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Grand Army Plaza, at the corner of 58th Street and Fifth Avenue in 1927, with the Sherry-Netherland and Savoy-Plaza Hotels. (Photo: Museum of the City of New York/Corbis)

In 1916 Grand Army Plaza opened at the southeast corner of Central Park, designed by Carrère & Hastings as a grand outdoor room in the manner of a French garden — New York’s version of the Place de la Concorde in Paris.

Designated a landmark in 1974 and considered by many to be one of the most formal public spaces in the city, the plaza has nonetheless fallen into disrepair — its bluestone surface cracked, the gilded statue of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman eroded.

Now the Central Park Conservancy is proposing a $2 million restoration of the plaza’s trees and pavement. The work planned is what that nonprofit organization says it can afford, having raised $1.5 million.

But preservationists and others say the plan does not go far enough, and that the plaza should undergo a complete overhaul that restores historical details like the original lights, benches, balustrades and columns, which have been changed or removed over the years.

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Robin Pogrebin
New York Times

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Tracks run under the James A. Farley Post Office, which is across Eighth Avenue from Penn Station and the Garden (Photo: Mary Altaffer/Associated Press)

The New York City Planning Commission last week took a significant but fatally flawed step toward improving the lives of millions of New Yorkers and others who use Pennsylvania Station, the nation’s busiest transit hub.

The commission voted on Wednesday to limit to 15 years the permit that allows Madison Square Garden to operate atop the station. The commission urged the arena to seek a new home while the railroads using the station — Amtrak, New Jersey Transit, Long Island Rail Road and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority — plan improvements for when the Garden is gone. The Dolan family, owners of the Garden, had asked that the permit, which expired this year, be renewed in perpetuity.

The City Council now has two months to vote on the ruling, or it becomes the law on its own. The Council should not let it stand.

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Michael Kimmelman
New York Times

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The American Folk Art Museum (Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times)

After impassioned protests from prominent architects, preservationists and design critics, the Museum of Modern Art said on Thursday that it would reconsider its decision to demolish its next-door neighbor, the former home of the American Folk Art Museum, to make room for an expansion.

n a board meeting on Thursday morning, the directors were told that a board committee had selected the design firm Diller Scofidio & Renfro to handle the expansion and to help determine whether to keep any of the existing structure.

“We’re going to try to create the best building we can create,” Jerry I. Speyer, the real estate developer and MoMA chairman, said in an interview. “Whether we include Folk Art or not, as is, is an open question.”

That question, MoMA said, will be guided by the extension’s architects. “The principals of Diller Scofidio & Renfro have asked that they be given the time and latitude to carefully consider the entirety of the site, including the former American Folk Art Museum building, in devising an architectural solution to the inherent challenges of the project,” said Glenn D. Lowry, MoMA’s director, in a memo sent on Thursday to his trustees and staff. “We readily agreed to consider a range of options, and look forward to seeing their results.”

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Robin Pogrebin
New York Times


Detail of Meg Saligman’s “Common Threads” (1997; restored 2011). (Photo: Steve Weinik/City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program)

Art preservation is tricky even under ideal circumstances, which generally involve close controls for light, temperature, humidity and other hazards. Eliminate those and you have some idea of the challenge that street-mural preservation faces. The only surviving exterior work in the U.S. by the renowned Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, Los Angeles’s “América Tropical” (1932), is only now receiving a roof. Ironically, its longevity is due to a paint-over that preserved it from the ravages of nature. Most murals, in a world of unfriendly ordinances and inevitable shifts in the urban landscape, are not so fortunate. Happily, a number of national and local organizations have recently mobilized to ensure that the preservation of murals need not be any more difficult than rain, snow and sun already render it.

The organization Heritage Preservation launched a “Rescue Public Murals” initiative in December 2006, using funding from the Getty Conservation Institute and the National Endowment for the Arts. It first conducted a national assessment, paying particular attention, according to project director Kristen Laise, to “cities which had a long history of mural creation or of issues with preservation.” Then it selected for examination 16 murals in locations ranging from a commuter rail underpass to an abandoned church, and depicting topics from the end of the Marcos dictatorship to the laborers of San Francisco’s Chinatown.

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Anthony Paletta
Wall Street Journal


The Orange County Government Center in Goshen, N.Y., has been closed since it was damaged by storms in September. (Photo: Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times)

As Modernist buildings reach middle age, many of the stark structures that once represented the architectural vanguard are showing signs of wear, setting off debates around the country between preservationists, who see them as historic landmarks, and the many people who just see them as eyesores.

The conflict has come in recent months to this quaint village 60 miles north of New York City — with its historic harness-racing track, picturesque Main Street and Greek Revival, Federal and Victorian houses — where the blocky concrete county government center designed by the celebrated Modernist architect Paul Rudolph has always been something of a misfit.

