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10.15.2008
Editorial: Beyond Beauty Contests
The rush to condemn 2 Columbus Circle throws an unflattering spotlight on today's architecture critics

The knives were drawn and glistening when the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) opened last month at 2 Columbus Circle. In an article shouting out “N.Y. facade spells trouble,” Christopher Hawthorne of the Los Angeles Times wrote that the Brad Cloepfil design seemed “clinical and rigid, even schoolmarmish.” In the now-defunct Sun, James Gardner declared the whole thing “emphatically not good,” and then wistfully hoped that a facsimile of Stone’s disintegrating punch-card marble grille would soon replace the custom-made iridescent terra-cotta tiles. Closing in for the scold like a white-gloved mother-in-law looking for dirt, Nicolai Ouroussoff complained about “a section of drywall [that] is left at the corner” where one of the 3-D incisions that track up and into the building makes a turn. Mad at MAD for being “meek and lifeless,” he went on to hold it responsible for “sanitizing the city.” Two days later, he called for it to be demolished.

This rush to judgment of a small-scale building that’s barely been open a week throws an unflattering spotlight on architectural criticism today. Many of these critiques appeared within 48 hours of the building’s official opening, guaranteeing that any commentary was based primarily on aesthetics, historical baggage, or the architect’s reputation—issues that have little or nothing to do with how the building serves its site and its users.

I am not a big fan of crafts, even the radical new crafts that can transform a stockpile of plug-ugly eyeglasses into a dead-ringer for a Murano glass chandelier, but it didn’t take a moment to see that this new museum was going to be a very popular place for its purpose: The size is right for smallish objects; it’s easy to navigate; the interiors are aglow with natural and artificial light; and the views slicing up Broadway or out across the park are a revelation. The restaurant is going to be packed all the time.

MAD is the last piece of the puzzle needed to reclaim the entire Columbus Circle for civic enjoyment. As someone who once lived nearby, I remember well how dangerous and depressing it all was 20 years ago, from the dark arcade of the abandoned 2 Columbus Circle to the squat, dingy-bricked Coliseum and the deadly slalom of traffic islands. Though the Christopher Columbus statue has stood atop the column at the circle’s center since 1892 (the official point from which all distances to and from New York City are measured), I had never noticed it until it was silhouetted one glorious bright day against the glass of Time Warner Center. The column is framed even more eloquently for viewing from inside MAD by its sharply-etched windows.

It is time for critics to forget the building’s checkered—and also its Venetian die-cut—past and report to the public how it is working, or not. By now, Ada Louise Huxtable may well regret her choice of words when writing about the building in 1964, because a new collection of her writings shows that her original review was as much about the problems of traffic and an ill-configured site amounting to “a sordid and dismembered open space” as anything to do with lollipops. It’s time for critics to stop treating every new building like the latest piece of eye candy.

Julie V. Iovine