Words Of Wisdom?


Newsletter November
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By: Emily Rinalidi

Last month, Michael Kimmelman, the current architectural critic for the New York Times, wrote an article regarding Chicago’s landmark battle over Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital entitled, “A Vision to Avoid Demolition for a 70’s Pioneer.” The vision was Kimmelman’s own invention, preservation with a twist. Northwestern University wants to demolish Goldberg’s Prentice in order to build a new structure designed to accommodate scientific researchers. Kimmelman’s response: “So here is a suggestion: Build a research tower on top of Prentice.” (NYT, Oct 15, 2012) He solicited architect Jeanne Gang to draw a mockup of what such a structure might look like, the results being a 31-story tower precariously perching over Goldberg’s cloverleaf cantilevered core. Ironically the solution is one very much in vogue in the 1970s a a preservation option for important low-rise structures as evidenced by the hotel behind New York's Villard Houses.

Kimmelman’s rallying cry for the preservation of the Prentice Women's hospital is not the first time a New York Times architectural critic advocated for the preservation of a historic structure and it continues a tradition of commenting on design- whether old or new- by critics of the major national newspapers be it the New York Times, the Washington Post, or the Chicago Tribune. However, critiques written or comments made decades ago have a habit of re-appearing in the preservation battles as arguments for a particular disposition whether pro or con. It raises the question as to how much weight such opinions should be given decades later when scholarship, taste and time have long since moved on, have evolved and have often been revised.

The writings of Ada Louise Huxtable, the newspaper’s first permanent architectural critic, are a case in point. Her opinions were and are well-respected and she played a central role in campaigning to save New York’s Penn Station in 1963. In her article, “How to Kill a City,” Huxtable bemoans the city City Planning Commission's decision to demolish Penn Station in favor of building Madison Square Garden, saying “Anything new is categorically preferred to anything old, no matter how shoddy or undistinguished it may be.” (NYT, May 5, 1963) She argues for new measures that would ensure that the City Planning Commission would have authority to save these treasured New York City landmarks, giving the old buildings their due deference. Unlike Kimmelman’s suggestion, whose vision failed to catch the imagination of the Chicago Landmarks Commission or change the public dialogue. Huxtable’s dream came true with the founding of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1965.

While Huxtable did advocate for the preservation of New York’s historic structures, her foremost role at the New York Times was not as a preservationist, but as a critic. Her job required that she convey her opinions to the reader regarding new and old structures alike. Over her nineteen-year career at the Times (1962 - 1982), Huxtable generated hundreds of articles with hundreds of opinions, most concerning new buildings being built. Today, preservationists are faced with her prodigious legacy as her words and opinions are invoked within current discussions regarding the preservation of Modern architecture.

In 1964, Huxtable authored an article on Edward Durell Stone’s Huntington Hartford Museum at Two Columbus Circle in New York. She described the museum as “resembl[ing] a die-cut Venetian palazzo on lollipops,” thus engendering the moniker, the lollipop building. (NYT, Feb 25, 1964) Huxtable’s article ensured that Stone’s unusual columns would become the defining feature of Two Columbus Circle. When the Museum of Arts and Design proposed a drastic re-cladding and renovation, preservation groups like Landmark West!, the Preservation Group of New York State, and the Historic Districts Council rallied to the building’s defense and took the comment as a symbol for the preservation battle by actually distributing lollipops during meetings and gatherings. During this preservation battle in the early 2000’s, the name lollipop building latched on, permanently branding Stone’s work and indirectly led to their preservation, albeit behind glass and barel visible.

Image: Original Two Columbus Circle. Credit: New York Architecture

Nicolai Ouroussoff, architectural critic at the New York Times from 2004 to 2011, wrote in his article “Taming the Beast From 1965” about Stone’s Two Columbus Circle. He said that “The entire debate has been reduced to a question of simple taste.” (NYT, October 4, 2004) In introducing the architectural critic’s critique, which in reference to Stone’s work Huxtable wrote almost forty-years prior, the discussion surrounding the preservation of the structure transforms into an argument over aesthetics. An architectural critic’s job is to critique the aesthetics of new construction; however, what happens when the building is not a new structure anymore, but a historic one?

Huxtable’s words reached far into the future to influence public perception of Stone’s work. Yet, she wrote the article when the building was first built; and while, the design of the structure remained the same, Stone’s recognition as a modern architect grew, revising the value of the Huntington Hartford Museum in Stone’s own career as well as the building’s role in the New York cityscape. Huntington Hartford Museum marks an important change in Stone’s work, his move away from structured Modernist design. Ouroussoff writes, “For us, it is a reminder that Modernism did not always follow a straight, unbroken path” (NYT, October 4, 2004). Of course, now Two Columbus Circle reminds us of a failed effort to preserve the work of an architectural master.

Image: Redesign of Two Columbus Circle. Credit: Wikipedia.org

On November 1st, the Chicago Landmarks Commission ruled that Northwestern University’s need for a new research facility outweighed the historic and architectural value of Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital. But before Chicago handed down its final decision, former New York Times architectural critic now writing for Vanity Fair, Paul Goldberger, weighed in on Chicago’s struggle to prevent Northwestern University from demolishing Goldberg’s building. Like Stone’s Huntington Hartford Museum, Prentice Hospital is a cumulative design in the context of Goldberg’s own career. The building is without a doubt an iconic or maybe better a idiosyncratic building, a feat of modern engineering and a landmark in the evolution of hospital design.

Image: Prentice Women's Hospital. Credit: Wikipedia.org

Despite Goldberger’s arguments of the aforementioned value of Prentice in Modern architecture, he returns again and again throughout the article to the problem of the building’s aesthetics. He claims, “The building isn’t conventionally beautiful...” (Vanity Fair, August 14, 2012) Although Prentice cannot claim the legacy of a beauty queen, Goldberger reassures the reader “...but the more you look at it, the more you like it.” This appreciation is echoed in Blair Kamin's review of the new hospital building when the calls the old Prentice "a poetic essay in concrete". (Chicago Tribune, October 28, 2007). Should Chicago decision to preserve Prentice Hospital be based on a perception of whether the building is likable or poetic? Should it matter if the building is not conventionally beautiful? Goldberger and Kamin seem to think it does, while simultaneously arguing that it doesn’t, illustrating the inherent problem of the architectural critic as preservationist: Can an architectural critic be both a judge of architectural aesthetics and advocate for a design’s historic value? How relevant should those critiques be in the determination of the significance of the building years later? In Huxtable's own words in 2008: "My own view on architecture has not changed. It is the current scene that has changed." (NYT, November 7, 2008). That includes preservation efforts.