“I just don’t think it fits with the character of the county seat and the village of Goshen,” said Leigh Benton, an Orange County legislator who grew up in the area. “I just thought it was a big ugly building.”

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Robin Pogrebin
New York Times


Haring painting the mural at Collingwood Technical College in 1984, and right, the work in 2010

Arts Victoria is expected to lodge a permit application with Heritage Victoria shortly so that it can begin conservation work on Keith Haring’s last surviving large-scale mural in Australia. The proposed move has prompted protest from art world figures, the local council and the Keith Haring Foundation, who have called for the mural to be repainted in accordance with the late artist’s wishes, rather than being preserved in its current state.

Time, neglect and the elements have taken their toll on the mural, painted on the former Collingwood Technical College in 1984 at the behest of John Buckley, then the director of the Australian Centre for Contemp­orary Art (ACCA). A campaign to prevent the work from fading away began in earnest in 2010 (The Art Newspaper, June 2010, p8). In April 2011, Arts Victoria released a conservation management plan that calls for “urgent conservation works” including an investigation of the materials used by Haring, cleaning, “selective retouching”, stabilisation and the application of a protective coating. A spokeswoman for Arts Victoria says: “It is important to note that the [plan] does not rule out overpainting the mural in the future should appropriate materials become available that would not destroy the original paint work.”

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Emily Sharpe
The Art Newspaper

The Dia Art Foundation is positioned to re-claim the lease for the 10 acres of state land on which Robert Smithson’s masterwork Spiral Jetty sits as early as this week, MAN has learned. Dia will meet with officials from the Utah Department of Natural Resources Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands in Utah on Thursday, at which point DNR and Dia will hold what could be the final negotiation to determine terms for a new lease.

Spiral Jetty, located just off Rozel Point in the north of the Great Salt Lake, is one of the most influential artworks of the 20th century and is widely regarded as the world’s greatest earthwork.

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Tyler Green
Art Info


Sambor Preh Kok, in Cambodia: a Khmer masterpiece of fired-brick architecture

Here’s another list of important cultural heritage sites to worry about: 20 “on the verge” of experiencing irreversible, irreparable loss and destruction, according to the Global Heritage Fund.

Like UNESCO and the World Monuments Fund, GHF aims to shine a light on endangered sites; the main difference from them, as far as I can tell, is that GHF focuses exclusively on the developing world and it adds an economic argument for preservation.

For more and a list of the 20 sites:

Judith H. Dobrzynski
Real Clear Arts


Gagarin’s portrait is covered so that he won’t have to look at the decrepitude of the 1966 Space Pavilion. Photograph: Justin McGuirk

From the pedestrian bridge that crosses the Moskva river towards the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour you normally have a clear view of the Kremlin. But for several days last week its fairytale towers had disappeared behind an acrid grey pall. With the thermometer stuck at a record-shattering 40C and the smog hidden by smoke from the burning marshes outside the city, this was a hellish Moscow that none of its residents had ever seen before.

I was in the city to give a talk at a new school, the Strelka Institute of Architecture, Media and Design. Located just across the river from the cathedral, the Strelka occupies the garages of the former Red October chocolate factory, which until two years ago had been producing chocolate on that site since the late 19th century. The school only opened earlier this summer but already it’s one of the liveliest nightspots in the city, with film screenings, clubs and a restaurant frequented by Moscow’s glamorous media set. If you’re thinking that this doesn’t sound much like a school, then you’d have a point, but we’ll address that later. In all other senses the sight of a former industrial complex being turned into a cultural hotspot is one that we’ve been accustomed to in Europe and the US for several decades. In Russia, however, it’s a more recent phenomenon.

One reason is that the gradual switch from an industrial to a services economy didn’t begin until the Yeltsin years. And it was only around the turn of the millennium that developers started to speculate on factories (the more unscrupulous ones earned the description “raiders”). The other factor in the slow speed of the post-industrial project is that the Russians appear to value new things more than old ones.

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Justin McGuirk
Guardian

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Nakagin Capsule Tower (New York Times)

How old does a building have to be before we appreciate its value? And when does its cultural importance trump practical considerations?

Those are the questions that instantly come to mind over the likely destruction of Kisho Kurokawa’s historic Nakagin Capsule Tower.

A rare built example of Japanese Metabolism, a movement whose fantastic urban visions became emblems of the country’s postwar cultural resurgence, the 1972 Capsule Tower is in a decrepit state. Its residents, tired of living in squalid, cramped conditions, voted two years ago to demolish it and are now searching for a developer to replace it with a bigger, more modern tower. That the building is still standing has more to do with the current financial malaise than with an understanding of its historical worth.

