Current version of the Museum of Arts and Design, New York

It was fun while it lasted.

The passionate battle fought recently over the redesign of 2 Columbus Circle, the curious white marble structure built by Huntington Hartford to house his art collection, was reminiscent of the preservation wars of the 1960s.

Previous incarnation

When was the last time you saw preservationists marching in the streets? Or best-selling writers like Tom Wolfe venting about a building project on the editorial pages? At least we were reminded that architecture is not just about exquisite baubles for the superrich. It can still feel threatening.

Now, with the opening this weekend of the newly renovated building as the Museum of Arts and Design, the public will finally be able to judge for itself whether it was a sin to disfigure the 1964 original.

Already a few things are blazingly clear. Designed by Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works Architecture, the renovation remedies the annoying functional defects that had plagued the building for decades. But this is not the bold architectural statement that might have justified the destruction of an important piece of New York history. Poorly detailed and lacking in confidence, the project is a victory only for people who favor the safe and inoffensive and have always been squeamish about the frictions that give this city its vitality.

Granted, Edward Durell Stone’s original building was not without its flaws. The art galleries, which stepped up around an elevator core, were dark and cramped. The blank marble facade senselessly blocked out stunning views of Columbus Circle and Central Park.

Yet as many observers have pointed out, Stone’s building occupied a crucial niche in the city’s architectural memory. Its vague evocation of opulent Venetian motifs was a brazen attack on the prevailing Modernist orthodoxy. That the challenge came from one of the Modern movement’s foremost practitioners in New York only sharpened the sting.

By contrast, Mr. Cloepfil’s redesign is part of a long-term effort to clean up Columbus Circle’s once-gritty image, with mixed results. The chiseled towers of the Time Warner Center, completed in 2003 just to the west along the circle, look great in the skyline, but they are planted atop a dismally generic urban shopping mall. The renovation of Columbus Circle, on the other hand, was a nice surprise: a deadening traffic island has been transformed into a grand public space encircled by fountains and benches.

Nicolai Ouroussoff
New York Times