19 May 2008

the ghost of huntington hartford

[image credit : progressive reactionary]

Huntington Hartford, retail heir and spendthrift extraordinaire, died today at age 97. Some may see this as a merciful end for Mr. Hartford: whatever suffering he endured in his final years, he has been spared from seeing his eponymous museum, left vacant and forlorn for so long on the southern side of Columbus Circle, destroyed and reborn as a building which he would surely disdain.

As you must know by now, the Huntington Hartford Museum is no more, and in short order will be reincarnated as the new Museum of Arts and Design, which opens later this summer. The scaffolding has peeled away in recent weeks to reveal the re-skinned update of Edward Durell Stone's seminal, trivial, or controversial (depending on who you ask) 1964 building. Redesigned by Portland, Oregon firm Allied Works, surprise victors over Zaha, Toshiko Mori, and locals Smith-Miller Hawkinson in a 2003 competition, the building is the latest step in Columbus Circle's long and lucrative march towards sanitized sterility.

[2 Columbus Circle in happier days. Image credit: New York Architecture Images]

It is hard to think of another site in Manhattan that has generated more controversy and ire over such a long period of time. (For a start, refer to the site's Wikipedia entry.) In recent years, the likes of Bob Stern, Tom Wolfe, Herbert Muschamp, Frank Stella, and, finally, even Sir Nicolai himself have chimed in to defend the peculiar little Stone building. All for naught, though. The building's fate was ultimately sealed by the dubious inaction of the city's Landmarks commission, which politely declined even to consider a discussion of granting landmark status. And here we find ourselves: May of 2008, the scaffolding down, and expectations are—to say the least—high.

[image credit : progressive reactionary]

Based on information gleaned from Allied Works' website and elsewhere (and elsewhere), the retrofit design basically consists of a series of strategic incisions that leave the building's existing concrete structure intact, but begin to open up the solid exterior wall (newly clad in ceramic tiles and glass) to provide views outward and allow light to penetrate the interior gallery spaces. The slicing of the facade and floor plates will no doubt provide some interesting visual moments, creative interplays of interior and exterior, and hopefully some exciting views of Central Park to the north. And one can surely expect fine detailing, as is typical for Allied Works' projects. But it all smacks of a kind of Diller-Scofidio-lite, with careful attention devoted to a few, select moments of visual calibration at the expense of the building as a whole. Indeed, the new building as a totality is, frankly, not that interesting.

[21st Century White Brick. Image credit : progressive reactionary]

The architects have put all their eggs in one basket by selecting pearly white ceramic tiles for the new building's cladding. Brad Cloepfil, the main Ally in Allied Works, will surely regret this decision—if he doesn't already. White tiles aren't very evocative of New York, to say the least, and I fear that time will be harsher to them than it was to the much-ridiculed but also endearing "lollipop" columns of Stone's building. The white color and the scale of the tile's module both suggest unfortunate connotations to the city's plethora of boring (and soot-caked) white brick buildings from the 1980s. Supposedly these special tiles, fabricated and hand-glazed in Germany, possess an "iridescence" that will lend a certain dynamism to the facade as the light changes. This is a good sound bite, for sure, but the effect is so subtle and fleeting that it will hardly deflect the inevitable "white brick" comparisons mentioned above. I daresay this choice of material represents a complete and fatal miscalculation on the part of Cloepfil and his Allies.

[image credit : progressive reactionary]

But let's go deeper: there's more going on here than what Cloepfil would have us believe. This is not just a simple, polite re-cladding operation that lets some more light into the galleries. What's at stake here is the definition of what constitutes a landmark—and what kind of values system determines which buildings deserve protection and which buildings don't.

Don't get me wrong. Our dear Huntington was a reactionary patron who squandered a sizable fortune largely in the name of a bizarre crusade of anti-modernism. The building itself, constructed in the heyday of International Style curtain-wall ecstasy and designed by Stone just as he began to hit his stride in opposition to this new, cold status quo, was itself a polemic statement: a symbol of a world view that sought to terminate Western art history somewhere before the turn of the last century. Furthermore, the building was certainly no masterpiece; it had plenty of problems inherent to its design and construction that contributed to its decay and disuse.

But remember, this progressive is also a reactionary. Ever a proponent of the creative destruction of modern architecture, I also have great respect for history, especially those moments, too rare if you ask me, when a small cadre of iconoclasts have banded together and, with a collective "fuck you," decided to turn the tables on a stale status quo. This building, to me, represents one of these "fuck you" moments that deserves not necessarily celebration or repetition, but certainly recognition and preservation. The building (were it still with us) is a valuable relic of a time when not being modern was itself a provocative idea. I don't think it's possible for us today to fully recognize the gravity of such a move; there really is no contemporary equivalent, at least in architecture culture, that I can think of.

[Historic Preservation, by Allied Works. Image credit : progressive reactionary]

This is not all to say that the building should have been left as an untouched, decaying memorial to some episodic, bygone aesthetic rebellion of the 1960s. I do support the new Museum's ambition to establish itself in a new and prominent location, and I wish it luck. But I think the architects could have come up with a more creative way to address and engage the storied and tortuous past of this structure and this site. Cloepfil heralds the preservation of the iconic lollipop columns at the building's base as some kind of concessionary offering to the Sterns of this world. But this is nothing more than petty lip-service to preservationists, and Cloepfil should be ashamed for his brazen contextual ignorance. His project ends up so anodyne, so plain, and so gutless that it fails to make any statement at all about anything other than the 2-foot wide light slots that wind around the facade. (And which, by the way, are completely out of scale and exhibit the innovative capacity of a 1st-year graduate school project.)

Sure, the Stone building oozed kitsch and ersatz, and its faux-Venetian mystique had absolutely nothing to do with Columbus Circle or New York City. But at least it had something to say: about its place in history, about its relationship to the evolution of modernism in architecture, about something. The more I think about it, the more I realize that in a strange and twisted irony, Huntington Hartford may indeed have had the last word. Progress seems to have hit a brick wall at Columbus Circle—and maybe Mr. Hartford wouldn't mind that at all.

A coda: I couldn't go without mentioning once again the late Herbert Muschamp's totally bizarre ponderings on the building's social history, from January of 2006. One wishes there were more scandal, but the article was just plain weird.


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