The Manhattan Institute’s
Center for Rethinking Development
Ideas that shape the city’s planning, housing, and development
A Monthly Newsletter by Julia Vitullo-Martin, MI Senior Fellow

Landmarking Modernist Buildings?

Julia Vitullo-Martin, March 2005

At its best, the city government's landmarking process protects the laudable buildings that New Yorkers want saved. Since being signed into law by Mayor Wagner in 1965, the Landmarks Preservation Commission has designated 1,119 individual buildings, 83 historic districts with 11 extensions, encompassing over 23,000 structures in all. Its work has helped enhance the city's beauty and stabilize many neighborhoods. But landmarking has its costs. Applied ineptly or too aggressively, landmarking can halt the transformations and adjustments that are vital to the city's well-being. Every single landmark ruling is fraught with thorny issues and potential harm. Which buildings are truly worth protecting? Which ones are so handsome, historic, or innovative that the awesome power of the government should be invoked to prevent their demolition—or even halt any major change in structure and use? Which are so significant that they should be permanently consigned to the LPC's under-funded and ponderous regulatory oversight?

Because buildings become eligible for designation at 30 years of age, many modernist and post-modernist buildings are being pushed onto the docket for preservation. But these buildings bring new issues to bear. For one thing, they are often unloved. Unlike the traditional 19th- and early 20th century masonry buildings they routinely replaced, the severe glass-and-steel modernist towers are often ugly, impersonal, and out of place in their neighborhoods. In modernist eyes, innovation was always to be preferred to orthodoxy. Utilitarianism was the goal and the creed. At its most fundamental, the aesthetic of modernism defied and debased the old. The modernist building was meant to stand out, not to fit in, to break the street wall, not to follow it. The shearing of the urban fabric was modernism's intent—not a mere byproduct. Modernist architects prided themselves on being mavericks, revolutionaries, men above the crowd. They were, in historian Vincent Scully's phrase, hero architects.

And they built buildings that were not meant to last. The lifespans of modernist buildings are often short because their architects used unproven materials rather than those tested by time. Preserving them involves correcting the natural obsolescence that inevitably occurs with the passage of time but also refurbishing all or most of the materials as well—at enormous expense.

CITY-DESTROYING CRITERIA

Since the very idea of preservation was inimical to the modernists, today's preservationists must simply ignore the many paradoxes and contradictions inherent in the arguments they're making for landmarking mid- and late-20th century buildings. With no irony intended, today's preservationists actually cite as criteria for preservation the implementation of the city-destroying devices that earlier preservations had rightly decried. Take the superblock, invented by modernists as a device for eliminating the clutter and mess of city streets, allowing clean, dominant, uniform towers to be built where a jumble of mixed-use buildings had once stood. The superblock erased New York's tight street grid, famously maligned by writer Lewis Mumford as the soulless invention of commercial capitalism, a pernicious device for dividing land into salable parcels. But today we recognize that Mumford was utterly wrong. Do we not all agree with Jane Jacobs that the urbane mixtures of buildings of varying age, condition—inevitably swept away by the superblock—are a necessary condition of thriving urban life? That whenever possible, the superblock should be broken up into short, pedestrian-friendly blocks, much as New York had been laid out in the 19th century? Nonetheless, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, ordinarily a ferocious advocate for the Village's pre-World War II heritage, recently urged the landmarking of I. M. Pei's University Village/Silver Towers development by saying it serves as "an exceptional example of thoughtful and urbane post-war superblock urban renewal schemes."

Similarly, many preservationists are arguing that the historical era of modernism—whatever its substantive merits—should be saved for its own sake. Thus they are urging the landmarking of architect John Portman's immense, brutal, street-defying Marriott Marquis Hotel in Times Square, built on the site of the Helen Hayes Theatre, which had been widely regarded as the loveliest theater in New York, until it was demolished in 1982 to build the hotel. Vickie Weiner, a preservationist who headed up the Municipal Art Society's 30 Under 30 watch list to alert the public to vulnerable modernist buildings, says that many young architects admire Portman's work. She adds, "How do you raise consciousness? Some of our jury members felt that in time we would have a new appreciation for the building. The battle over the Helen Hayes spurred the LPC to designate the remaining theaters. This building is a benchmark for remembering that this really did happen. Is there a value to retaining the historical evidence of an important event?" Or as architect (and 30 Under 30 juror) Paul Byard told the New York Sun, "Sure, we don't like the building, but the building of the Marriott Marquis represents a pivotal historical decision in developing the West Side."

Important as it is to remember and reflect on destructive events in the city's past, this is no time to set up new criteria for landmarking. We should judge modernist buildings the same way we judge all buildings: Do they have merit in and of themselves? Are they good buildings? Are they good neighbors? Are they or can they be made economically viable? Do they make the city a better place? Further, to the life of a neighborhood, it matters nothing that a bad building—or worse, a huge development—was designed by an eminent architect. Designation is, as Vickie Weiner notes, a blunt instrument. But designation also involves an immensely important tool for public discussion: hearings. Let's hear what the public has to say. The city's uniform land use review process, ULURP, has taught everyone the usefulness of public education and debate—a lesson that should not be lost on the LPC. It would also be useful for the LPC to adopt a rigid ULURP-like timetable so that all parties understand that a decision will be made or forfeited by a predictable date.

In deciding to champion the landmarking of modernist buildings, New York preservationists are playing a dangerous game, in effect proposing to prevent the city's fabric from mending itself. The damage done the urban fabric by modernists can be un-done, if neighborhoods are allowed to heal naturally over time. Preservationists should be the last people to stand in the way.

WHAT’S NEXT

With an annual operating budget around $3.5 million, the LPC is both under-funded and under-staffed for the amount of work it is expected to handle. In 2003, it designated 12 individual buildings and 3 historic districts as landmarks. Preservationists are suing the LPC over its refusal to hold public hearings on the planned reconstruction of Edward Durrell Stone's 2 Columbus Circle, which the LPC had decided was undeserving of landmarking in 1996. The building's new owner, the Museum of Arts & Design, intends to demolish the unusual marble-clad facade—which prompted architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable to call it the "lollipop building"—in late May. Preservationists are also urging the LPC to hold hearings on proposals to demolish two movie theaters on Manhattan's Upper East Side—Cinemas 1, 2, and 3, on Third Avenue, built in 1962, and the Beekman, on Second Avenue, built in 1952. Are these buildings worthy of permanent designation? Is the Grace Building on West 57th Street of merit, as 30 Under 30 suggested? or One Chase Manhattan Plaza at Pine and Liberty, as the architect Robert A. M. Stern proposed? The outcome of this debate will set the parameters for the city's future.


March 2005
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“Lever House and the Seagram Building represent the epitome of the correct, the orthodox in Post-War Modernism; but New York is not a place of orthodoxies, much less single orthodoxies. New York is cosmopolitan. New York is where orthodoxies are challenged by new ideas.”
Architect Robert A. M. Stern, speaking in praise of 2 Columbus Circle
 
“Modern architecture brought with it an ideology about city planning that should by now be as thoroughly discredited by 50 calamitous years of city building as any ideas in history.”
Daniel Solomon, Global City Blues