Yet for many of us who believe that the way we treat our cultural patrimony is a fair measure of how enlightened we are as a society, the building’s demolition would be a bitter loss. The Capsule Tower is not only gorgeous architecture; like all great buildings, it is the crystallization of a far-reaching cultural ideal. Its existence also stands as a powerful reminder of paths not taken, of the possibility of worlds shaped by different sets of values.

Founded by a loose-knit group of architects at the end of the 1950s, the Metabolist movement sought to create flexible urban models for a rapidly changing society. Floating cities. Cities inspired by oil platforms. Buildings that resembled strands of DNA. Such proposals reflected Japan’s transformation from a rural to a modern society. But they also reflected more universal trends, like social dislocation and the fragmentation of the traditional family, influencing generations of architects from London to Moscow.

Of the five members who made up the group, Kurokawa was the most glamorous. A photo taken in 1958 at a Moscow student conference, when he was just 24, shows him surrounded by fawning girls, signing autographs. Trim and handsome, often outfitted in elegantly tailored suits and a bow tie, he became a regular at Tokyo nightclubs. His Space Capsule Disco, opened in the 1960s, was a hot spot for young creative types.

The Nakagin Capsule Tower was completed as the movement’s influence was beginning to wane. Composed of 140 concrete pods plugged into two interconnected circulation cores, the structure was meant as a kind of bachelor hotel for businessmen working in the swanky Ginza neighborhood of Tokyo.

Inside, each apartment is as compact as a space capsule. A wall of appliances and cabinets is built into one side, including a kitchen stove, a refrigerator, a television and a tape deck. A bathroom unit, about the size of an airplane lavatory, is set into an opposite corner. A big porthole window dominates the far end of the room, with a bed tucked underneath.

Part of the design’s appeal is voyeuristic. The portholes evoke gigantic peepholes. Their enormous size, coupled with the small scale of the rooms, exposes the entire apartment to the city outside. Many of the midlevel units look directly onto an elevated freeway, so you are almost face to face with people in passing cars. (On my first visit there, a tenant told me that during rush hour, drivers stuck in traffic often point or wave at residents.)

But the project’s lasting importance has more to do with its structural innovations, and how they reflect the Metabolists’ views on the evolution of cities. Each of the concrete capsules was assembled in a factory, including details like carpeting and bathroom fixtures. They were then shipped to the site and bolted, one by one, onto the concrete and steel cores that housed the building’s elevators, stairs and mechanical systems.

In theory, more capsules could be plugged in or removed whenever needed. The idea was to create a completely flexible system, one that could be adapted to the needs of a fast-paced, constantly changing society. The building became a symbol of Japan’s technological ambitions, as well as of the increasingly nomadic existence of the white-collar worker.

No one doubts how difficult it would be to revive that vision today. The building was never as flexible in reality as it was in theory: adding and removing the capsules was prohibitively expensive. And the capsule notion itself was obviously limited, since it didn’t account for the possibility of sharing space with others. It hasn’t helped, too, that the lack of regular maintenance has taken a severe toll on the structure — and on the few remaining tenants.

When I visited several weeks ago, it was pouring rain. Corridors smelled of mildew. Some tenants had taped plastic bags to their door frames to catch leaks, and many of them were bulging with gray water. At one point a tenant took me up to a bridge that connected the two towers, where I could see chunks of concrete breaking off from the corner of one of the capsules. Nothing short of a full-scale restoration would save it.

But the issue is not just the fate of this one building; it is why certain landmarks — in Japan and throughout the developed world — are preserved, and others are not. Dozens of private houses, after all, from Palladian villas to late Modernist masterpieces, have been lovingly restored over the years, some in worse condition than the tower. Government agencies and nonprofit groups have also put significant amounts of money toward the restoration of important civic works.

But when an aging Kurokawa pleaded with the apartment owners to save his masterpiece, he got nowhere. And after his death two years ago, few preservationists rallied to the building’s defense. There’s been no serious effort to look into what exactly it would cost to retrofit the 140 units. Nor has any institution, public or private, stepped up with a viable plan for how to save it.

Why is that so? Partly it is because all over the world, postwar architecture is still treated with a measure of suspicion by the cultural mainstream, which often associates it with brutal city housing developments or clinical office blocks. Partly, too, it has to do with the nature of housing blocks in general. They are not sexy investments; they do not feed an investor’s vanity or offer the cultural prestige that owning a landmark house does.

But another concern is that all too often, private developments like the Capsule Tower, no matter how historically important, are regarded in terms of property rights. They are about business first, not culture. Governments don’t like to interfere; the voices of preservationists are shrugged off. “Want to save it?” the prevailing sentiment goes. “Pay for it.”

Until that mentality changes, landmarks like Kurokawa’s will continue to be threatened by the wrecking ball, and the cultural loss will be tremendous. This is not only an architectural tragedy, it is also a distortion of history.

Nicolai Ouroussoff
New York Times