable for not holding a proper hearing. Either way -- the issue is totally separate from the aesthetics of the original building or the renovated building. It's a government oversight (or lack thereof) issue. My personal opinion is that neither is very pleasant, but I'm glad the museum has a home. NYC's architecture is lacking in so many ways... this one example shouldn't cause such a stink.

Simeon Bankoff: Number 4 has pinpointed the issue entirely. Looking at the aesthetics of the building will inevitably end up in the thicket of “like vs. dislike”, which frankly is no way to determine City policy. The question should have been “was the building historically, culturally or aesthetically significant to New York City?” and there was enough firepower on both sides of the issue to believe there should have been the opportunity for a public debate at the Landmarks Preservation Commission, rather than the shadow-boxing which had to happen

Comment #12: 2 Columbus Circle is just the tip of the iceberg. The New York Times just ran an editorial calling the Landmarks Commission "a bureaucratic black hole" because of all the buildings and neighborhoods it is ignoring. Not because they aren't worthy (that can and should be debated publicly), but because some developer has a line into Mayor Bloomberg's office. I agree with #4 - that it's a government oversight issue, frankly something we should be willing to spend a little energy on.

On landmarking and the Landmarks Preservation Commission:

Comment #16: The issue here is that landmarking is, in part, a public process. If there is an overwhelming amount of people who wish to present their case to the Commission to landmark a building, then a hearing should be granted. This does not mean that the building will necessarily be landmarked, but it is important to allow the people to state their case before deciding if it's worthy or not.

Comment #19: the LPC has been very responsive to the community - every neighborhood has a group or groups of people who would like to see nothing new at all - and they attempt to 'abuse' the landmarks law to that end - often they are well funded and connected to city hall and use their political might to 'get their way' - which in many many instances is just an effort to block further development in their own neighborhoods just so as to not have to deal with construction or get their views blocked or whatever - having nothing to do with preserving the fabric of those neighborhoods - the LPC has done a good job at balancing the desires of the 'locals' while understanding that new doesn't always = bad - in most cases costing owners at lot of money redesigning proposals and delaying projects for years while the design review at the LPC is done

Comment #28: It seems often in new york (not sure how it is in europe but guessing it may be the same) that when a development is not 'as-of-right' and subject to approval by the LPC that the community infuses the argument against it with 'taste' - often with the claim than any design that is seen as 'modern' is inherently bad - fortunately the LPC is above that these days.

John Kriskiewicz: Good point #28. LPC HAS encouraged architects to seek creative solutions in Historic Districts and in additions to Individual Landmarks...sometimes these are Modern in style rather than an imitation of an historic style...this, is in itself, is often the point of controversy. The Landmarks Law was written to be flexible enough for each generation to determine what is appropriate ...

Preserve This: I think that part of the problem is the way that the commission is made up. Required by law to have 3 architects (knowledge of historic architecture or experience adapting historic buildings not required), a historian (not necessarily an architecture historian or a new york city historian) and then a city planner or landscape architect, there is really a missed opportunity here with such a wealth of preservation professionals in this city. The commission is sorely understaffed but it is the commissioners who determine what buildings and districts get calendared.

Fun With Laws:

John Kriskiewicz Another thought that comes through in these posts is the idea that perhaps the law is "too vague"...but realize that being too specific can also be a problem (in terms of fixing future generations with a narrow idea of what is preservation)...the problem that seems to be articulated by your comments is the lack of transparancy in the way decisions are made by the LPC and a set of general standards that the public (communities, architects, builders) can agree on as a point of departure for designing in districts...

Comment #42: the 'landmarks law' is written to be inherently vague - if it weren't written that way then 'zoning laws' in those districts would no longer apply and the constitutionality of the 'landmarks law' could easily be challenged and not easily be defended

On style:

Comment #44: The better parts of New York City have that elusive quality loosely defineed as a "Sense of Place". We enjoy the brownstone streets of the Upper West Side, for example, or the cast-iron qualities of SoHo precisely because the overall cohesion gives identity to the "place". Genuinely talented architects were able to satisfy their own creative urges, yet simultaneously support the fabric of the street through the use of similar materials, similar forms, heights, etc. Anyone who has enjoyed a stroll through the boulevards of Paris will know how their visual enjoyment is enhanced by the cohesiveness of otherwise unique but respectful individual buildings. Cities are undermined by 'ego-tecture' that seeks only to stand out, or to reject all that is around it. It is the hallmark of poor and pretentious architects like Daniel Libeskind, (the most egregious example), who promotes visual discord and disharmony at every opportunity. I doubt if anyone will care about him or his work, or Eisenman's work for that matter, or 2 Columbus Circle, in 10 years.

John Kriskiewicz: Good back to the subject and building at hand...thanks #44.
Time will tell...but wouldn't you agree that Stone's 2 CC accomplished just those points you's a creative solution to a very difficult site that supported the fabric of Columbus Circle "through the use of similar materials, similar forms , heights". For example...Stone's 2 CC utilized the same tripartate organization as the Beaux-Arts U.S. Rubber Building from 1912 just to the south as well as white marble...the same material...and importantly reinforced the Circle by acting as a transition in scale between the open space of the Circle and the larger towers to the south. In 1964, the year of it's completion, it was the only building on the circle that reinforced its shape through the use of a convex street wall. In many ways Stone's 2CC was that he expressed the values of contextualis: and urbanism ...values you rightly point out that we value a time when mainstream Modern Architecture didn't.

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