Alexandra Lange | Essays

Review: The Price of Fitting In

In the November 4 edition of The Architect’s Newspaper I review the new exhibit at the Center for Architecture, Context/Contrast: New Architecture in Historic Districts, 1967-2009. The short review isn’t online, so I posted my text below. That’s Smith-Miller + Hawkinson’s 322 Hicks (about 4 blocks from my house) above.

The title of the AIANY’s new exhibition on architecture in historic districts, “Context/Contrast,” suggests opposition between two approaches to preservation. So does the wall quote from Brooklyn Heights preservation advocate Otis Pratt Pearsall, “I do not subscribe to the idea that any building that is not offensive is appropriate.” This exhibition is intended to showcase the work of the Landmarks Preservation Commission since 1965, and “to ask how the Commission’s charge of ensuring ‘appropriate’ new architecture...has allowed neighborhoods to evolve without endangering the[ir] essential character.” But to travel through time in New York’s first historic district, Brooklyn Heights, along with four others, is to travel through the changing fashions in preservation, from high contrast to contextual invisibility, tweaking tradition to adopting only its base material. There are an incredibly motley assortment of responses to that charge, as the Commission, architecture, and the definition of ‘appropriateness’ have all changed over time.

To be able to survey the field, and to try to decide for yourself which approach works where, is a terrific opportunity. I only wish that this exhibition had embraced its inherently controversial nature, instead of trying to smooth it over. The projects presented are all described as successes (with a few rough drafts shown to be failures), but there’s no sense of self-analysis, or irony. That’s not the way of the AIA NYC or of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, both exhibit sponsors, but the subject of preservation in the twenty-first century has so many ironies waiting to be explored that aren’t. Tucked into the stairwell, for example, is a placard telling the tale of Marcel Breuer’s proposed tower over Grand Central and the 1978 Supreme Court decision that saved the station. It fails to mention either the destruction of the original Penn Station in 1963, or (more fun) all the architects who have failed to build towers over Breuer’s own Whitney.

“Context/Contrast” is divided into five sections, each one focused on a different district. Brooklyn Heights and the Upper East Side start the show on the Center for Architecture’s first floor. South Street Seaport, Douglaston and Soho are sequestered downstairs. A shelf running along the wall above waist height holds photographs, renderings and plans. Blow-up images of each neighborhood paper the walls, nicely setting the scene. The handsome design is by Moorhead & Moorhead (exhibition) and PS New York (graphics). Starting with the oldies allows the show to put on a happy, noncontroversial face: no failures are shown here and the architects’ approach, by and large, is rigorously contextual. When you look at the image of Platt Byard Dovell’s 47 East 91st Street (the building Woody Allen weighed in against) it is hard to tell what could be new. There are contemporary articles of the projects (some negative) in binders for your perusal, but they aren’t integrated or obvious.

You won’t have a problem spotting the new in the Soho section. Jean Nouvel and Aldo Rossi, these are architects of contrast worth arguing about. Next to Soho is a sort of grab-bag wall of other projects of interest under the rubric “The Architecture of Appropriateness” and these too include way more contemporary reinterpretations than most of the work more prominently featured, as if curator Rachel Carley realized too late things were looking traditional. In the Soho section former Landmarks Commissioner and current Polshek partner Richard Olcott asks, “Which strategy do you think is most appropriate for designing in historic districts: mimicry, contrast or interpretation?” While “Context/Contrast” is an excellent survey, I wish it more explicitly took up his question, and opened the Commission’s decisions to discussion, rather than affirming their wisdom.

Posted in: Arts + Culture

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